In the modest coastal town of Noyo, a small group of fishermen think they've wrangled the catch of the day when they net something of a pretty substantial size. This isn't a school of salmon, though, but rather something else entirely that murders a child when he falls overboard. Sent into a panic, the crew scrambles to help, but a poorly aimed emergency flare ignites a puddle of gasoline on the deck, ensuring that there are no survivors left to tell the tale.
Local tough-but-nice-guy angler and family man Jim Hill witnesses the explosion, and the next morning he and his wife Carol find their dog dead. In fact, a vast majority of the dogs along the shoreline have been killed. The bigoted Slatterly is fairly certain that the Native American Johnny Eagle is to blame, so he kills Eagle's dog in return.
A short time later, horny teenagers Peggy and Jerry are cavorting in the ocean, when Jerry is dragged beneath the surf, half of his face torn away. The monster, who we see clearly for the first time, then abducts Peggy, takes her into the sand dunes, and rapes her.
More attacks follow. Two more horny teenagers, Billy and Becky, are camping on the beach. In their tent,
|Ventriloquist Sex Machine|
Becky is so aroused by Billy's ventriloquist act (seriously), that she strips naked and has to have it right now. Unfortunately for her, Billy is killed and it is a monster that gives it to her.
When Jim's brother narrowly survives an attack, and there are finally eye witnesses to describe the assailant, he takes it upon himself to get personally involved. Teaming up with Susan Drake, the scientist working closely with the local cannery, they locate the caves where the beasts are living, fight off an entire pack of them, and even manage to procure a dead specimen for analysis. They also locate the missing Peggy, in a state of shell shock and wrapped in seaweed, but very much alive, and take her back to town for immediate medical attention.
Susan theorizes that these ghastly creatures have an origin story closely linked with the cannery. They have been pumping salmon full of chemicals to increase their size, and the recently-discovered prehistoric Titan fish have been consuming them, inadvertently causing accelerated evolution which turns the titans from relatively-harmless sea dwellers into murderous humanoids (from the deep, naturally).
Just as Susan and Jim are starting to get answers, things reach a serious crescendo at the town's annual Salmon Festival. As hundreds of people gravitate and celebrate at the shoreline, the entire humanoid society converges on them, bursting through the boardwalk before raping and murdering with wild abandon.
|The Humanoids (From The Deep)|
This scene is the
must-see scene in the film, full of protracted and wide-ranging shots of some of the wildest violence in memory: a man's head is torn right off his body, there's a chase on a moving merry-go-round, a topless beauty queen bashes a monster's head in, and the water surrounding them is literally
on fire. Meanwhile, everyone who is not currently tangling with a sea beast is purposefully running from
one or inadvertently to
one. It is sheer, unadulterated madness.
While all of this is going on, Jim's wife and child are in danger at home from a mutant that has wandered away from the rest of the pack. It's easy to forget that Jim even has
a family, what with everything else going on and the fact that in nearly every other film, Jim would have ended up romantically involved with Susan. Jim rushes to his family's aid while the townsfolk give the last of the monsters a good ol' fashion boot party.
Come the light of day, things look damn near post-apocalyptic, but there is no construction without destruction, and so the townsfolk can begin to rebuild.
But like any good horror flick, there's one final scare before the closing credits start to roll. Peggy is surrounded by medical personnel, obviously in great pain. We come to realize that she is giving birth, and we know what that means: monster baby. We're perhaps expecting something akin to the birth scene in V, where a newborn baby is revealed to be reptilian, much to the chagrin of the mother. Instead, we are treated to the birth scene from ALIEN, as the baby bursts out of its mother's gut...and only then do we fade to black.
If Larry Cohen had directed CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, it probably would have been something like this. Even some of the beachside attack scenes reminded me of his killer-babies-all-grown-up doing the same from IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987). Cohen was nowhere to be found in this production, but another low-budget auteur did
have his hands all over this piece of cinema: Producer Roger Corman.
With lots of gore and surprisingly good special effects, it's obvious that Corman had come a long way since the days of MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR and DAY THE WORLD ENDED. There are exploitative elements here there will not appeal to all tastes, but a little gratuitous nudity every now and then never hurt anyone, and the rape scenes, while tasteless, are brief and truly not graphic, though many people seem to think otherwise. They are more implied than anything, a far cry from controversial but critically acclaimed films like BAISE MOI or IRREVERSIBLE.
Still, it was a little surprising to see that this movie was directed by a woman...until I learned that Corman hired a second (male) director to spice things up after he was less-than-impressed with the initial cut of the film. Even with the new material, this down-and-dirty ditty still runs a mere 80 minutes or so—it's a brief ride, but also one of Corman's most entertaining.
|From The Herald Journal, 05.10.1980|
HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP takes the unspoken sexuality inherent in Universal Studio's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and turns it up to eleven, without worry of good taste. This is
an exploitation film, after all, and if you're looking for good taste, you probably shouldn't be looking in this particular neighborhood. It pretends to be something more—hence the shallow commentary on blue collar struggles, the perilous economy, ecological conditions, corporate America, racism and the Native American plight—but it's obvious that most (if not all) of this is just a front, an excuse to showcase the girls, gills and kills that the audience was putting down money to see. There was, perhaps, a small lesson learned at the end of the film when Slattery goes against character to jeopardize his own life to save a child, and Johnny Eagle in turn has to save him, but that's a long way to go for a brief moment of tolerance.
For a movie about horny fish people, it sure does follow a lot of the tenets of the slasher film: the killer begins in the shadows, slowly exposing more and more of his visage; characters (mostly young) are introduced only to be killed off moments later, mere fodder for the slaughter; sex equals death; and just when you think the killer is dead, he pops back up again for one final scare. In this instance, though, it is not a solitary killer but rather a whole race of them. But still, you may as well slap hockey masks over their faces for all the difference that makes.
The humanoids themselves look pretty good, with their slimy, seaweed-strewn bodies and large fishy heads full of tiny sharp teeth. Their arms are absurdly long, though, which I imagine is meant to assist in their swimming...or their abduction of buxom beauties with which to procreate. Their skulls are apparently quite thin, as their brains are nearly visible right through their head, which makes them susceptible to headshots, much like zombies. The humanoids were created and designed by Rob Botin, who also designed the look of Robocop, and worked on films such as PIRANHA (1978), THE FOG (1980), THE HOWLING (1981), THE THING (1982), TOTAL RECALL (1990), SE7EN (1995), FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998), and FIGHT CLUB (1999). One hell of a filmography, if you ask me.
The script was written by William Martin under the pen name Frederick James. Whatever name he goes by, he only has one other credit to his filmography—he cowrote (and narrated) the documentary GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE MAN WHO WOULDN'T BE KING (1992) with Donald Sutherland.
Director Barbara Peeters has a relatively short, but massively intriguing, resumé. She directed the groundbreaking lesbian drama THE DARK SIDE OF TOMORROW (1970); the biker chick revenge flick BURY ME AN ANGEL (1972); the saucy SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS (1974); the sexy drive-in comedy STARHOPS (1978); and episodes of THE POWERS OF MATTHEW STAR (1983), CAGNEY & LACEY (1983), REMINGTON STEELE (1984), and MISFITS OF SCIENCE (1986). She wrote, and perhaps appeared in, the X-rated CAGED DESIRES (1970), of which very little information seems readily available. Peeters was reportedly very upset with the changes that Corman had made to the picture, which he is said to have done without her knowledge.
Jimmy T. Murakami was the secret, uncredited director of the added footage of rape and general mayhem. He had only directed animation up until that point (including the never-aired THE MAD MAGAZINE TV SPECIAL from 1974). The same year as HUMANOIDS, he also directed Corman's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS before settling back into animation for the duration of his career.
Johnny Eagle was played by Anthony Pena, who had small parts in the critically derided MEGAFORCE (1982), THE RUNNING MAN (1987), and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989), but is most known for his impressive 20 year run as Miguel Rodriguez on the soap opera THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS (1986-2006). His nemesis in this movie, Hank Slattery, was played by Hollywood heavy Vic Morrow. Morrow got his start in BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955), and went on to appear in many films that will appeal to the genre fan: Elvis's KING CREOLE (1958); as Dutch Schultz in PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER (1961); the Corman-directed TARGET: HARRY (1969); DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY (1974), with Peter Fonda and Susan George; THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (1975); the Dan Curtis TV movie CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW (1977); the Star Wars rip-off MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978); Charles B. Pierce's THE EVICTORS (1979); the Jaws-derivative THE LAST SHARK (1981); and the gangs-of-the-future flick 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982). His final role was in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), as he was unfortunately killed in the tragic helicopter crash that occurred during filming.
Dr. Susan Drake was portrayed by Ann Turkel, who started in stage plays, transitioned into modeling, and then settled into television and film with 99 AND 44/100% DEAD (1974)—though she did previously have a minor role in the sports comedy PAPER LION (1968). She later appeared in the outbreak-on-a-train epic THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976) with Sophia Loren, Martin Sheen, and O.J. Simpson; the hijack drama GOLDEN RENDEZVOUS (1977); the post-apocalyptic RAVAGERS (1979); Fred Olen Ray's sci-fi horror flick DEEP SPACE (1988); and the poorly rated horror film THE FEAR (1995).
Cindy Weintraub filled the role of Carol Hill, and has only two further credits to her name: she appeared in the Joseph Zito horror film THE PROWLER (1981), and all six episodes of the short-lived police comedy BAKER'S DOZEN (1982). Her movie husband, Doug McClure (Jim Hill), has a filmography that is quite a bit more expansive. Aside from appearing in numerous westerns and crime dramas for television and cinema, he can also be found in GIDGET (1959); the car-based action flick THE LIVELY SET (1964); the airline thrillers TERROR IN THE SKY (1971) and SST: DEATH FLIGHT (1977); the TV movie SATAN'S TRIANGLE (1975); the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975), THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977) and AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976); the fantasy adventure WARLORDS OF THE DEEP (1978); and the Americans-haunted-in-Japan movie THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982), with Susan George. Children of the 1980s may remember him for his recurring role as the mayor in the sci-fi sitcom OUT OF THIS WORLD (1987-1991).
It's nice to see that even a blue collar fisherman can make his way into politics.
|The Humanoids, From Bluewater Comics|
There was apparently talk of a sequel to HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP that never panned out, however indie publisher Bluewater Productions scored the licensing rights to the film, and released their own one-shot comic book sequel in 2010.
It was remade for cable channel Showtime by Corman's Concorde-New Horizons in 1996. This remake curiously removed much of the gratuitous gore and nudity, perhaps becoming closer to what Barbara Peeters had initially envisioned. Doing so, though, also removed much of the teeth that the original had, and is a much less interesting film because of it—which is amusing, as this movie is basically an uncredited remake of THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, and it added
teeth to that product.
This film was released in some territories under the completely generic title MONSTER, which may have caused some confusion as there was another
sea creature movie called MONSTER that was released the same year—though that one sometimes goes by the alternate title of MONSTROID, which is a bit too close to humanoid, if you ask me. You can call Corman's production MONSTER, or CREATURE or even THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, it doesn't matter.
It will always be HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP to me.
Captain Nolan and his crew are prowling the waters in search of a great white shark to capture and sell to an aquarium, but when this ultimate predator that they are preying upon is attacked and ultimately defeated, they turn their sights on the only creature that could so easily humiliate the great white: the orca...a killer whale.
Nolan later captures a pregnant female orca, but once she is on board, she quickly suffers a miscarriage. Disgusted, Nolan uses a firehose to wash the unformed fetus from the deck, while the male orca watches on in horror. He proceeds to attack the ship, seeking the release of his mate. Fearing for the safety of his crew, Nolan eventually releases her (losing one of his own, Novak, in the process), but it is too late. She dies from trauma and the injuries sustained during capture.
Of all the interesting facts about killer whales that are bandied about in this film, there are two that are most important to the plot. Killer whales are a monogamous species, and they remain with their mate for life. Also, they tend to hold a grudge and have a penchant for seeking revenge.
So when Nolan accidentally brought about the death of the female orca and her unborn child, the surviving whale didn't just lose two members of his species. He lost his entire family. It's no wonder that he took it personally and pursued a vendetta against the captain. Unfortunately for him, Nolan and his crew made it back to shore—though his vessel was more than a little beat up—before vengeance could be taken. The orca then had to begin a systematic method of torment in order to coax Nolan back out to sea.
First he rolled the corpse of his mate onto the beach where Nolan had docked—the message clearly being, I know what you did and I know where you are
. He then turns the villagers against Nolan by driving away the fish that are essential to the local economy, sinking fishing boats that were wholly uninvolved in the death of his mate, and yes, eventually causing an explosion that eradicates the town's fuel supply.
By the time the whale attacks Nolan's oceanside house, breaking its stilts and sending it crashing into the ocean, costing Annie, another crew member, her leg, Nolan is convinced that he must give the orca what he wants: an epic showdown on the ocean, winner take all. Now that the crew consists only of Novak and the bearded Paul, Novak recruits three additional characters to assist him in his pursuit—marine biologists Ken and Rachel, and Native American Umilak.
The orca attacks the boat briefly, and plucks Ken from the deck—just enough to get Nolan's attention. He then amazingly motions with his tail for Nolan to follow him, which Nolan does, leading his crew farther and farther out to sea in a seemingly endless pursuit. The journey lands them in arctic waters, surrounded by ice and low on fuel, and this is the setting for their final showdown.
It is a fairly epic battle that makes good use of the frozen locale, and in the end, the Orca wins. He is, after all, a force of nature and Nolan went after him unprepared and practically unarmed—almost as if he never really
intended to defeat him. Nolan may have started out as rather melancholy, but he ended up bleak and broken...even before the whale got ahold of him.
|Aye, Captain Nolan|
Years prior to the beginning of the film, Nolan's pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver. Once he got past seeing the orca as just another sea beast and realized that it was capable of the same emotions as man, he was overcome with guilt and grief over what he had done. Once upon a time, he had been the whale and a lush in an automobile had been the fisherman. Nolan, though, did not launch a crusade of vengeance like the whale did. In his own words, "He loved his family more than I loved mine!"
While this is probably untrue, it is still heartbreaking to hear the sentiment. Although our sympathies initially lie with the whale, they gradually shift with Nolan's emotional growth.
Of the other characters in the film, scientist Ken is the most one-dimensional. We know next to nothing about him and he doesn't do much other than find himself in occasional jeopardy. The most interesting thing about his character is that he is first saved
by the orca (he was the target of the thwarted shark attack) and then destroyed
by the orca. It's like the new kid in school protecting you from the bully at recess so that he can beat you up after class.
Rachel is something of a contradiction in that she studies the whales, presumably wants to protect them, and yet signs on for Nolan's crusade anyway. She is repulsed by his quest, and yet drawn to his charisma. She finds his darkness attractive, but wants to be the light in his shadows. Even then, girls dug emo. Their romance is definite, but it is subtle, and does not comprise a prominent plot point. She is a secondary character, but it is her that provides the narration, showing us that this is her telling of another person's tragedy.
Umilak is the flipside of the Ken & Rachel coin. Whereas they are the scientifically minded students of the whale, he is the spiritual
student. He talks of the myth and legends behind the creature, and of Nolan's responsibility to face it in mortal combat. He doesn't like the idea of it, but he still believes it to be true, and enlists in hope of affecting a positive ending.
If a coin were to have three sides, the third side would be local fisherman Alan Swain. He is not concerned with the science of the whale or the spirituality of the whale, he is only concerned with its real world applications. Nolan led the whale to the village, and is thus responsible for the devastation it brought. It is therefore his obligation to stop it one way or another, not out of some mythological duty but rather a basic human one. Swain turns the other townsfolk against Nolan as a way to convince him of what needs to be done, and although Swain is sometimes painted as the villain, he is not. He is just trying to protect his people. Even Nolan harbors no ill will against him, admitting that he would do the same if he were in Swain's position.
|Orca, The Chilly Whale|
In the end, Nolan is killed when the orca hurls him mightily against an iceberg. Victorious, the whale returns to sea and we switch to his point-of-view as the closing credits begin to roll. Though never explicitly stated, it appears as if he attempts to breach the surface for air but is unable to break through the ice, meaning that his all-consuming quest for vengeance may have cost him his life, as well.
To call this a great movie would be an overstatement, but it's nowhere near as bad as many reviews will have you believe. It does require a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief, but not more than your typical horror movie. It only seems that way as this is, ostensibly, a natural
horror film and not a super
natural one, yet it doesn't seem to operate under the rules of nature. And so, a whale who is able to respond to a tragedy in much the same way that Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson would comes across as much more ludicrous than, say, a child murderer who returns from the dead to claim more victims in their dreams.
As with far too many animal attack movies, this one gets lumped in as a JAWS rip-off, which is not entirely fair—but that is the curse of any such movie that followed in the wake of the great white shark. There are some similarities, of course, but ORCA is more of a spiritual successor to JAWS than a mere copy—or, perhaps, a Moby Dick
in reverse. The icy setting for the final battle, though, has echoes of another literary classic: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
. In a way, the orca is the monster that Nolan created—not in a laboratory, but through his actions.
Jaws, Moby Dick, and Frankenstein were all literary creations before being put to film, and Orca is no different. The novel of the same name was published in 1977, the same year as the movie was released. It was written by author Arthur Herzog, who had also written the killer bee novel The Swarm
, itself turned into a film in 1978. ORCA was adapted by Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, both of whom had scripted a number of Italian crime and western films. Directorial duties went to Michael Anderson, who also brought us 1984 (1956), AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (1956), and LOGAN'S RUN (1976).
Even those who revile the film (and there are plenty) tend to admit that the musical score by Ennio Morricone is pretty solid. It's full of slow, haunting melodies that couldn't be more different than the JAWS theme you might expect. Morricone is, of course, most well-known for composing the scores of Italian westerns such as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name trilogy but has branched out significantly since.
It was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, whose filmography reads like the marquee of a cult movie marathon: cult classics like DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968), BARBARELLA (1968), FLASH GORDON (1980), CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), and CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984); macho favorites SERPICO (1973) and DEATH WISH (1974); animal flicks KING KONG (1976), KING KONG LIVES (1986), and THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977); horror movies HALOWEEN II (1981), HALLOWEEN III (1982), and ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992); Stephen King adaptations THE DEAD ZONE (1983), CAT'S EYE (1985), SILVER BULLET (1985), MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986), and SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK (1991); Hannibal Lecter films MANHUNTER (1986), HANNIBAL (2001), RED DRAGON (2002), and HANNIBAL RISING (2007); and well over a hundred others. God bless the man, he produced these types of films almost right up until his death in 2010.
Of the smaller roles in the film, the doomed Novak was played by character actor Keenan Wynn, whose career was glossed over in my review of PIRANHA, in which he also appeared. Ken was played by Robert Carradine, who appeared in many films (including the remake of HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP), but will forever be known as Lewis Skolnick in the REVENGE OF THE NERDS franchise. Annie was played by Bo Derek (in her first film role), and is mostly there to suffer leg trauma after leg trauma. She would achieve real fame in 1979 when she appeared in the film "10", playing Dudley Moore's ideal mate, and has cropped up as the Sexy Blonde routinely ever since. The semi-villainous Swain was played by Scott Walker, who had appeared in the previously-mentioned THE WHITE BUFFALO, and would later hunt frogs in THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979). Umilak was played by Creek Nation actor Will Sampson, who also appeared in THE WHITE BUFFALO, and is most well-known for his parts in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975) and POLTERGEIST II (1986).
Our heroine (of sorts), Rachel, was played by Charlotte Rampling, who started acting in 1965 and continues to this day. She has appeared in favorites such as VANISHING POINT (1971), ASYLUM (1972), ZARDOZ (1974), ANGEL HEART (1987), and the eighth season of DEXTER (2013).
|From The Milwaukee Journal, 07.19.77|
And finally, our hero Nolan was played by Irish actor Richard Harris, who can also be found in CAMELOT (1967 and 1982, both times as King Arthur), GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (1977, as Gulliver), the post-apocalyptic RAVAGERS (1979), TARZAN THE APE MAN (1981, with Bo Derek), and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (2001) and HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002) as Dumbledore.
ORCA did manage to turn a profit, but it was still not considered a box office success. They never made a sequel, which is probably for the best—I'm not sure that the world could have handled it—but ironically, when JAWS 4: THE REVENGE came out in 1987, it featured a shark that behaved very much like the whale did here.
So...who's ripping off who?
Two hiking teenagers stumble upon an abandoned military facility and decide to break in. Upon finding a manmade lake, they do what anybody else would do: immediately strip naked and jump into the murky, stagnant water. Normally, this would be an invitation for a nasty bacterial infection, but as this is a horror movie, it is actually much worse. They are immediately devoured by a school of hungry, genetically-engineered piranha.
A short time later, skip tracer Maggie McKeown has been dispatched to the area in search of the missing kids. Knowing that their last known whereabouts were along the river, she knocks on the cabin door of local recluse Paul Grogan, who knows nothing but still gets roped into helping. Their investigation leads them to the same military facility, where they drain the lake in search of remains. They don't find any—there isn't anything left
to find—but they do learn that when they drained the lake, they accidentally released the piranha into the river. And now the fish are headed for the ocean, devouring everyone who gets in their way.
This could include fishermen, swimmers, all of the children at the camp where Paul's young daughter is spending the summer, and the brand new resort that just opened up and is teeming with people who just can't wait to get in the water. All of these lives aside, the more serious threat is what happens if the fish traverse the river and make their way to the ocean. From there, they will be free to mate like mad and infiltrate all of America's waterways.
Our two heroes find a way to stop them, obviously...but not before a good number of attacks leave the river a bloody mess. For possibly the first time ever in these movies, pollution isn't the cause
of the creatures but rather the solution
. By dumping a large amount of chemicals from the old smelting plant into the piranha's path, they manage to kill off all of the little buggers.
Well, some of them, anyway. We have reason to believe that at least a few of them escaped and did indeed make their way to the ocean. We have to leave room for the obligatory sequel, after all.
It's easy to write producer Roger Corman off as misogynistic, with titles like WOMEN IN CAGES (1971), THE WOMAN HUNT (1973), CANDY STRIPE NURSES (1974), and ILSA THE TIGRESS OF SIBERIA (1977) on his résumé. Others, though, view him as something of a feminist, and he has often employed a lot of women behind the camera. While his movies are not exactly odes to female empowerment, he's never been afraid to utilize strong female characters. If he has to show a few breasts on film to convince the American public to part with their hard earned dollars, then that's exactly what he does. He is a businessman before he is a feminist (or a misogynist), and it is the profits from one film that allow him to make the next.
Maggie is one of Corman's strong female characters. She makes a pretty good heroine, and is very bright and good at her job. She's out of her element in the country, and she is occasionally rather flighty, but it is imperfections that make a hero interesting. And any weaknesses or imperfections that Maggie has are drastically overshadowed by Paul's own.
Paul is cantankerous, argumentative, withdrawn from society, and a floundering alcoholic. He is not only an unlikely hero, but he is also an unlikely single father. If an unemployed, angry drunk who lives in the wilderness is given custody of a child, one can't help but wonder what kind of a hot mess his wife must have been.
The bridge between hero and villain is filled by Dr. Robert Hoak, the scientist hired by the military to create the piranha. He occupies the moral grey area that is nearly always reserved for men of science in these films—as the middleman between manhood and godhood. By breeding these bastards, he was only doing his job, and beyond that, he was only following his passion of understanding the universe by cracking open its secrets. Without people like Hoak, we wouldn't have any of the scientific and medical advancements that we do today. Of course, we wouldn't have the nuclear threat, either... To his credit, Hoak did
try his damnedest to prevent Maggie and Paul from draining the lake and releasing the piranha, and he did
get some degree of redemption when he sacrificed his own life to save an orphaned boy stranded atop an overturned boat, but that was all too little, too late.
Occupying the opposite side of the spectrum are Colonel Waxman and his dark doctor, Dr. Mengers, who are more concerned with hiding the mess and covering their own asses than actually saving any lives. They crop up here and there to provide a human element to the menace, but really the film is about Paul, Maggie and the fish. At the end of the film, when Mengers says that the piranha are all dead or dying and "There's nothing left to fear,"
there is a smirk on her lips and a twinkle in her eye. She's not just incorrect, she's actually lying. As military, she's concerned with containing the disaster, but as a scientist, she's actually quite interested in seeing what these critters can do.
The piranha themselves don't get an awful lot of free-and-clear camera time. They're fast little buggers, and they're small, so mostly we catch brief glimpses of them. Much of the time we can't even see them at all, and they are represented through POV shots beneath the surface while they track their prey, and bubbling bloody water once they have them. I'm not quite sure where the air bubbles are supposed to be coming from—it's not as if the piranha have been holding their breath—but I'm also not quite sure that Paul would be able to squeal his tires on a dirt road...so maybe it's best not to think too hard about the science of it all.
|What Coulda Been|
Speaking of the science, when Paul and Maggie infiltrate Hoak's laboratory in search of the missing teens, the viewer catches sight of a stop-motion creature creeping around in the background. The characters never see it, it never crops up again, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot or story. Its inclusion has been the source of much confusion, but it reportedly was supposed to appear multiple times throughout the film, growing larger each time until it was of monstrous proportions, but budget restraints prevented that from happening. It now exists merely as an artifact of what could have been.
There are many piranha attacks to keep the viewer interested, but only two of them unfold on a large scale. First there is the attack at the summer camp, where dozens of children become appetizers for the fish—it's a lengthy scene, full of panic and adolescent shrieking, but the piranha seem to be just nibbling here, and the children escape traumatized but mostly intact. Viewers instantly have more of an emotional investment when children are in danger as opposed to some random schlub on an inner-tube, but children almost always have a better chance of making it out alive.
And that's why the filmmakers wisely make the final confrontation at the resort (run by Corman mainstay Dick Miller) full of people you couldn't care less about—because a movie like this needs to go out with an epic slaughter of civilians. There's the expected bite victims and rush of people trying to get to the safety of shore, but there are also a few unexpected moments, like a water-skier trying to outrun the fish, which is pretty damn entertaining.
One can't help but notice the inconsistencies in the strength and ferocity of the piranha. At one point, Jack, a crusty old fisherman, has his legs picked clean to the bone in a matter of seconds, while later they can't even manage to do more than give a defenseless child the equivalent of a few love bites. It is conceivable that during the larger attacks, their forces were too divided to do as much damage, but more than likely the fish were only as strong as the plot required them to be at any given moment.
This is often referred to as a JAWS rip-off, but that's not quite a fair assessment. Far from modern day's Asylum mockbusters
, this is more of a loving homage with enough of a quirky sense of humor and heart to make it stand on its own. Still, the filmmakers are quick to acknowledge the wells from which they drew their inspiration, with a number of references to other films sprinkled throughout. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is referenced by name, the low-budget THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is seen on TV, and Maggie plays the Shark Jaws
arcade game—itself an unauthorized JAWS knockoff from Atari.
It's goofy, campy, and actually quite good-natured B-movie fun, unlike that other
Corman sea monster flick HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, which is enjoyable on a much baser—and much nastier—level.
As much fun as this movie is, I can't help but feel that it could have been a better horror movie than it turned out to be. Campiness and cheeky humor aside, there were some dramatic scenes that could have and should have been much more tense than they actually were. The aforementioned scene of the young boy orphaned on the overturned boat immediately springs to mind, as well as the scene where Paul and Maggie are on a log raft that begins to fall apart thanks to the piranha. Their flotation device continues to grow smaller and smaller right beneath them, which is a hell of a setup for fear, but it never lives up to its potential. This may be chalked up to director Joe Dante's inexperience at the time.
Prior to taking on this project, he had only directed two films. In the first, an epic clip show called THE MOVIE ORGY (1968), he was actually more of a creative editor, illegally stringing together seven hours of pre-existing film and television footage which he then took out as an outlaw roadshow. His second film, Corman's HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976), was a comedy, so when PIRANHA rolled around two years later, the horror angle of the film was new territory for him. He got another shot at the horror genre with THE HOWLING (1981), and did it quite well. With GREMLINS (1984), he successfully merged the comedy and horror together, kicking off a string of fan favorite films like EXPLORERS (1985), INNERSPACE (1987), THE 'BURBS (1989), GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990), and MATINEE (1993). He slipped beneath the radar for a few years before reemerging with two episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR ("Homecoming", 2005; "The Screwfly Solution", 2006), the family-friendly supernatural fantasy THE HOLE and the Netflix miniseries SPLATTER (both 2009).
The script was written by John Sayles, an independent filmmaker in every sense of the word, as well as an author. I must admit to having quite a blind spot when it comes to Sayles' body of work, but it is difficult for me to reconcile the fact that the same person who scripted the goofy PIRANHA is the same person who wrote the sprawling novel A Moment in the Sun
, whose depth and reach is matched only by its page count. It is the script work that he has done for other filmmakers—THE LADY IN RED (1979), ALLIGATOR (1980), THE HOWLING (1981), THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (1986), and THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (2008) among them—that allows him to pay for his own more personal films, beginning with THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7 (1980) and continuing through 18 pictures (so far) to 2013's GO FOR SISTERS, and allows him the time to write his books.
Bradford Dillman, who had a screen career spanning forty years, portrayed Paul. His filmography is too expansive to cover even just those movies that may be of interest to genre fans, but some highlights include: the narrator of the horror sci-fi flick THE ATOMIC BRAIN [also known as MONSTROSITY] (1963); the soapy nymphomaniac drama A RAGE TO LIVE (1965) with Suzanne Pleshette; the LSD-tinged amnesia murder mystery JIGSAW (1968); the supernatural soul swap film THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971), with Alan Alda and Jacqueline Bisset; ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971); the man-in-a-cage thriller REVENGE (1971); and the Jim Jones biographical drama GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED (1979). If he seemed at home battling nature in PIRANHA, that might because he had some previous experience: he had already taken on vampire bats in CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1972), cockroaches in BUG (1975), and bees in THE SWARM (1978). Gaia simply does not like the guy.
Heather Menzies, who played Maggie, has a much more manageable résumé. She showed up in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965); Disney's THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969); the biographical drama JAMES DEAN (1976); the short-lived television version of LOGAN'S RUN (1977-1978); the original poorly received CAPTAIN AMERICA movie (1979); and the sci-fi thriller ENDANGERED SPECIES (1982). She may not have had the same experience of battling nature as her costar, but she did get to take on snakes in the absurdly titled SSSSSSS (1973).
The piranhas returned (with wings!) in 1981's PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, and received the remake treatment from Corman in 1995, this time starring William Katt. Alexandre Aja remade it again as PIRANHA 3D in 2010, and his
remake received a sequel two years later—bringing the total entries in the franchise to five (six if you pretend that the ludicrous Corman production PIRANHACONDA from 2012 is part of the lineup), which, ironically, is more than the JAWS series had.
Longevity has to count for something in this business. Just ask Roger Corman.
|VHS Cover Image|
This sequel starts off the way that most great films do—with erectile dysfunction. After a husband can't get sufficiently aroused in the hotel, on the beach, or out at sea, he and his wife don diving gear and attempt to make the Beast With Two Backs on the ocean floor. Unfortunately, their sexual shenanigans land them too close to an old shipwreck, where some decidedly dangerous fish have taken up residence. Before you can say crimson tide, the water is awash with blood and bits.
The next day, would-be-marine-biologist Annie Kimbrough is leading a diving class at the exclusive and all-inclusive Club Elysium, where she works. She forbids her students from venturing into the shipwreck, but there's one rebel in every group, and this one wanders away from the others and enters the forbidden zone. Annie chases after him, only to find his half-eaten corpse.
This attack brings on an investigation by Annie's estranged husband Steve, a local police officer. Knowing her marine life, she is sure that no local animal could have made those bite marks, so she launches an investigation of her own. Tagging along for the ride is one of her students, Tyler Sherman, who knows more than he is letting on.
Turns out that he is actually a biochemist who was involved in the creation of the killer fish—an ungodly genetic crossbreeding of piranha (for their ferocity), grunion (for their ability to survive on land), and flying fish (for their ability...to be fish that fly). The army had previously lost four canisters of fertilized fish eggs in that exact spot, and only three were recovered. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out the rest.
The spawning of the title actually refers to the grunion's natural instinct to beach themselves on shore to procreate. This makes them easy prey for lazy fishermen, and the Club Elysium hosts an annual cookout to celebrate. Being part grunion, these piranha have the same instincts, and as the tourists storm the beach, chanting "We want fish! We want fish!"
, we're chanting back at them "The fish want you! The fish want you!"
This leads, of course, to the largest attack in the film, comparable in scope to the resort attack in the original movie.
The next morning, Tyler and Annie head off on a dangerous mission to eradicate the fish by blowing up the shipwreck where they live. It turns out to be a suicide machine for Tyler—the inevitable price he must pay for his involvement in their creation—but at least he goes out a hero.
There's a minor subplot involving Annie and Steve's teenage son Chris, who gets a job as a deckhand on the boat of the incompetent "Captain" DuMont. He falls for the Cap's comely teenage daughter Allison, and they strike up a romance that leads them to sneak off to an island at night—the perfect setting for a piranha attack that unfortunately never actually happens. The whole scenario is just a contrived way of getting the two youngsters into harm's way at the explosive climax in an attempt to up the emotional ante.
Speaking of emotions, mine were muddled and confused early in the film when we were first introduced to Chris. He practically crawled into bed with a seemingly-nude older woman and woke her up by wagging his fish in her face (that's not a euphemism). They giggle and wrestle around a bit, but just as we're about to give him some machismo kudos for bagging an attractive, experienced woman, it's revealed that this is not a romantic relationship that we are peeping on. This is a creepy and uncomfortable interaction between mother and son.
There are a small handful of other piranha attacks not covered here, but for the most part, they were against sacrificial lambs that were introduced solely to up the body count, and their importance was minimal at best. Nor were they very memorable, at least not for good reasons. But the same can be said for most of the movie.
|Deadly Fish Hickeys|
There are some pretty solid gore effects, which makes it all the more disappointing how ridiculous the piranha look. While the original was never going to win any awards for special effects, the fact that the fish were confined to the water helped to obscure them from sight when the panic kicked in and the blood started flowing. The sequel doesn't have that advantage, and although the piranha are occasionally shown fluttering about like bats, when they go in for the kill, they fly into frame like little missiles and latch onto their victims, appearing stiff and lifeless during the struggle as the actors hold them to their throats, rather than attempt to pull them off.
There is also a drastically different tone at play here. Its predecessor planted its tongue firmly in cheek and kept it there for most of the running time, however THE SPAWNING takes itself too seriously, as if it believes that Jiminy Cricket has conspired to turn it into a real live horror film. This more straight forward approach to the material may have worked had it not been conceived as a follow-up to the much-beloved 1978 film, but as it stands, it only serves to distance itself needlessly from the original.
Another way in which it distanced itself was by completely ignoring the fact that the original readily opened
itself up for a sequel—it implied that some of the piranha did indeed make it out of the river and into the ocean. And yet it is not these piranha that we have here, but a whole different batch of them whipped up in another laboratory. I understand the need to make the monster bigger and badder than before, but surely the filmmakers could have found a way to do so while still tying the sequel into its predecessor—a natural (or unnatural) mutation of the surviving fish, for instance; or they could have bred with the other species in order to repopulate their ranks. It might not have been scientifically sound, but I'm fairly certain that we already checked our disbelief at the door.
This movie has a bit of a troubled backstory, some of which may account for the weaknesses in the film. Although Roger Corman is the producer most identified with the original film, he was not the only producer—there was also Jon Davison, Chako van Leeuween, and Jeff Schectman. It was, apparently, Leeuween and Schectman who held the most control of the title, as Corman (and presumably Davison) had signed on for only a one-picture deal, meaning that when the sequel came around for Warner Brothers, they were free to pull behind-the-scenes talent from elsewhere.
Back in 1974, filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis had directed the possession film BEYOND THE DOOR, which was too close to THE EXORCIST for Warner Brothers, who filed an infringement suit. According to Assonitis, as part of the settlement, he agreed to not make a sequel to that film, and to work in a producer's role for three films at WB studios. One of those three films was to be PIRANHA II. He had agreed to produce it so long as he was able to assume creative control, which the studio granted, with one stipulation: The piranha had to fly.
Assonitis brought on Miller Drake to direct it, and he and screenwriter Charles Eglee set about crafting a script. In their original vision, Kevin McCarthy's scientist character from part one was supposed to return, despite apparently dying the first time around. Badly scarred and mutilated, he was to be using these flying piranha as tools of revenge (which, admittedly, would negate the character's development over the course of his short running time in the original film). Barbara Steele's character was likely to return, as well.
Drake had also brought in James Cameron to assist with the art direction, and had set in motion the recruitment of Rob Bottin, who had done some work on the original, to provide special effects for the sequel. But before Bottin had begun work, and before the original script had gone much of anywhere, Assonitis fired Drake after an argument about how slow the preproduction side of things was moving.
Cameron was then promoted from art direction into the director's chair. He, Eglee and Assonitis all hammered out a new script together—credited onscreen under the shared pseudonym of H.A. Milton. It was Cameron's first feature film as a director, and he faced a number of unforeseeable challenges—the morgue where one key scene took place, for instance, was actually housing corpses piled three-deep, much to the cast and crew's chagrin. The constant interference of Assonitis was even more challenging, though, as he questioned all of Cameron's decisions and often overrode them with his own.
Two weeks into the shoot, Assonitis fired his replacement director, James Cameron. Cameron, who has not had a good thing to say about the experience since, claims that it was because Assonitis had wanted to direct the film himself all along. Reports from the other producers declare that it was actually because of budgetary concerns—Cameron wanted to craft the best picture that he could, and was spending far too much time and money getting the perfect shot.
Whatever the true motivation behind it, Assonitis did
step in to complete the film, though Cameron's name was left in the credits for contractual and legal reasons. The finished film was eventually distributed by Saturn International Pictures, which, from what I can gather, was a minor arm of the Warner Brothers studio system.
There are rumors that once shooting had ended, Cameron would break into the editing bay at night to work on his own edit of the film—rumors that Cameron has alternately denied and promulgated. This Cameron Cut of the film, which may or may not exist, is said to convey Cameron's original vision of the movie as best he could, with the footage that was available. It is highly sought after on the collector's market, but I am yet to be convinced that it is real. There are
alternate versions that exist—including an international and a television version—but these were the work of the studio and the producers, not
On more than one occasion, Assonitis had plans to produce a PIRANHA III, going so far as to print up advertisements in order to drum up interest. One take on the new sequel was to be called THE CRAWLING MENACE, in which the piranha apparently lost their wings and grew legs instead, and another was THE INVISIBLE MENACE, where they had developed the ability to turn invisible. If the image on the advertisement is to be believed, they also move into a snowy climate, conceivably terrorizing ice fishermen or teenyboppers at a ski resort. Neither of these films were ever made, and likely never progressed beyond the conceptual stage. And yet some territories appear, at first glance, to have been privy to not one but two
additional sequels that the rest of us did not see. In some countries, Corman's own 1995 made-for-cable remake of the original was released theatrically and billed, not as a remake, but as PIRANHA 3, while the wholly unrelated Italian film PLANKTON was released in 1994 in its native country, but released later elsewhere as PIRANHA 4.
I would much prefer a bunch of transparent snowfish over sitting through either of those two films again.
Director James Cameron shouldn't require any introduction, as he is responsible for blockbusters like THE TERMINATOR (1984) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991); ALIENS (1986); TITANIC (1997); and AVATAR (2009). He prefers to keep PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING off of his résumé, but nobody's falling for that anymore.
Screenwriter Charles H. Eglee went on to script the killer rat flick DEADLY EYES (1982), and then concentrated mostly on television. He contributed as screenwriter and producer to MOONLIGHTING, MURDER ONE, THE SHIELD, DEXTER, THE WALKING DEAD, and James Cameron's DARK ANGEL.
Annie was played by the attractive Tricia O'Neil, who also appeared in the infamous blaxploitation western THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLIE (1972); the madcap comedy THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976); the made-for-TV child abuse drama MARY JANE HARPER CRIED LAST NIGHT (1977), with Kevin McCarthy from the original PIRANHA; and the stalker semi-horror film ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? (1978). She would team up with James Cameron again in TITANIC (1997), though her role of "Woman" was doubtlessly much smaller than her role here.
Annie's husband Steve was played by Lance Henricksen, who, with nearly 200 roles under his belt, should be no stranger to genre fans. He has appeared in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977); DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978); the horror anthology NIGHTMARES (1983); cult-favorite vampire film NEAR DARK (1987); the unforgettable PUMPKINHEAD (1988); and the X-Files spin-off MILLENNIUM (1996-1999); he worked for Assonitis again in THE VISITOR (1979), and was cast in James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR (1984), and ALIENS (1986). When you work as steadily as Henricksen, you're bound to appear in your fair share of bad pictures, but even then his performance is usually the highlight.
The careers of the rest of the cast are much less expansive and much less impressive, so the truly curious will have to dig deeper for themselves. Might I suggest some back issues of Penthouse magazine? A few of the fish fodder can be found there on full display.
This film opens up at a roadside tourist attraction, where audience members watch in glee and horror as an alligator wrestler is mauled by his reptilian opponent. Amazingly, young Marisa isn't emotionally scarred, and she still talks her mother into purchasing her a baby 'gator which she affectionately names Ramon. Her father is none too thrilled about the new house pet, though, and he flushes it down the toilet as soon as Marisa goes to school the next morning.
We flash forward twelve years, and homicide detective David Madison is out shopping for a new canine companion. It seems that his last one mysteriously disappeared recently, something that has been occurring around town with a disturbing frequency—or so says sleazy pet shop owner Gutchell.
Another thing happening with disturbing frequency is the appearance of severed human limbs in the sewage treatment plant. That's two cases that Detective Madison finds himself involved in right off the bat—one large, one small—but things being what they are in horror movies, they're actually two parts of a greater whole.
Gutchell is actually behind the disappearances of the local dogs, which he then sells to Arthur, a research scientist for Slade Pharmaceuticals, who is experimenting with growth hormones. Once the dogs are of no more use, their corpses are unceremoniously dumped in the sewer—out of sight, out of mind.
It's a pretty lucrative gig for Gutchell, I would imagine. First he sells a dog to a family, then he steals the dog back, then he sells the dog to the pharmaceutical company, and finally he sells the family another dog to replace the one they lost. That's three times the profit on one single canine.
Turns out, though, that little Ramon survived his journey through the john, and has been living in the darkness of the city's sewer system, making meals out of the hormone-pumped puppies. This, in turn, accelerated his growth to outlandish proportions, and when the dogs were no longer enough to satisfy his growing appetite, it was no big deal. Sometimes people come into the sewer, too.
Ramon isn't the only one who has grown up over the years. His former owner Marisa is now Dr. Kendall, resident reptile expert at the university. After Madison has a run-in with Ramon while investigating the sewers, he and his Chief seek her out for assistance, as everyone else thinks he has lost his damn mind. It's only after tabloid reporter (and Madison's nemesis) Kemp gets killed while simultaneously providing proof of the creature's existence that it becomes big news.
The city seems to have Alligator Fever, but that's nothing compared to what happens when Ramon escapes
|Ramon, Bustin' Loose|
from the sewer by bursting right through the street, interrupting a gang of young punks playing stickball. It's the first time that we get a good look at the grown up Ramon, and although he's no Godzilla, he's still pretty damn big. According to one of the stickball players, it was as big as an El Dorado (plus the tail, of course), but Marisa later estimates that its actual size is 35-40 feet, based on a footprint it leaves behind.
Citizens begin to become 'gator chow, everyone is in a panic (except for cheerful street vendors who cash in by selling alligator memorabilia), and city officials bring in big game hunter Colonel Brock to track the animal down. Madison continues his investigation despite being pulled off the case, and is summarily dismissed from his job for "pushing too hard". Never one to quit, he goes rogue and pushes even harder. When Marisa asks him what he's going to do, he responds "I'm gonna go out there, I'm gonna find that alligator, and I'm gonna kick its ass!"
Madison forces Ramon back into the sewer, where he uses an explosive (and the natural methane gas of the sewer system) to blow that overgrown reptile to kingdom come. But just before the end credits begin to roll, we see another baby alligator arrive via the toilet train in the sewer, signifying that the whole thing may just happen all over again.
The strength of this film is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it takes itself serious enough that it doesn't become a joke. There are some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Madison and the doomed rookie cop Kelly are investigating the sewers by flashlight, but they are balanced out with a mellow sense of humor—there are sly pop cultural references to other famous sewer folk, such as Ed Norton from THE HONEYMOONERS and Henry Lime from THE THIRD MAN, and probably more that went over my head. This is, after all, a movie about a giant alligator terrorizing a city. The premise is almost inherently ridiculous and the filmmakers know that, but the police procedural side of things manages to keep us grounded in some semblance of reality while solid characters and a good script make it almost seem plausible...almost
The special effects were pretty great for its time and budget, making good use of miniature sets and animatronics, depending on the situation. I've seen a lot worse in a lot more recent movies. Say what you will, but I can suspend disbelief a lot easier with good practical effects than I can with poor CGI.
The characters were all fairly well-written with their share of personality quirks that made them feel genuine—for instance, our hero, Madison, was self-deprecating about his receding hairline. On the serious side, he had previously lost a partner—and lost another with Kelly—and was thus viewed as bad luck by the other cops, which is probably something that real police officers actually have to deal with.
|Madison & Company|
Too often in genre films, our "heroes" are actually quite irritating if not outright bad people. Amazingly, the characters here that we were supposed to like were actually likable, and there wasn't an obnoxious teenager anywhere to be found. It was a cast full of adults, which is both rare and refreshing. Also, not all of the victims were assholes, so we weren't conditioned to accept their deaths—though certainly some of them were. The death scenes ran the gamut, from a child being devoured in a swimming pool (!) to an amazing attack at a hoity-toity engagement party where the crooked mayor and Slade himself both receive what they've got coming to them.
Critics are quick to call this a JAWS rip-off, just as they do with virtually every animal attack movie released between 1975 and 1985, but it's an unfair assessment. Yes, both feature unusually large aquatic carnivores preying on the public, but those are superficial similarities. By those standards, JAWS is a rip-off of Moby Dick—there are similarities in theme and hints of inspiration, but that's the evolutionary nature of art. One thing must always come before another.
|Maids Taste Yummy|
ALLIGATOR is, of course, spun off from the persistent urban legend that alligators live in the sewers beneath major metropolitan areas, as a result of being flushed down the toilet precisely as shown here. It is, granted, primarily hokum, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable and ripe for exploration and exploitation. One has to wonder why the catalog of urban legends isn't pilfered more often than it is for cinematic fare.
The script was written by John Sayles, who had previously written PIRANHA—that film and the man's other credits have already been covered here. It was directed by Lewis Teague, whose filmography is spotty but quite interesting. His first feature was the unbalanced sex romp/crime drama DIRTY O'NEIL (1974), and he went onto direct THE LADY IN RED (1979) for Roger Corman (also scripted by Sayles); the citizens-on-patrol film FIGHTING BACK (1982); Stephen King adaptations CUJO (1983) and CAT'S EYE (1985); the romantic adventure sequel THE JEWEL OF THE NILE (1985); the unlikely buddy cop movie COLLISION COURSE (1989) with Pat Morita and Jay Leno; Charlie Sheen action film NAVY SEALS (1990); the made-for-TV movie THE DUKES OF HAZZARD: REUNION (1997); and the failed pilot movie JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (1997).
David Madison was played by the always-dependable Robert Forster, who has been in films of all shapes and sizes. After a few supporting roles, he starred in the critical darling MEDIUM COOL (1969), and moved on from there to appear in the made-for-TV clone horror THE DARKER SIDE OF TERROR (1979); Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE (1979); Larry Cohen and William Lustig’s MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE (1993); the Blaxploitation-reborn flick ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996); Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997); the questionable remake PSYSCHO (1998); and David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). He had a recurring role on the TV series HEROES, and appeared in the penultimate episode of BREAKING BAD.
Marissa was played by Robin Riker, whose career is comprised mostly of one-off appearances on television shows, though she did have significant roles on the sitcoms BROTHERS (1984-1989) and GET A LIFE (1990-1992). She has appeared in the erotic thriller BODY CHEMISTRY II: VOICE OF A STRANGER (1992); the comedy-monster movie STEPMONSTER (1993); and the family-friendly fantasy DON’T LOOK UNDER THE BED (1999); but she is probably best known for her role on soap opera THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, from 2008-2010.
Slade was played by Dean Jagger, whose career dates back to the 1929 drama THE WOMAN FROM HELL, and he worked consistently until the start of the 1980s. Genre fans may recall him from Victor Halperin’s REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936); Hammer Films’ X: THE UNKNOWN (1956); the muscle car thriller VANISHING POINT (1971); the alternate-earth sci-fi film THE STRANGER (1973); zombie horror film EVIL TOWN (1977); evil alien chiller END OF THE WORLD (1977); and Robert Clouse’s Bruce Lee mishmash THE GAME OF DEATH (1978). He died in 1987 as a result of heart disease.
|The Ideal Alligator|
As is standard, ALLIGATOR was followed up with a (belated) sequel, ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION (1991), which is much maligned, even by steadfast fans of the original. What is not
so standard, though, is the board game adaptation from Ideal in 1980, where players took turns either adding items to, or taking items out of, the alligator's mouth (depending on where the spinner landed), and hoping its jaws didn't snap shut on your hand.
Sounds like fun for the whole family.
The AQUAPHOBIA 'zine is now available to download for absolutely free, simply by clicking HERE!
|Aquaphobia: The Fear of Water and What Lies Beneath|
Included in this issue:
- The Beach Girls and the Monster, 1965
- The Horror of Party Beach, 1964
- Creepshow 2: The Raft, 1987
- Humanoids From the Deep, 1980
- Orca, 1977
- Piranha, 1978
- Piranha II: The Spawning, 1981
- Alligator, 1980
Remember: This can be viewed as a .pdf file and treated as an e-zine, or it can be printed out and read as an honest-to-god 'zine. If you send me a photograph of you holding your physical copy of the 'zine, I'll give you a free plug on the blog and in the next issue!
JonnyxMetro [at] hotmail.com
After the sudden death of her brother, Carol (Vanessa Hidalgo) and her boyfriend Robert (Mauro Rivera)
|Original Theatrical Poster|
travel to a village outside London to settle his estate and visit with his widow, the eccentric but enigmatic Fiona (Helga Liné). When they arrive at the estate, it is in the midst of a great storm that has taken the power out. Never fear, Fiona has an ample supply of the titular black candles that she uses to illuminate the household in circumstances such as these.
Robert, a former man of the cloth turned scholar, is immediately taken with the interesting lithographs hanging on Fiona's walls. They represent various aspects of demonology, and these, coupled with the black candles are enough to give Carol pause about their hostess. Carol and Robert retire to their bedroom to gossip, strip naked, and have some hot, sweaty sex. And why not? We all grieve in different ways.
In a scene that seems directly torn from Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, Fiona removes a painting from the wall to reveal a hole through which she watches the entire thing...while pleasuring herself.
No, Fiona isn't just your run-of-the-mill deviant. She also happens to be a Satanist (along with just about everyone else around, it seems) and Carol's presence is putting a real crimp in the cult's style. Killing her would be too suspicious so close to her brother's death, and just waiting her out or asking her to leave isn't nearly evil enough. Instead, Fiona and her cohorts opt to mess with her mind using all manner of magic derived from the dark lord.
Carol falls deeper and deeper into madness, never able to tell with any certainty what is real and what is not (and thus the audience is in the same unfortunate boat), while Robert finds himself entwined with the cult, which offers a seemingly endless buffet of perverse delights.
|Satan Loves Sex|
These people are fans of Satan, and Satan is evidently a fan of sex, so there is an awful lot of it that unfolds onscreen. It's all softcore stuff, but is just about as hardcore as softcore can be. Standard sex isn't good enough for a film of this caliber, either. No, a movie such as this depends largely on what is known as the Sleaze Quotient, and so perversity is marched across the screen in such a fashion as to make Krafft-Ebbing roll over in his grave.
Aside from the voyeuristic incident that has already been mentioned, and the expected variety of male-female/female-female vanilla flavorings, there is: a dream sequence in which Carol fantasizes about having incestual intercourse with her own (dead) brother; after joining the ranks of Satan, Robert forces sodomy upon his girlfriend—though she isn't too upset about it once the dirty deed is over; when a farmhand is unable to satisfy his insatiable harlot of a wife, a younger glistening stud is called in to finish the job—while the husband lies in bed next to them, cheering him on; and a woman masturbates a goat...which is bad enough on its own, but it is merely the lead-in for some full-on beastiality. It's all rather cringe-worthy, but I do believe that was the point.
You would think that there would be more violence in this movie, but it is decidedly sparse in that area. When you're following a vast satanic conspiracy within the framework of a small town, that doesn't leave a lot of innocents available to step into the role of victim. It should be noted, though, that the most extreme of the few acts of violence here also features a distinct and distasteful sexual element, as a nude man is forcefully impaled through the rectum with a sword. Too bad that the man in question was not Robert, as it surely would have given him cause to reflect on his earlier sexual assault in the moments before he bled out.
As this is a movie in which the main character is sliding into insanity, this gave the filmmakers free reign to toy with the surreal, without worry if the final product was coherent. And it's a good thing, too, because it's all just a collection of weird stuff floating around in space, with little or no connective tissue and a nonsensical ending that is the beginning that is the ending. All in all, it doesn't make a lot of sense—at least, not in the conventional manner. Reflecting back after viewing, though, it does seem to follow the unknowable logic of an erotic fever dream, only glimpses of which you can recall the next morning—and no matter how badly you want to shake those memories, they just keep rattling around in your brain.
The film was written and directed by José Ramón Larraz, who was no stranger to the blending of sex and horror. Among his other credits that dealt with the same themes: WHIRLPOOL (1970); DEVIATION (1971); EMMA, PUERTAS OSCURAS (1974); THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED (1974); VAMPYRES (1974); and THE COMING OF SIN (1978). It is his subversive mixture of these elements, coupled with the relative obscurity of his works, that have secured his place as a cult director.
Larraz thoroughly disliked the film, and all but disowned it. In the book Immoral Tales
by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, he was quoted as saying, "No one in that film could act. So what do you do with them? You put them in bed and have them jump on each other."
If he used the sex here as a distraction, he certainly was offering up a lot of distractions.
This is a Spanish film and its original title is LOS RITOS SEXUALES DE DIABLO, which translates to "The Sexual Rites of the Devil". It is a more descriptive name, but the black candles of the English title weren't merely some obscure prop. Black candles actually are an important part of many an occult ritual. The major retail store in the small town that I grew up in had a serious problem with black crayons going missing from all of the boxes in the stationary aisle. A few of the kids that I went to high school with would steal them and melt them down to make black candles, reportedly for satanic rites out at the old graveyard known as Devil's Playground, where the Black Church was said to appear under specific circumstances. Spooky stuff.
A bunch of hogwash, granted, but spooky nonetheless.
Catherine Yorke and her parents are traveling to the countryside to visit her uncle, a physician who has, up until now, been strangely absent from her life. Literally the moment that they pull into the property, though, they are involved in a freak car accident that claims the lives of both her parents.
Catherine suddenly finds herself in the hands of three total strangers: her uncle Alexander, her cousin
Stephen, and Alexander's secretary/Stephen's jilted lover Frances. Under their care and guidance, Catherine works through her grief remarkably fast. In fact, at times she hardly seems fazed by the whole thing. The only roadblocks on her road to recovery are all of the gory psychic visions that she has to endure. Alexander insists that they are just hallucinations brought on by the trauma, but there's actually a far more sinister reason behind them.
A few hundred years back, a powerful witch named Camilla was tortured and executed by puritans on the very same land now owned by Alexander. Alexander, a devoted Satanist, has made it his life mission to return her from the dead, which can only be accomplished by offering Camilla a new body which she can occupy. He has tried—and failed—at least once before, resulting in the death of his wife, but has since learned of a few crucial requisites: the fleshy vessel must be a direct descendent of Camilla (which, surprise surprise, Catherine is); and she must be age 20, the same age that Camilla was when she was killed. With Catherine's twentieth birthday just around the corner, this dastardly trio just have to keep her close for a few more days.
When the big day comes, Frances has an unexpected (and not fully explained) change of heart. She warns Catherine of what is to come, and is brutally disposed of by Stephen because of it. Catherine makes a break for it, running through the woods, and bumps right into her supposedly-deceased father.
Although initially skeptical, Catherine eventually comes to believe his explanation that she, in fact, was the only one injured in the car accident, suffering a head injury and going in and out of consciousness ever since. Everything that has taken place since has, of course, been a construct of her own imagination.
Although it appears at this point that the film is going to give itself over to a nonsensical and ambiguous ending (very much in the same vein as BLACK CANDLES, already covered here), it turns out that this is a fake
fake-out ending...though one that still seems to confuse some people. As Catherine is ushered back into the safety of the house, her father steps away for a moment, only to return in satanic ceremonial garb. The hunt is once again on, though this time, there is no escape.
While some insist that the reappearance of Catherine's father was merely an illusion drummed up by Alexander's devilish hoodoo, it seems painfully obvious to me that he is the genuine article. He caused the accident and faked his own death—remember, Catherine didn't see her father in the car when it burst into flames, it is only assumed that he was still inside—and has been in hiding ever since, secretly in collusion with his brother. Exactly what faking his death was intended to accomplish, however, is unclear, and I believe this is where the confusion stems from.
I don't know what it is about satanic cinema that demands so much nudity, but there's plenty of it on (full frontal) display here, too. There's also an unhealthy abundance of sex, sadism, and sleaze. One of Catherine's hallucinations/psychic visions shows the treatment that Camilla received at the hands of her enemies—including being stripped naked, tied to a tree, lashed with a whip, and branded like cattle. The first time we lay eyes on Stephen, he is plying a young woman with alcohol in preparation for date rape, the threat of sexual mutilation, and eventually murder. If that didn't make him deviant enough, he also seduces—or allows himself to be seduced by—Catherine, who not only sleeps with him, but immediately afterwards professes her love for him and begins planning their lives together. We probably shouldn't expect anything better from Stephen, but it is a bit surprising that Catherine would so gleefully jump into bed with him. Not only have both of her parents died only days before (as far as she knows), and not only does she have an apparently-serious boyfriend waiting for her in the city, but Stephen is her first cousin! If she were to get knocked up, we would have a whole new horror movie on our hands. Satan loves incest, it would seem, so it's a theme that pops up with some regularity in these movies.
|The Devil's Butler|
Another thing that Satan must love? Garish silky red robes with purple capes. A lot of his devotees seem to dress like bad Batman villains from the 1960s TV show. Which is almost fitting here, as Alexander is portrayed by Michael Gough, who played Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth four times, beginning with Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989.
There are a couple of scenes that may seem somewhat familiar to fans of the horror genre, even the first time they see them. One of them is something of a twist on possibly the most sacrilegious scene depicted in THE EXORCIST, which was released three years prior, as a nude woman is sexually violated by another with a wooden cross as part of a satanic rite. The other is when Stephen kills Frances for her disloyalty, and Catherine finds the woman's corpse pinned to a door by a butcher knife stabbed through her gaping mouth. It is a reveal straight out of just about any slasher franchise that you can imagine, though it preceded just about all of them.
The knife-through-the-mouth gag wasn't the only impressive piece of special effects here. Catherine's boyfriend, under a satanic influence directed from afar, leaps to his death from a tall building, resulting in a gruesome splatter; and when sicko Stephen finally meets his fate, it comes in the form of a nail file in the eye, wielded by none other than his incestuous lover.
SATAN'S SLAVE was written by David McGillivray, so you can blame him if you're offended by anything in the film. He's also the scribe behind such genre films as HOUSE OF WHIPCHORD (1974), FRIGHTMARE (1974), HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN (1976), SCHIZO (1976), and TERROR (1978). He has also done some work in the adult film industry, on television, and in recent years has scripted a number of short films, as well. Director Norman J. Warren also helmed the aforementioned TERROR; the sex sci-fi flick SPACED OUT (1979; written, in part, by Bob Saget!); ALIEN PREY (1981); INSEMINOID (1981); and BLOODY NEW YEAR (1987).
Candace Glendenning, who played Catherine, mostly played on television, but she did appear in the genre
films TOWER OF EVIL and THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW (both 1972). Frances was played by Barbara Kellerman, who can also be seen in QUARTERMASS and THE QUARTERMASS CONCLUSION (both 1979); the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR episode entitled "Growing Pains" (1980); THE MONSTER CLUB (1981); and the rabies horror mini-series THE MAD DEATH (1983). Martin Potter, who portrayed Stephen, also appeared in the twin-based thriller GOODBYE GEMINI (1970); the horror comedy CRAZE (1974); and the Chris Boger adaptation of MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE (1977).
Besides his appearances in the BATMAN films, Michael Gough can also be found in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958); HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959); KONGA (1961); THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962); DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965); THE SKULL (1965); THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE (1967), as The Master of the Moon; the Joan Crawford circus thriller BERSERK (1967); the witchy CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968); the infamous TROG (1970); THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973); the Oscar nominated THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978); killer snake flick VENOM (1981); THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988); SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999); CORPSE BRIDE (2005); and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010).
SATAN'S SLAVE is also known as Evil Heritage
, which is a much better title. Not only is it never really explained who
the slave of Satan is supposed to be, but it would also prevent the film from being confused with the Indonesian horror movie SATAN'S SLAVE (1982).
In the 1980s, there was a significant amount of Satanic Panic in which rock and heavy metal musicians came under fire, not only because of their outrageous appearances but also because of the hidden Satanic messages that were rumored to be backmasked on their albums. Acts like KISS and Ozzy Osbourne were easy targets, as their stock and trade were demonic imagery used for shock and artistic effect. But in April 1986, a far more unlikely subject was targeted.
Jim Brown and Greg Hudson, preachers from a religious group in South Point, Ohio called Psalms 150, were hosting a "Music Awareness" seminar at the First Church of the Nazarene in the town of Ironton. Their audience, consisting mostly of local teenagers, had brought along stacks of record albums for the big bonfire that would surely follow. They had likely anticipated that modern day rockers were going to be put to task by Brown and Hudson, but it's unlikely that they were expecting this.
With absolutely straight faces, they announced that the latest in a long line of backmasked messages they had uncovered was found in the themesong to Mister Ed, the beloved sitcom that had entertained audiences from 1961-1966.
A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And no one can talk to a horse of course
That is, of course, unless the horse
Is the famous Mr. Ed.
Go right to the source and ask the horse
He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse.
He's always on a steady course.
Talk to Mr. Ed.
Which, when played backwards, supposedly polluted the populace with messages like "The source is Satan" and "Someone sung this song for Satan"--which, really isn't all that bad, when you think about it. These absurd claims drummed up a bit of publicity for the Psalms 150 group...most of it negative, as newspaper columnists lambasted the evangelists for their idiocy, and the statements became more of a novelty than anything else.
Jay Livingston, who had written the song with his partner Ray Evans, was adamant that the song was innocuous, no matter which way you played it. He didn't fight too hard against the controversy, though, and rode out the eye-rolling fiasco in good humor. Why? Because for the next month, radio stations were heard playing the song both forwards and backwards for their listeners, resulting in a surprising upswing in royalties.
Silly bastards. Everybody knows it was Francis the Talking Mule that was a tool of the devil.
Andy (José María Guillén) and his pregnant wife Annie (Mariana Karr) are spending a lazy weekend afternoon home alone. Boredom eventually begins to wear on them, and, unable to reach any of their friends, decide to pack up their beloved pooch Blackie and strike out on a drive through the city. While on the road, they are approached by another vehicle containing couple Bruno (Angel Aranda) and Mary (Sandra Alberti). Bruno insists that he and Andy attended school together, though Andy doesn't remember him at all.
Bruno knows enough about Andy to make him think that maybe he's right, but enough of the facts are wrong to make him think that maybe he's mistaken. Boredom must override the Stranger Danger fear that is instilled in us at school, as Andy and Annie accept an invitation back to their home for wine, cheese, and conversation.
Annie and Andy almost turn around and go home after following the other couple for nearly an hour into the remote countryside. This is the first of many, many almost-escapes—so many, in fact, that it eventually becomes quite tiresome.
Once they all arrive at Bruno and Mary's house, any hope for plot coherency goes right out the window. It begins when Bruno reveals a school photograph that shows he and Andy in the same class, though Andy has no recollection of ever wearing the uniform he is clearly seen wearing in the picture. Then Mary announces that she is something of a psychic, and that she can read Anna's thoughts because she is quite transparent. This leads into a conversation about the occult, and the foursome decide to attempt to contact the spirit world via the Ouija board.
|Coffee Table of the Damned|
This is no ordinary, mass produced, out-of-the-box Ouija board, though. This is a beautifully crafted coffee table that doubles
as a Ouija board—obviously not something that a casual occultist has just lying about. Odder still, they're not attempting to drum up the ghost of their dead uncle or something harmless like that. They're trying to make a direct call to the devil himself. Satan informs them that Bruno will commit suicide, and that Annie is harboring a secret love for Andy's brother Louis.
Then things really get weird: Annie has a meltdown, lapses into a semi-catatonic state, comes to, declares that she wants to leave, and opts instead to stay the night and have bathtub sex with her husband when a storm blows in. Later that night, a mysterious intruder tries to rape her, a naked Bruno and Mary are found praying to Satan in the center of a pentagram, and the couples have an orgy. Annie dreams about a porcelain doll with bleeding eyes that turns into Mary, who then forces herself on Annie and is stabbed because of it.
Annie and Andy oversleep, and the next afternoon, Blackie is found dead and hanging from the ceiling, and Bruno kills himself. A suspicious doctor (José Pagán) shows up to recite a rather unholy sounding prayer over the body, and then vanishes with a lightning strike. Mary tries to kill herself as well, but when she fails, Andy finishes the job for her. She comes back from the dead wielding a handgun, Bruno pops back up in a zombie-like state, and Andy and Annie finally get away.
Back home, they discover that their apartment is completely empty. They are invited inside by their elderly next door neighbors, and find themselves surrounded—Bruno, Mary, the doctor, Annie's would-be rapist and even Blackie are all there. Annie and Andy are stabbed to death by the once-dead lunatics, but in the final scene, they are approaching another couple in traffic, with Andy claiming that he went to school with one of them.
Some critics are quick to declare that this film has striking similarities to ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), but those similarities aren't very striking at all. Yes, both films dealt with the devil, and both films featured elderly neighbors who were actually secret Satanists, but that's where the similarities end. Unfortunately, in the wake of such successful satanic fare as ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST (1973), seemingly every film of remotely the same strain is compared to those two, if not accused of outright plagiarism. It's the same phenomenon that I found time and time again while covering aquaphobia
, wherein every aquatic killer was said to be a JAWS rip-off. Such comparisons are rarely constructive and oftentimes unjustified, and even when the comparison is apt, it should not detract one from viewing the film objectively and basing opinions on its own merits. Failing to do so hints at ignorance to the fact that everything
is derivative of something else which came before. That is simply how art, in all of its forms, evolves. Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts
could be traced, step-by-step, back to the Yellow Kid
in 1895 if anyone were so inclined.
Now that I've defended this movie, I should also declare that I didn't care for it all that much.
As you can see from the synopsis above, logical progression of the storyline was not high on the filmmaker's list of priorities. After a certain point, the movie is comprised almost solely of disjointed scenes of weird sex and weird violence. Satanic film and surrealism often go hand-in-hand, but this didn't seem like surrealism to me. It felt like a Mad Lib. And yet, if you edit a lot of the piffle from your memory of the film, it does seem to string itself along a bit more cognitively than it initially appeared. That's not to say that it is anything resembling a linear narrative, but you can still get from A to Z...so long as you pay little mind to most of the letters in between.
There are some genuine highlights scattered throughout the nonsense: the aforementioned Ouija table and a
number of other set pieces would be welcome in any genre fan's dream home; the porcelain doll, which makes a couple of appearances, might not make a lot of sense, but remains genuinely creepy; there is a good deal of atmosphere here, and a fair amount of tension. Unfortunately, that tension is typically eradicated too soon by yet another softcore sex scene that shows up at the most inopportune moment.
There's also some degree of education that comes with watching this film—at least if you're a devil's disciple. Everyone knows the basic names that the dark one goes by, but the characters here offer up a whole new laundry list of things to call him, including: King of the Lower World, Prince of Rape and Fornication, Father of Incest, Prince of Necrophilia, Serpent of Genesis, and "You Who Are of Death, Who Kiss Death on the Mouth."
Multiple names seem to be a theme here: This import from Spanish filmmaker Carlos Puerto goes by a few aliases, in order to confuse the viewing audience even more than the film itself did—Escalofrio
and the odd choice of Don't Panic
. To muddy the waters even more, some of the characters have alternate names as well: in the Spanish-language version (available with English subtitles), Annie is known as Ana, Andy is known as Andres, and Mary is known as Berta. Only Bruno retains his fabulous moniker throughout both versions. I viewed the dubbed version, and have referred to their characters by the names given there.
When researching the movie, the various titles and the various identities of the lead characters made the whole thing even more of a disorienting experience. If this was by design, then Carlos Puerto might be a much better surrealist than I was giving him credit for.
When talent agent Dave Connor returns from a trip overseas, he comes bearing a gift for director Max Rubini: a highlight reel, of sorts, featuring three scenes from a little-known film starring European actor Karl Jorla. The scenes depict some sort of satanic ritual, and Jorla's portrayal of the cult member is so captivating that Rubini knows he has found the star for his next horror movie.
A few phone calls are made, and Jorla arrives at the studio after a long flight. The press is there, but Jorla is camera shy, adamant in his refusal of publicity. He doesn't want anyone to know where he is, he says, as a matter of personal safety.
It is later revealed that the film that Dave Connor had come home with was financed by a genuine satanic cult for in-house use only, and it depicted an actual black mass. What's more, Jorla was once an arch priest of this cult, and he was excommunicated when the blame for the film's accidental release into the world landed on him. If his former allies were to locate him, he would be killed without hesitation.
After one failed attempt on Jorla's life, pre-production on the film continues. But when it becomes time to start shooting the first scene, Jorla is nowhere to be found. No one has seen or heard from him in three days, it seems, and the filmmakers are getting worried. They decide to give him a little more time to show his face, and in the meanwhile, begin shooting around his character.
Just as his co-star Kitty Frazier, in her role as Princess Margarita, recites an incantation while standing before the titular Sign of Satan, a pair of doors eases open, and there stands Jorla, surrounded by fog, exactly as the script calls for. The shot is perfect, the director calls 'cut', and everyone goes to greet Jorla...but the man is gone, as if he had never been there.
A cryptic message that Jorla had muttered echoes through everyone's mind, and they deduce that it was a
street address. There, covered by a ceremonial blanket and surrounded by candles, they find the murdered corpse of Karl Jorla...dead for at least three days.
Fan reception on this episode is decidedly mixed, some declaring it one of the most memorable outings of the series while others say that it was a case of wasted potential. I fall somewhere in the middle, enamored with some of the more effective sequences while disappointed with a bit of the filler.
It starts off with the footage of the black mass, as Karl Jorla seemingly rises from the grave. We the viewers immediately feel as if we are in for a real horror installment of the series, but the rug is pulled out from under us when we learn that the scenes we are watching unfold are actually just scenes from a movie that the characters are watching. It's not until a short time later, when we discover that the satanic rites were real, that we understand Hitch is serving this cocktail up with a meta twist, and this really is
a horror episode after all (uneven as it may be).
Some viewers may find the satanic rituals at the onset of the episode to run a trifle longer than they need to, but for me, they were one of the highlights. They were deftly orchestrated (witness the cult members walking expertly in reverse through the catacombs), and, in some sense, quite believable. Not believable in that they seemed true to life, but believable in that the footage would have seemed right at home in one of the better satanic panic horror films of the era. It would have been more effective if it had been allowed to unfold of its own accord, though, without Dave Connor interrupting to explain to his associates everything that was happening onscreen.
The character of Jorla is filled by Christopher Lee, portraying a somewhat different kind of character than we're used to. As he is being pursued by the Satanists, and is obviously terrified of their wrath, we feel a sympathy for him that is rather unusual. Although there would be nothing strange in feeling sympathetic for most people in the same situation, the fact that Jorla was, until a short time ago, a cult member himself makes him an odd man to feel bad for. He didn't leave the group because he had a change of heart or due to some moral conflict. He was excommunicated. Had things gone a different route, he may well have been one of the killers, and we would be rooting against him. Spending even the short amount of time with him that we did humanized him, which is something of an accomplishment in and of itself.
Jorla is played as a strange and intense fellow, but perhaps a bit too prone to melodramatic hand gestures. The rest of the characters are pretty thin characterizations, and too much time is spent listening to them discuss show business trivialities, and arguing with Jorla about where he's going to be staying during the film shoot. There was a scene where a detective followed Jorla as he left the studio for the day, and we see the carefully plotted route that he took to get home—including walking, driving a rental car, and taking a taxi—and yet, nothing at all came of the entire scene, making it feel superfluous in the grand scheme.
The same can be said of far too many scenes in this episode, and although there should have been plenty of material to mine and exploit, the end result feels padded and as if it would have been better suited to the original half-hour format—though to be fair, a 30 minute edit would probably have left me feeling as if it should have been expanded more. I'm convinced that the premise has a fantastic story within it, but the scriptwriter and director didn't manage to fully unearth it, which is a shame.
This episode was based on a short story by Robert Bloch, and maybe if Bloch had scripted it himself, things would have turned out better. Instead, those duties went to Barré Lyndon, who had previously adapted Bloch's story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" for THRILLER in 1961. He also wrote the script for the 1944 Jack the Ripper movie THE LODGER, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which had been filmed twice before—the first in 1926, coincidentally directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The episode was directed by Robert Douglas, whose résumé consists mostly of western and police television dramas—MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, ADAM-12, CANNON, and BARETTA among them. He was also an actor, appearing in a number of the same series that he would direct episodes of, as well as the thriller SECRET CEREMONY (1968) and the TV movie THE QUESTOR TAPES (1974).
Our starring satanist, Christopher Lee should require no introduction but for the uninitiated, he appeared in countless Hammer studio films (portraying Frankenstein's monster, Dracula and the mummy); THE WICKER MAN (1973) and THE WICKER TREE (2011); the LORD OF THE RINGS series; the STAR WARS prequels; and well over two hundred other credits that we don't have the time to cover here.
Lee's costars, though, might require a bit more explanation. Myron Healy (Dave Connor) was frequently seen playing the heavy in 1950s westerns, and appeared in a few titles geared toward the genre fan: mad doctor flick THE UNEARTHLY (1957); prehistoric monster movie VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (1962); killer grizzly thriller CLAWS (1977); classic sci-fi schlocker THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977); horror comedy GHOST FEVER (1986); and the electric horror film PULSE (1988).
Gia Scala (Kitty Frazier) had a career that lasted 14 years but only 31 credits. She got her big break when appearing on a game show, which lead to a studio contract. After appearing in films like THE GARMENT JUNGLE (1957) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), her brush with fame became too much to bear. After one failed suicide attempt, she succeeded with an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills in 1972.
Gilbert Green (Max Rubini) was a Jewish actor who ironically played a Nazi several different times—in episodes of HOGAN'S HEROES (1966), MCHALE'S NAVY (1966), and, believe it or not, STAR TREK (1968). His first film role came in William Castle's 1961 movie HOMICIDAL, and he later appeared in EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962), DARK INTRUDER (1965, also written by Barré Lyndon), and NORMA RAE (1979).
|Weird Tales July 1938|
The short story that this episode was based on follows the same basic plotline, though it is a better read than this episode was a watch. First published in the July 1938 issue of Weird Tales
(under Bloch’s real name, don’t believe the myriad sources that claim it was credited to his pseudonym ‘Tarleton Fiske’), it's a much more gruesome account of the same incidents, as in Bloch's version, Jorla is a half-rotting corpse when he emerges from the grave. During the black mass, it is implied that Jorla murders a child with a ceremonial knife—which serves to make him even more unlikable in the story, as it is a distinct possibility that these events were real. As he moves throughout the film, he continues to rot and decay, a shambling but bright-minded zombie in service of Satan.
Bloch's story also makes several direct references to horror genre icons, like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, placing it more distinctly in our world. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of the studio's publicity man, so the more oblique and mysterious elements of the tale are more fitting. We only see and know what our narrator sees and knows, whereas with the television version, the camera goes where it pleases, yet still leaves us somewhat in the dark.
|Weird Tales July 1938 T.O.C.|
Personally, I think that this concept is ripe for a remake. More than enough time has passed, and it's been a while since a solid satanic horror film has hit the theaters. This probably wouldn’t be the popular choice, but after seeing his LORDS OF SALEM (2012, to be covered later), I think that Rob Zombie could bring the rich visual style that this story deserves. Base it on the short story and not the Hitchcock episode, expand the plotline a bit, keep it a period piece (but bring it into the 1970s, which would not only fall into Zombie’s aesthetic wheelhouse, but was also a decade which had its own occult renaissance) and I think it could be a hit.
Young Justine (Susana Kamini) arrives at the orphanage shortly after the deaths of her parents, and is given
lodgings with Alucarda (Tina Romero), another girl of the same age. The two hit it off and become fast friends, frolicking through the countryside together in search of innocent adolescent adventure. On one of these quests, they happen upon an old crypt that they decide to enter. They accidentally unleash an ancient evil force, and in short order, the girls find themselves under a dark and demonic influence.
The nuns who run the orphanage first believe the girls to be ill, but as their behavior becomes more and more outrageous—they interrupt worship services to publicly denounce God, for instance—they are forced to deal with the fact that these innocents have been invaded by Satan.
An exorcism is obviously the next step, but these girls are not going down without a fight.
There are a few monks on hand to assist with the heavy lifting, but they are mostly silent background figures and nothing more. The true forces of good here are the nuns—though they're not quite like the nuns that we are used to. They do not sport the traditional black-and-white habits, but are attired in unusual garb that makes them look almost like mummies, and they flagellate themselves with whips in religious ceremony. Perhaps their bandage-like attire is due to the wounds from their self-flagellation. And as for how "good" they actually are, that is all dependent upon your viewpoint, as their cure for the girls' spiritual ailment was dependent upon their deaths.
The sisters are assisted by the local doctor, Dr. Oszek (Claudio Brook) who is initially skeptical of and outraged at the exorcism treatment, but has to quickly reevaluate his belief system when a deceased Justine returns to life. It is remarked that "The devil moved her limbs! She was dead but the forces of evil have not abandoned her!"
She has become merely hell's marionette.
|Alucarda: The Devil's Daughter?|
While Justine appears to have been a victim of circumstance in these proceedings, Alucarda was destined for this from the very beginning. The opening scene shows her being birthed, and immediately ushered away from her mother before "He" can get to her. "He" is certainly Satan, and after the baby is removed from the premises, some unseen force attacks the mother, resulting in her death. Alucarda is unaware, but it is her own mother's tomb that she disturbs, unleashing the evil that was residing within. No mention is ever made of the girl's father, and it is conceivable that her daddy is the devil himself.
Having such a tainted bloodline would account for Alucarda's strange behavior from the start. When we first see her as a teenager, she emerges from the shadows behind Justine, almost as if by magic. She is at home there in the darkness, hiding from the light, and yet she is instantly drawn toward Justine, an innocent. Evil loves to corrupt.
When the girls arrive at the tomb—a strange building strung with red vestments—Justine wants to leave. Alucarda, though, finds it beautiful and insists that they go inside. Being surrounded by death and earthly remains puts most people in a somber mood, but it has the opposite effect on Alucarda. As she was goth long before The Cure came along and made it cool, Alucarda chooses this place to declare her love for Justine, and they make a solemn pact: "If we ever depart from this life, we shall do it together."
Further evidence that Alucarda was harboring at least a tinge of evil from the start actually comes at her end. When the possessed Justine was finally defeated, she melted away into grue and bones. However when Alucarda was defeated, she disappeared into nothingness, leaving behind no more than a few motes of dust.
The relationship between the girls only hints at lesbianism at first, but it is shown more blatantly later on. In order to seal their bond, Justine and Alucarda consume the blood from each other's breasts (sliced open with a ceremonial knife bestowed upon them by a malevolent gypsy fellow), and then follow this up with a kiss. If there were any hope for Justine, it is lost following this encounter as Alucarda's tainted blood has now intermingled with her own.
Poor Justine. With her soul promised to God, her heart promised to Alucarda, and her body taken over by Satan, there's not much left for herself.
For a movie whose primary characters are nuns and underage girls, there is an awful lot of nudity. This is
probably why some refer to it as a nunsploitation film...though I don't really feel that it falls into those parameters. Taboo as it may appear on the surface, it's worth noting that the two actresses playing our leads were both in their twenties during filming—though that does little to alter the feeling of exploitation that comes with that element of the story.
ALUCARDA, imported from Mexico, was reportedly based on the novella Carmilla
by Sheridan Le Fanu, though the more overt acts of vampirism have been replaced with a different breed of evil. The screenplay was written by Alexis Arroyo and the film's director Juan López Moctezuma. It was Arroyo's one and only screenwriting credit.
Moctezuma was a friend and contemporary of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and even produced two of the man's masterworks: FANDO AND LIS (1968), and EL TOPO (1970). The rest of Moctezuma's filmography is sadly brief, consisting of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation THE MANSION OF MADNESS (1973); vampire artist film MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY (1975); the thriller TO KILL A STRANGER (1987), with the impressive cast of Dean Stockwell, Donald Pleasance and Aldo Ray; and EL ALIMENTO DEL MIEDO (1994), which was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1995.
Fans of this film should definitely seek out the rest of the man’s work. It’s just a shame that there is so little of it to go around.
Fed up with being bossed around by his stepfather and teased by his seductive stepsister, teenager Bobby
bids his family a less-than-fond farewell ("Go to hell!"). Popping his biggest and best butterfly collar, with nothing in tow but a bag of grass, he hits the desolate streets like a born hustler, ready to take this world by storm.
Stopping off at an all-night diner for a bottomless cup of coffee, he is hit on by an older man, until a kindly biker intervenes. Thankful for the help, Bobby offers to share his marijuana with his new pal, and they head back to the biker's apartment to get high.
Some guys have no luck at all. In short order, Bobby is held at knifepoint, stripped naked, hog tied, and passed around like a party favor between the biker and his buddies. Beaten and traumatized, Bobby is left unconscious in a field.
He's found by a group of freewheeling teenagers, and after some spirited debate, they bring Bobby back to their country commune to recuperate. What a swell bunch of kids they must be. Too bad they're also a bunch of murderous Satanists, and the decision to bring Bobby into their lives has caused dissension amongst the group.
Bobby and second-in-command Sherry strike up a romance, but their relationship is put on hold when their older leader Simon returns home from a trip. Not approving of the decisions that Sherry has made in his absence, she and her new boy toy are both marked to become human sacrifices for their dark lord and master.
Bobby offers up his allegiance to Satan in an attempt to save both of their lives, but Simon doesn't think that Bobby is Satan material. He has allowed himself to be kicked around by the world, and that makes him a loser. Satan doesn't want losers in his army, he's only interested in winners.
Bobby, a changed man after the ordeal he has been through, breaks free from the Satanists, returns home muddy and bloody, bashes in the skull of his stepfather, rapes his stepsister, kills—and beheads—his rapists, and then (and only then) rescues his one true love. He drops a bag full of heads on Simon's desk as evidence that he would make a good soldier for Satan, offers up his trashy step-sister as a replacement sacrifice, and then he and Sherry live happily ever after under Satan’s command.
The whole Bobby-Sherry love affair might appear highly unlikely. This is not due entirely to their spiritual beliefs—people convert religions for their spouses all the time. It's just difficult for many of us to believe that a victim of rape would so quickly jump into bed with someone else. We are inclined to think this way because the vast majority of rape depicted in the media is perpetrated against females. Recent studies, though, have shown that male
victims are prone to question their own sexuality after the assault, and some may quickly seek to assert their heterosexuality. What better way for Bobby to do so than to bed down with the first pretty girl who shows any interest in him.
In the small cinematic universe that SATAN'S CHILDREN takes place in, it would seem that the worst thing Bobby could be is gay. Slurs are bandied about with casual aplomb, and Simon is quick to point out that Satan despises homosexuals (which seems an odd stance for an entity who supposedly stands for everything that the Biblical God stands against). It's really no wonder that he would want to prove that he was a "real man", both to himself and to those around him.
|Bobby's Tighty Whities|
Yes, this movie comes off as rather homophobic. The gay characters are all depicted as deviants, predators, and rapists (though, to be fair, so are the heterosexuals. Everyone
is rather despicable in this film). And yet, I've never encountered a movie this homophobic that was so full of homoerotic imagery. For instance, when Bobby rapes his stepsister, the entire thing happens off-camera, but when Bobby is raped, we're treated to quite a glimpse of his bare ass as he lies, tied and helpless, on the floor like the centerfold of some particularly low-rent rough trade magazine. Even when he's not naked, Bobby is seldom fully clothed, and he spends the majority of the running time in nothing but a pair of dirty briefs.
Bobby is a dirty boy, indeed.
SATAN'S CHILDREN was a low-budget regional effort shot in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida. The crew was comprised almost entirely of employees of local television station WTVT, and the cast members were mostly students of the University of South Florida's theater department. Shot for somewhere between $25-50 thousand dollars (estimations vary), and utilizing a single set for all interior shots (which would be reconfigured and redecorated for masking purposes), the result is a down-and-dirty exploitation film that is not for everyone's taste, but is a must-see for fans of trash cinema.
The script was written by Gary Garrett and Rob Levitt, both of whom didn't continue very far in the movie industry. Only Garrett has an additional credit, having written the script for the TV movie RUN TILL YOU FALL (1988), starting Jamie Farr, Fred Savage, and Shelley Fabares.
Few of the cast members went onto other projects, and those that did never received sizable roles. Producer-director Joe Wiezycki had a short career in movies, but a long and interesting one in show business, which I shall attempt to summarize here.
Joe Wiezycki married Shirley, his high school girlfriend, and had two kids—son Larry and daughter Pam. After moving to Tampa from Chicago in 1959, Joe got a job as a mover. Despite the intensive manual labor involved, he showed up at work every day in a suit and tie. One of his clients was Ken Smith, an employee of WTVT, who was impressed with Joe's personal dress code and friendly demeanor, and their casual acquaintance eventually blossomed into a job for Joe at the television station.
Joe started off as a projectionist, but eventually worked his way up to production assistant for the mobile news unit, and then became its camera operator, on site to capture important footage of astronaut John Glenn after his return to earth. He became director of THE MARY ELLEN SHOW, and even cast his son in one episode in which he was captured by pirates.
Genre fans of a certain age may be interested to know that he was also the producer and director of the local
edition of SHOCK THEATER, featuring host Paul Reynolds as the teenage ghoul Shock Armstrong, who introduced old sci-fi and horror outings. Joe himself was a semi-regular on the show, portraying the cantankerous neighbor Mr. Wilson who was often heard but never seen. On an interesting side note, when SHOCK THEATER was canceled in 1967, Larry told his young friends about it and suggested they picket the station. Other kids joined in, resulting in the show being reinstated.
After seeing the success of the low budget EASY RIDER in 1969, Joe decided to try his hand at filmmaking. Borrowing $1000 each from ten different coworkers, he set about crafting the drama WILLY'S HOME (tagline: "...a black and white story filmed in color, so powerful and believable it's frightening...", or, as the Evening Independent
(11/17/72) summarized, it was about "a black youth from the ghetto who runs away and has adventures".) Once completed, the film was plagued with distribution problems, and it never earned back its investment.
WILLY'S HOME is now thought to be a lost film, but SATAN'S CHILDREN was all but lost for decades before the fine folks at Something Weird Video scrounged up a print and released it on DVD with William Girdler's ASYLUM OF SATAN, so fingers crossed that a print of the man's first film will eventually resurface as well.
Despite the poor return on WILLY'S HOME, the urge to direct a movie struck Joe again a few years later. This time around, it was SATAN'S CHILDREN. Larry worked on the set alongside his father, as a set-builder and production assistant. Again, this movie suffered distribution problems, as the distributor was misrepresenting ticket sales. To this day, it is unknown how many theaters it actually played in or how many tickets were really sold.
Joe became the producer-director of the show PULSE PLUS, on which hundreds of celebrities appeared—including presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, and later, Nancy Reagan in her first live interview as First Lady. Joe was a guest on the program himself when he retired from the station in 1989, having found it difficult to transition to computerized technology after working solely with pen and paper for thirty years.
He continued to work under his production company, Florida International Pictures, which stayed solvent by making training films. When he passed away from a heart attack in 1994, Joe was developing a script for a drama about Elvis Presley entitled THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL.
Larry passed away in December 2012, but his son Larry, Jr. continues in the family line of work, acting as producer and editor. In what is perhaps the ultimate irony, Larry Jr. is a very active member in a Christian church.
I contacted Larry Jr. to gather what little information was yet to be uncovered.
"Joe was the kind of guy that could walk into a room, and you could feel it,”
Larry Jr. said about his grandfather. “He was this gentle but commanding presence that caused everyone around him to straighten up... not out of fear but out of respect. A lover of great food and fine wine, he seemed to spend his money less on 'things' and more on people, and on doing things. Always quick to tip and quick to pick up the tab....Joe's manner and character in one word:
He also recalled Joe talking about his idea for an Elvis movie for years, though nothing ever came of it. Joe continued, "His only other film from back in the 70's was called WILLY’S GONE. You'll laugh, but I actually used to have portions of both the original films SATAN’S CHILDREN and WILLY’S GONE [boxed up] in my garage, but most all of it had deteriorated to a horrible smelly mess and I had to throw it out other than maybe a few pieces/reels. The history of those boxes runs something like this: Joe had them in a hot un-air-conditioned apartment for the 80's and the 90's until he passed away. Then my dad had them for a little bit and got my cousin John to store them in a shed along with some of Joe's old production stuff. When my cousin packed up his business from there, he no longer had space to store any of the boxes that were rotting and falling apart filled with rusty reels and conned me into taking them! So I hung onto it a few years in my garage until parting with most of it several years ago. 40 years is not kind to celluloid!"
Perhaps WILLY’S GONE truly is lost after all.
When asked what he thought of SATAN'S CHILDREN, Larry Jr. admitted, "I haven't actually seen Satan's Children myself...My cousin John, Joe's other grandson, has seen it though and told me it was awful. I kinda thought that was the point of 70's horror movies though! I actually didn't know much about the movie until my dad mentioned (a couple years before passing away in 2012) that he wondered if he should contact Something Weird Video to find out how they had rights to sell the movie on DVD! It wasn't something neither of us really pursued seriously and we both thought it ironic after all these years that the movie actually surfaced."
Curious, I contacted Something Weird Video to ask how they had acquired the rights to the film, but I have not received a response.
Teenager Nancy Johnson (Melanie Verlin) has been thwarting the unwanted advances of her drunken
stepfather Bert for far too long. His groping and demands for "smooches" are disturbing enough (made even more so by the fact that she takes it playfully in stride, and continues to call him "daddy"), but when he eventually tries to rape her, she decides that enough is enough. She conks him over the head with her 1980s boom box, packs a bag full of 1980s clothes, and runs away like a 1980s teenager.
Life on the road is difficult, as Nancy learns in about five minutes. It seems that everybody who is willing to drive an underage runaway girl across state lines is actually looking for something more than the warm glow you get in the cockles of your heart after doing a good deed. Who would’ve guessed? The old bumper sticker adage definitely rings true: Cash, Grass or Ass...Nobody Rides For Free.
She does eventually wind up in the van of a couple of decent young men, Tom and Hank (John Hall and Charles Jackson), who are en route to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break. Although Nancy was actually trying to hitch it to California to stay with her sister, Tom convinces her that after break is over, she'll be able to catch a ride anywhere she wants as the freewheeling college students return to their schools across the country. You can't argue with logic, so it's Florida, ho!
Unfortunately, you can't argue with genre, either. This would-be Girls Gone Wild
sexcapade takes a dark detour when the trio stop in a backwoods town to stock up on supplies. It turns out that Tom and Hank are the pettiest of thieves, and they steal groceries to survive. Nancy gets in on the scam, and before long, they're on the lam. While setting up camp in the backwoods to hide from the law, they also earn the attention of the worst kind of wildlife there is: a dimwitted, overweight killer hillbilly (a killbilly?) named Cyrus (David Marchick).
Two deputies find the Snack Bandits before ol' Cyrus can get his hands on them, but it doesn't really matter.
These are Luke and Abraham (Greg Besnak and John Amplas), Cyrus's younger brothers, who have merely killed a pair of deputies and stolen their uniforms. They aren't interested in law and order, they are only interested in the sweet, innocent blood that is pumping through Nancy's veins. No, they aren't vampires. They are Satanists of the lowest order, belonging to a sect lead by their beautiful sister Cynthia (Robin Walsh), and they intend to pour Nancy's blood down their dead and decomposing mother's gullet, so that the dark one can restore her to life.
This is down and dirty, low budget horror (it would, actually, make a hell of a double-feature with SATAN’S CHILDREN), with enough of a sleaze factor that fans of that sort of thing should be willing to seek it out. The opening sequence, which is only tangentially related to the rest of the film, has Mama Satanist leading her pack of Child Satanists, to murder a girl who is caught in a bear trap. Later on, Nancy is shoved into a small kennel and referred to as a dog—bringing the 'Women in Cages' genre to a whole new level. And the finale has one of the fake deputies being bludgeoned with a hammer, shot, and finally set aflame before he eventually succumbs to death.
|Women in Cages|
In its best moments, it is exactly what you think of when you hear the term "drive-in horror", and is simultaneously reminiscent
of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (backwood murderers target kids in a van) and prescient
of the remake (villains assume the role of local lawmen).
In its worst moments, though, it is an aimless and wandering mess, unbelievably padded with long shots of our heroes driving down country roads or shopping for groceries. The dialogue is often inane and pointless, sometimes amounting to nothing more than the characters narrating what they're doing onscreen. And the absurd moments are so
absurd, it's difficult to believe that this wasn't entirely by design.
One of my favorite examples is the police chase, which occurs after the kids shoplift their groceries. Not only is it taking place at what I can only assume is safely below the posted speed limit, but the upbeat pop song on the soundtrack, coupled with the endless monotony of the siren, makes it a completely unnatural sensory experience.
By far the most absurd element, though, is that when it becomes evident that the small and ineffectual local police force isn't going to be much help in rescuing Nancy from the Satanists’ clutches, it is the drunk and rapey Bert that comes to the rescue. It really is a pretty startling transformation—a semi-incestuous drunken villain turns into the hero (though still a quite drunk one). One would assume that there would be a story behind his complete turnaround, and maybe there is one...but if there is, it happens entirely off-camera. If, after watching the movie, you want to fill in the gaps of Bert's story yourself, that's up to you. Personally, I prefer the completely anarchic changeover, as it fits with the rest of the rather bonkers storyline. It's as if a grizzled private eye has temporarily stepped into Bert's body for the final act of the film—David Lynch as filtered through Ed Wood. Which seems even more fitting as the unwieldy Lawrence Tierney, who plays Bert, is typically seen stomping through the scenery like the second coming of Tor Johnson.
Tierney isn't the only ‘name’ attached to this feature that would, in theory, lend it a bit of credibility. Special effects were supplied by Tom Savini, the guru of grue, who was enjoying his heyday when this movie was made. Unfortunately, there's really not a lot of blood and gore effects here to allow Savini to shine, and those that do exist are typically cut away from too quickly. It really makes one wonder how Savini got suckered into it in the first place.
Furthermore, MIDNIGHT was written and directed by John Russo, who made a name for himself by co-writing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) with George Romero. Unfortunately, Russo was never able to recapture the lightning in a bottle of that film, and earned the ire of many fans by producing a steady stream of less-than-stellar products and returning to the NOTLD well a few times too many. This is understandable in light of the fact that a copyright error caused the movie to land squarely in the public domain, and it makes sense that he would want to recoup some of his losses—but the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (1999), which replaced portions of old footage with new footage, was viewed as a slap in the face by many. If nothing else, he at least had a hand in the story for the cult favorite RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)—though even then his original script was thoroughly rewritten by Dan O'Bannnon.
Russo also works as an author, having written non-fiction books on movie making, as well as fictional books, some of which were adapted into movies themselves. While his entire catalogue would certainly be worthy of evaluation, it is only the source material for this particular film that we are concerned with here.
The novel, first published in 1980 by Pocket Books, hits many of the same key (and not so key) scenes as the film: The bear trap murder; the attempted rape; Nancy being picked up by Hank and Tom; Hank and Tom's murder and the subsequent imprisonment of Nancy. But what the film is missing which the book has is the connective tissue that makes a story whole
. The major differences are few: there is a secondary character in the novel that is not present in the film—an anthropologist that acts, believe it or not, as a potential love interest to Cynthia, high priestess of the satanic sect; and there are a great deal more cult members in the book, as Satanists from around the country congregate for the proceedings; but the biggest difference is that here, Bert plays no part whatsoever in the "happy ending". In fact there is
no happy ending. Evil triumphs fully, and there isn't the slightest hint of redemption or retribution.
There is a good deal of backstory on all the characters that help to flesh them out, but much of the dialogue is the same onscreen as it is on the page. It's almost as if Russo had just cut-and-pasted his favorite scenes into the script, and forgot to write in what came between them.
|Midnight by John Russo|
Not being overly familiar with the whole of Russo's oeuvre (and being unsure on the amount of contribution he truly
made to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), I'll base my evaluation solely on his two Midnights
, and will go on record to say that he is a much better author than he is a filmmaker. Though his book was no great shakes, and there was little to no suspense, it was trashily entertaining enough to keep me reading and served to demonstrate what the movie could have (and rightly should have) been.
Although there were certainly no throngs of people clamoring for a sequel, Russo did return to the studio to film MIDNIGHT 2 in 1992, which, by all accounts, is even worse than the first and only minutely connected to the original.
Feeling as if a third pass was needed, Russo launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to fund a remake of MIDNIGHT, which is currently listed as "in development". Although there doesn't seem to have been a lot of movement since, I would be willing to give him one final shot to tell his story.
If for no other reason than to see what the ending will be this time.
In modern day Salem, recovering heroin addict and late night radio DJ Heidi LaRoc (one-third of WQIZ's The Big H team) receives an unusual package at the station—a wooden box containing a vinyl record album by a group calling themselves the Lords. When she and her co-host/would-be lover Whitey play the record at Heidi's apartment, the droning and repetitive tones are almost too much for her to bear. Whitey, though, has the bright idea of playing the album on the air the following night.
When they do, select female members of the listening audience seem to fall into a trance, a standing catatonic state that ends at the same time the record does.
Back at the studio, though, the current guest—Francis Mathias, author of Satan's Last Stand: The Truth About the Salem Witch Trials
—is, in his words, "upset" by the music. Both it, and the name Lords of Salem, seem naggingly familiar to him, and quickly become something of an obsession.
A bit of research uncovers the musical notes from the song inscribed in the journal of Jonathan Hawthorne, a pious man who hundreds of years ago hunted local witch Margaret Morgan and her coven...a coven who, not so coincidentally, called themselves the Lords of Salem.
When Hawthorne and his band of merry men burned the coven at the stake, Margaret spat a curse upon the women of Salem ("the forever deaths of daughters' daughters") and Hawthorne's bloodline ("the vessel by which the devil's child will inherit the earth"). Heidi LaRoc's real name is Heidi Hawthorne, and now, all these years later, the chickens have come home to roost.
Every time Heidi hears the music, her mental state (already fragile) worsens and she slips deeper and deeper into psychosis. She suffers from visions that may be construed as hallucinations or nightmares, but as the viewers are privy to a few sights that Heidi doesn't
see—the images of naked witches appearing in her apartment, for instance—that can mean only one thing: the Lords of Salem are coming.
Quite literally. The radio station announces that the band The Lords are going to be performing a free
|The Record Box|
concert for the citizens of Salem, and the Big H team will be there to report on the event. The first track on the set list, of course, is the one that has been droning across the airwaves for a few days now, and that doesn't prove good for anybody, as the centuries-old curses finally come to fruition.
The finale may prove a bit confusing for some viewers...but then again, the rest of the film might have confused them already. Like many of the movies that writer-director Rob Zombie is riffing on here, the plot is light, and the visuals are heavy—but they are also sumptuous. His influences are obvious, stemming not so much from individual titles but the subgenre's collective consciousness as a whole, and they are lovingly assembled together into something that can only be called a unique pastiche. Zombie is, in my opinion, the Quentin Tarantino of horror films, crafting his own voice by borrowing the syllables of others. If this had been made in the 1970s by some obscure European director, it would probably be heralded as a lost classic by horror fans today.
Like Tarantino, music always plays an important role in Zombie's films, and there is typically a scene therein that changes the way that I hear one particular centerpiece tune forever. THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (2005) had “Free Bird”, HALLOWEEN II (2009) had “Knights in White Satin”, and LORDS OF SALEM has “All Tomorrow's Parties”. Though expertly inserted into the narrative (and it's always a treat to hear Lou Reed and his cohorts), I didn't initially believe that the film had affected my listening of this song in the same manner, primarily because the Velvet Underground had already been a major component of my own personal soundtrack for the better part of my life. And yet, after having now seen the flick a couple of times, I started up the track and was surprised to find that I couldn't help but picture the witches resplendently gazing upon their ascending Virgin Mary of Hell.
|Virgin Mary of Hell|
So, score one for Rob Zombie.
Also like Tarantino, the careful casting of occasionally-overlooked genre actors is a staple of Zombie's films. Here, he makes use of Ken Foree (DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978), Meg Foster (THEY LIVE, 1988), Bruce Davison (WILLARD, 1971), Patricia Quinn (THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, 1975), Dee Wallace (CUJO, 1983), and many others.
Although this movie is not going to be to everyone's liking, I believe it is Zombie's most mature work to date, and shows his growth as a director (that being said, it isn't my favorite of his films—that goes to THE DEVIL'S REJECTS). His ever-present and always-beautiful wife Sheri Moon Zombie plays the lead role of Hedi, and this is by far her best role to date, hopefully landing her work outside of her husband's films sometime in the near future. And for the hormonally-driven male viewer, yes, Sheri does bare her bottom on a few occasions, and it is delightful as ever.
Heidi's apartment offers a few other glories to behold, as well, with a blown-up still from Georges Melies' 1902 film A TRIP TO THE MOON adorning the wall above her bed (meaning that, while she's sleeping nude, Moon is mooning the camera beneath a moon), and a decidedly Warhol-esque print of the titular character in KING OF THE ROCKET MEN (1949) hangs in the bathroom. One's home is the physical manifestation of their mind—it is filled with things that we like, and the photographs, books, movies, etc. that we keep can offer an amazing insight into who we are—so Heidi's apartment, which starts off as neat and organized, becomes more and more disheveled as she becomes unbalanced.
The hallucinatory sequences are truly something to behold, all the more impressive in light of the fact that they were all done practically with no digital effects. There are Halloween masks and neon crosses that offer a low-rent, Vegas glimpse of Heidi's descent, but there are also enormous, gorgeous cathedrals that bring things to a fantastic visual crescendo.
One of the final sequences offers up a manic montage of bizarre imagery, coming across more like a music
video with its quick cuts and MTV edits than anything else. While it's true that this goes against the more subdued pacing of the rest of the film, I believe it's fitting for Heidi's character. She's a rocker girl, and as these are her warped perceptions of a freshly-warped reality, why wouldn't they be attuned specifically to her? Hell, and the devil, are very personal matters.
Zombie's interpretation of Satan is not your typical cloven-hoofed beast. Here, the devil is seen as a short, pudgy, deformed little dwarf that impregnates Heidi not through the normal means, but, unbelievably, via intestine-like appendages that he releases from his distended belly. And when she gives birth, it is not to a humanoid of any sort, but rather some obscured crustacean-type creature that is, presumably, a Lovecraftian vision of the newborn anti-Christ. Bizarre does not even begin to describe it.
There have been complaints online about the sacrilegious themes that are prevalent in the film, and specifically some of the anti-Christian sentiments expressed by the witches. Suffice it to say, if you're offended by Satanic cinema, and yet you willingly watch a movie that is quite openly about a coven of evil Satan worshipping witches, then your delicate sensibilities deserve the vicious thrashing that they receive.
In March 2013, one month before the film began its limited release to theaters, a novelization by Zombie and co-author B.K. Evenson hit the shelves. As it was based on the original script, and much of the script was altered on the fly while shooting, there are a number of differences between the two. Among them, there is a minor subplot involving demonic possession and murder, and a pair of unholy nuns that lurk around the edges but don't really add anything to the story. Also, there is an interesting aspect in that the record by the Lords plays backwards
(tying cleverly into the now-faded backmasking controversy), which would have been a fun gimmick to see on film.
|Lords of Salem: The Novel|
Unfortunately, the writing here is serviceable at its best, and painfully generic at its worst. It comes across more like fan fiction than actual
fiction as Zombie fills page after page with repetitive, over-the-top scenes of weird creatures and strange occurrences that serve mostly as filler. It's a blessing that time and money constraints required the production to be scaled down to what it would later become.
Overall, the movie is a far more interesting take on the same story, and the novelization was a disservice to the tale. Those who were confused by the film, but still interested, may want to read the book regardless, as together they will offer up a more complete version of Zombie's original vision.
Strange as it may sound, one of the things that I've learned over the course of working on Satanophobia
is how to watch these sorts of films. You have to view them with a mind that is untethered to the strictures of reality, and simply accept the things that happen, no matter how unlikely they seem, without ever asking "Why?" or "How?" When Jason Voorhees returns to life for the eighth time, we don't question how
it happened; we just accept that it has
happened. We've seen it happen so many times before, it no longer seems strange to us. So why should Satanic films be any different? Why should we spend so much time and effort questioning why Andy doesn't remember wearing the uniform in SATAN'S BLOOD, or how it could be possible for Carol to dream the whole film before it happens in BLACK CANDLES? Especially when we have the greatest scapegoat ever to blame it on.
To quote Flip Wilson, "The devil made me do it."
The SATANOPHOBIA 'zine is now available to download for absolutely free, simply by clicking HERE!
|Satanophobia: The Fear of Satan|
Included in this issue:
- Black Candles, 1982
- Satan's Slave, 1976
- Satan's Blood, 1978
- The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Sign of Satan, 1964
- Alucarda, 1977
- Satan's Children, 1975
- Midnight, 1982
- Lords of Salem, 2012
Remember: This can be viewed as a .pdf file and treated as an e-zine, or it can be printed out and read as an honest-to-god 'zine. If you send me a photograph of you holding your physical copy of the 'zine, I'll give you a free plug on the blog and in the next issue!
JonnyxMetro [at] hotmail.com
Young nouveau-lesbian Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is going through some relationship problems with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman), so she attends a party and allows her gal pal Alice (Alice Macdonald) to wash her woes away with booze. Once fully intoxicated, she lets her guard down long enough to be given a drink by a stranger calling himself B.J. (Simon Barrett), and the next thing she knows, they're having sex in his car. She asks him to stop, but he doesn't.
The next morning, she wakes up badly hungover, most everything from the night before a blur. Almost right away, it is evident that something is wrong with Sam. It begins innocuously enough—she's got a case of the chills—and she could just as likely be coming down with a cold or the flu. But soon enough, other symptoms begin manifesting.
Her period starts, and the blood flow is abnormally heavy. She's also beginning to develop a rash on her genital area, and she's suffering from occasional but severe ringing in her ears. Her heart rate slows down, her eyes start losing focus (by the end of the film, one is blood red and the other is milky white), and her teeth, fingernails and hair start falling out.
"You look like death"
is a phrase that you hear often to describe someone who is sick, but in Sam's case, it is actually quite accurate. To be even more
accurate, she looks like the dead. She's rotting like a corpse while still alive, the result of a new and unidentifiable STD. Her life is falling apart much as her body is, and she eventually succumbs to a homicidal rage that previously was never even hinted at.
In the finale, Sam passes out behind the wheel and winds up in a car accident. When she emerges from the vehicle, she is no longer acting like herself. In fact, she's barely acting human. Instead, she stumbles around slowly and drunkenly, reacts violently to those who attempt to assist her, and then lunges at her mother (Caroline Williams). The screen fades to black as we realize what has happened: Sam has died in the car accident, and was reanimated as a zombie, not due to happenstance, but because of the virus that she contracted from B.J.
In order to make some sense out of the ending, we have to venture back to the beginning of the film. In the pre-credit sequence, it is implied that a man—presumably B.J.—has sex with a corpse in the morgue. Granted, it's not all that clearlyimplied, and I can't imagine the position that the disgusting act was being committed in (she was lying on her back, and the only thing visible on camera were her legs, however his legs were nowhere to be seen). B.J. apparently didn't notice the biohazard symbol on the corpse's toe tag, or surely he would have double-bagged it. Whatever biohazardous pollutant was contained in that shell of a person, it was passed onto B.J. (though he never displays any visible outward signs). And then, when he raped Sam, he passed it on to her.
Yes, raped her. In a rather insensitive move, marketing material called the sex act between Sam and B.J. a "one night stand"
, when in reality he slipped her a roofie and refused to stop when she asked him to. Even many reviews of the film make it sound like a regrettable, but consensual, act—though to be fair, this is likely not out of any sort of indecency or moral acceptance of rape. It's just that so much of this movie was a muddled mess that the real facts may be easy to miss.
This movie is filled with what can only be called broken relationships. Sam and Nikki's relationship was damaged long before the film started. Sam and her mother's relationship has been strained for quite some time, probably stemming from Sam's former drug addiction, but no doubt worsened by her mother's inability to deal with Sam's "alternative" lifestyle. Sam's best friend Alice is actually in love with her, and she is just biding her time until Sam and Nikki break up. And the desperate Riley (Matt Mercer), who has been longing for Sam to return to heterosexuality, exhibits behavior that borders on stalking. These are all unlikable characters—even our protagonist, Sam, who is weak, shallow, and emotionally manipulative—and that's one of the weaknesses of the film. If we don't like a character, we are not emotionally invested in their well-being, and much of the possibility of true horror is lost.
Not only are these unlikable characters, they are completely irrational. It's one thing for me to accept the fact that Sam would not check herself into the ER when the symptoms began to get worse—this likely isn't the first time she's been in self-denial, and it's feasible that the zombie virus is altering her thought process. However, I find it neigh impossible to believe that nobody else in her life would make her seek immediate medical attention. In fact, they act as if they barely even notice her rapidly deteriorating appearance, and a few of them are more than happy to make-out with her (or more). When she seeks comfort in the arms of Riley, she does her best to disguise her appearance, but he still must be blinded by his obsession. They immediately set about engaging in unprotected sex, and he seems pretty proud of himself when he states, "Oh my god, you're really wet,"
not realizing that the lubrication is actually caused by blood and vaginal rot. He doesn't notice that anything is wrong until he pulls out, and a pile of maggots fall from her crotch.
When Sam does eventually visit the doctor, she chooses perhaps the most ineffectual gynecologist of
|Unsexiest Lesbian Scene Ever|
all time, whose initial checkup involves her mouth, ears, heart, and panties. He completely avoids examining the one area that he specializes in, and the one area that really should be examined in order to diagnose an STD. His only advice to her is to avoid all contact with others—a self-imposed quarantine—until they can determine what they're dealing with. I've read in interviews with writer-director Eric England that he didn't want the audience to grow tired of people showing concern for Sam, and so he tried to balance it out rather than have it show up consistently in the dialogue. I can understand this rationale, but all it would've taken was one scene where Sam was hospitalized to make this whole scenario more believable, and if she quickly escaped, well, more power to her!
Another weakness that I perceived in the film is some of the more glaringly oblique moments. England has stated elsewhere that he enjoys leaving certain aspects of his films a little ambiguous, which can be a strength in certain instances, but it can also work against a film if there are too many questions left unanswered. A few of the most prominent examples:
|The Porcelain God|
In the opening sequence, after B.J. has had his way with the corpse, he can be seen standing at a sink, rinsing out the contents of a test tube. As it is implied that the zombie virus was transferred to him via his contact with the corpse, and not through some sort of chemical agent, what exactly was in the test tube is up for debate. While it may not seem to be an important point, the fact that the camera lingers on it does imply otherwise.
In that same scene, viewers can catch sight of a tattoo on B.J.'s finger, which appears to read 'Abaddon'
, the name of a Biblical entity that is associated with impurity and plague. It's feasible that this was just something of an Easter egg for the astute audience member, but it's also possible that it holds a deeper significance.
Later in the film, Sam is drinking at the bar when she sees B.J.—or so it would appear, as she notices the Abaddon tattoo. However, it has already been established that B.J. is in police custody at this point. Are we to believe that B.J. has been released/escaped? Or that Sam is hallucinating this encounter? Or is it a completely different man who has the exact same tattoo? If this last possibility is the case, then it certainly implies a much deeper conspiracy than we previously had reason to believe—perhaps an Abaddon doomsday cult, willfully bringing the apocalypse through the spread of the plague.
I contacted Eric England, in part seeking clarification on ambiguous points like these—though his response was slightly less than enlightening.
"Thanks for the insightful questions about the film. To be completely honest, your questions are exactly the questions I wanted the viewer to ask and because of that, it's hard for me to give definitive answers. I feel like if I did the discussion would end. The theories are what make the questions so intriguing, in my opinion."
Watching a film that depicts the onset of a zombie outbreak via a sexually transmitted disease, one can't help but see some aspect of social commentary in the subtext. If England was intending to deliver a message, however, it is mostly lost in the shuffle, and overridden by conflicting viewpoints. The most obvious message would be a simple one, and one that could be delivered without coming across as moralistic or preachy: practice safe sex
. That's a message that most anyone can get behind. However, by having Sam being drugged and taken advantage of, it negates that message. Rape victims can not be held accountable for whether or not their attackers use protection. It would have made for a stronger film if Sam had willingly slept with B.J., and then immediately regretted it afterwards.
Despite the weaknesses and missteps outlined above, I didn't wholly dislike this movie. As far as body horror films go, this one has some definite strong points. The special effects are pretty phenomenal considering the low budget, and when Sam is alone, attempting to come to terms with the effects that the virus is having on her body, the movie is at its best. It manages to capture a unique blend of dread and isolation that you don't normally find. It's only the scenes with other characters—portrayed by capable actors as they may be—that the weaknesses start to show.
So CONTRACTED, then, is something of a prequel to a living dead franchise that was never made, with Sam effectively being Patient Zero. This revelation at the end is appreciated by some, but derided by others. I thought that it was a rather clever conceit, but perhaps not as original as England had intended.
The Internet is full of people shouting that CONTRACTED is a ripoff of the 2012 Canadian film THANATOMORPHOSE, with which it shares certain similarities—namely, the lead character coping with the fact that her body is decomposing before her eyes. I have yet to see THANATOMORPHOSE myself, and so can't speak on the legitimacy of this claim, however it should be noted that RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III (1993) and the decent but little-known indie effort SHADOWS OF THE DEAD (2004) dealt with the same slow descent into zombism even years prior to that, though in those instances we knew what was occurring from the onset. The gimmick here lies in the delivery, like a good joke whose punchline you never see coming.
CONTRACTED is worthy of a watch, and in fact deserving of at least two—one before
you know the outcome, and another viewing after
you know the outcome, to catch any of the subtleties that you may have missed. A sequel is in the works, but England is in no way attached.
Perhaps a part two will help to clear up some of the mystery...even if that was not the original intention.
Sarah Jane Butler (Cleo O'Hara) is something of a religious nut. When she's not preaching on street corners and condemning strangers to hell, she's allowing herself to be seduced by random men. Following coitus, she then murders them, occasionally leaving some cryptic, Christian-esque message behind at the crime scene.
Don't worry about the murders. You see, Sarah had herself a vision
in which God spoke to her and placed her in charge of killing anyone (especially men) who has sex for the sake of pleasure. She's doing the Lord's work
, which is why she sings hymns all the while.
This makes for some truly bizarre character interactions that I can't imagine are to be found anywhere else. "What kind of a freak are you!?"
, one paramour asks."Why are you singing hymns while I'm trying to give you head?"
When she continues, he switches tactics. "Why don't you give me some head? That way your mouth will be full and I won't have to listen to your yapping."
A smooth operator, this one, which is why we don't feel too sorry for him when he gets butchered by the crazed Sister Sarah.
Sarah leaves her home behind and heads to California, probably based on the assumption that there will be plenty of free-loving flower children there that she can put down. While there, she meets and befriends the closeted lesbian Penny (Sandra Henderson), who becomes a firm believer in Sarah's message. Penny vows to give up her lesbian ways and to follow and obey Sister Sarah. Sarah ties Penny to her bed, undresses her, and caresses her nude body with the cold steel of her killing knife. After this goes on for a while, Penny is officially a member of Sister Sarah's Secret Order of Complete Subjugation.
Together they harass sinners until Sarah decides that it is time for her new recruit to get her hands dirty. Penny brings home a man for sex, and is distraught when Sarah slaughters him. Not distraught enough to see the errors of her ways, though. Shortly afterwards, Penny's ex-girlfriend Junie (Jane Tsentas) stops by to reconcile—and reconcile they do, almost immediately stripping naked and having sex on the couch...until Sarah slinks out of the shadows and strangles Junie.
Sarah and Penny then wrap up the two corpses and drive them into the woods to dispose of them.
They drag them out a ways, lazily cover them in a handful of leaves, and then spy on a man and woman who are having a secret rendezvous amongst the trees. When the encounter is over, the woman leaves and the man approaches the two peeping women—he knew that they were watching the entire time. More than that, he knows who they are, having previously seen them on the street preaching their gospel and singing their songs. After a few carefully chosen pickup lines, the man walks into the sunset with Sarah on one arm and Penny on the other (while a hippie minstrel follows behind them, strumming an acoustic guitar). Cue credits.
What a non-ending! Then again, what a non-beginning and non-middle! There's not really an ounce of plot anywhere to be found in this trashy nonsense, just a whole lot of mostly-dull softcore sex (with a definite oral fixation), and the only reason that it even deserves a watch is because of the bizarro factor.
A lot of exploitation films start off with a message stating that it is based on a true story (even when it's obviously made up). EVIL COME, EVIL GO trumps that by opening with a Bible quote
, of all things, specifically Matthew 7:15—"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."
Viewing this quote as an attempt to legitimize the proceedings as a serious message film definitely seems absurd—because it is. And yet it has an interesting connection to the original breed of exploitation films—the traveling roadshow films of folks like Dwain Esper, who would tack such a crawl onto their opening reels in order to convince the censors that theirs were "educational" programs.
The soundtrack is comprised almost solely of our starlets warbling out uneven renditions of some of the most well-known hymns in the public domain. Being raised in the Baptist church, instinct kicked in and I began to sing along on more than one occasion...until I realized how inherently wrong
it felt. Somehow I doubt that the authors of those hymns intended for them to be sung while watching a man be sucked, screwed, stabbed and gutted. Suffice it to say, if you are a believer, then this movie might not be your cup of tea.
|Sarah, Victim, Cat|
The major attraction on the soundtrack, though, is Sister Sarah's very own theme song (by Jim Wingert) which crops up from time to time and really breaks down the plot: "Evil come, evil go/Sister Sarah, do you know/is the world in the mess that you say?/Will you strike with your blade/until they all finally cave?/There's another victim every single day/Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane, Sister Sarah, you're insane/But you always pull it off and walk away."
I mean, really, if you throw in the mention of an ashamed lesbian and a plentitude of sex, that could very well work as the official plot synopsis on the back of the box.
So take all the sex and gospel music, and throw in a random house cat that wanders in and out of important scenes (which certainly opens itself up to a crude joke that I won't lower myself to say), lots of cheap blood and gore effects, and a cameo appearance by porn legend John Holmes, and you've certainly got yourself a movie to remember (even if it is one that you would rather forget).
Why exactly does John Holmes crop up in such a minor role? I can only assume that he was doing the filmmakers a favor, as they were professionally bound even before this production got off the ground. In fact, nearly everyone involved here had ties to the hardcore porn industry, which had really only begun a few short years earlier. Information on these early, seedy days of pornography is a bit sketchy, thanks to the heavy use of pseudonyms, and the lack of any genuine journalism interested in the industry. From what we can tell, writer-director Walt Davis had already helmed at least a few hardcore films prior to this—including the ambiguously titled WIDOW BLUE (1970), which is better known today under the more apt title of SEX PSYCHO. SEX PSYCHO and EVIL COME, EVIL GO have their share of similarities, including the uncomfortable blending of sex and violence. SEX PSYCHO is an oddity for many reasons, only the least of which is the fact that the heterosexual hardcore is interspersed with homosexual hardcore—featuring Davis himself! There's also an extremely violent beheading, incest, necrophilia, sex on a coffin, an act of fellatio that would make Lorena Bobbit flinch, and, of course, an orgy with John Holmes. Hard as it may be to believe, SEX PSYCHO is even more deliriously twisted than EVIL COME, EVIL GO. EVIL COME was produced by Bob Chinn, who is said to have forever altered the industry with his series of "Johnny Wadd" films (and subsequent novels!)—starring John Holmes.
Oh, and just in case you're not sick of seeing John Holmes' name here in print, he was also the assistant director of EVIL COME, EVIL GO, and even provided the special effects makeup!
It cannot be said that this project of mine does not take me to some pretty weird places...
Lila (sexploitation starlet Susan Stewart), a stripper at one of the many burlesque houses in town, has a tendency to pick one member of the male viewing audience and take them out for a night that they won't ever forget. She takes them to an abandoned warehouse (assuring them that "This is where it's at!"), puts on a private show, and then get down to business.
The first man that we see her do this with is a vintage sleazeball-hipster hybrid with an absurd
dangling ear ring. Unfortunately for him, he introduces some LSD into Lila's time-tested tradition, and she starts to freak out. The business at hand may begin with a little casual sex, but it ultimately ends with his murder.
Lila must enjoy these newly added elements in her routine, because she does them time and time again. Once the murders are complete, she chops the bodies up with a meat cleaver, and stuffs them in a cardboard box that she casually discards for the police to find. (On a side note, there are multiple synopses of this film written online that state Lila's modus operandi
is that she murders men with garden tools. These synopses all appear to have been written by people who have not actually seen the film. Only one of her victims is killed with a garden tool—a hoe—while the rest are offed with a screwdriver and a meat cleaver).
Oddly, it's never exactly revealed why
Lila suddenly becomes a homicidal maniac. It's unlikely that it all stems from a bad trip—if that were the case, you suspect she would stop dropping acid—and there is some indistinct trauma in her past that is only hinted at. "They made me do things I didn't want to do,"
she tells one of her victims, and then proceeds to ramble on about her hatred for cucumbers, watermelons and bananas. Especially
with the bananas.
The murder investigation lands on the desks of homicide cops Sergeant Collins (Steve Vincent) and Lieutenant Ryan (James Brand), who go through the motions of solving the case without much luck. There's a reason these guys aren't the stars of DRAGNET. Sure, they deduce that the killer is operating out of one of the local hippie joints and that the boxes are coming from one of the local warehouses, but ultimately it's coincidence that cracks the case.
A real estate agent is showing off the warehouse to a prospective buyer and stumbles across some fresh blood stains. When Collins and Ryan catch wind of this tip, they merely go to the warehouse and wait in hiding for the killer to strike again...which invariably doesn't take long.
Lila's latest conquest, though, carries a gun—but only for protection, as he sometimes has to make night deposits for his job. Overall, he seems like quite a law-abiding citizen, which only serves to make what follows even more baffling. When the police reveal themselves, his reaction is to go for the gun, accuse Lila of setting him up, and fire off a few shots, getting himself killed in the ensuing shootout.
Lila, however, is taken into custody without further bloodshed.
To say that this movie is heavily padded would be putting it lightly, but it would also be missing the point. The intention behind the film wasn't to tell a great story, but rather to pander to two distinctive audiences: the nudie set, and the horror set (and if the two of them intersect, then that's all the better). The real point of the movie is to show off a little gore (that cheap, down-and-dirty drive-in style stuff) and a whole lot of gyrating and jiggling flesh. That's why we spend such an inordinate amount of time with people who have no bearing whatsoever on the story, like the other dancers in the club who exist for no other reason than to climb on stage and exhibit their mammaries for five minutes at a time. There's even a completely random scene smack dab in the middle of the movie where a wannabe stripper gets the casting couch treatment from the owner of the club. If you're thinking that either of these characters are going to become important members of the cast, then you obviously haven't been paying attention.
Unfortunately for us, the striptease scenes drag on well past the point of titillation and quickly become rather tiresome. Even the actual sex scenes are rather dull, unless you enjoy looking at a man's bare back for extended periods of time. LILA was made a few years before hardcore pornography would be available theatrically, so I guess this is what audiences had to make do with. Poor schlubs.
The acid trip scenes are done in the way that was typical of the era—a lot of colored camera filters and weird lighting effects—but there were occasionally brief glimpses of some bizarre hallucination (at one point, Lila sees a surgeon that isn't actually there). They're entertaining in a naive sort of way, but would have been better if they pushed the envelope farther than the standard. To go along with the mod acid scenes, we get a lot of groovy dialogue that is charmingly dated (if indeed people ever spoke like that).
One of the best scenes involves psychologist Frank (last name unrevealed, played by Stuart Lancaster), who hangs out in gogo clubs and strip joints under the auspices of doing research on the "psychedelic generation". As soon as Lila shows an interest in him, though, he is just as interested in her body as he is her mind—but at least he remains professional enough to refuse the LSD she offers him, and to attempt to analyze her during foreplay ("Interesting...interesting case."
). This scene would have been the perfect time to expose why Lila had gone bonkers, but it simply was not meant to be.
Just like Sister Sarah in EVIL COME, EVIL GO, Lila has her own theme song ("She'll take your
hand/she'll understand/she'll take your heart and soul/young or old/ mantis in lace"
), but unlike Sister Sarah, Lila puts it on whenever she feels the need to perform a striptease. It was written by Vic Lance, who composed music for other "classics" like THE JOYS OF JEZEBEL (1970), THE EXOTIC DREAMS OF CASANOVA (1971), and THE DIRTY MIND OF YOUNG SALLY (1973). He was something of an actor, as well, and even appeared in this film as Tiger, Lila's first victim who turned her onto LSD. The song was performed by Lynn Harper, who had once been a country western singer, as well as an actress on classic sitcom MY THREE SONS and the biopic THE CHRISTINE JORGENSON STORY. She has worn a lot of hats since, including radio personality, talk show host, and newspaper columnist, and these days frequently shows up as a commentator on CNN and MSNBC. When I asked her, Harper did confirm that she and the "Lila" singer were one and the same, and that while under a recording contract to Gene Autry, she was sometimes required to record songs for films. She even attended the film's premiere, and was greatly impressed that she not only received screen credit, but credit in all of the advertisements, as well.
The script was written by Sanford White, whose only other credits are 1967's FREE LOVE CONFIDENTIAL (writer and producer) and 1970's THE ART OF GENTLE PERSUASION (director). Director William Rotsler, on the other hand, seems to have lived a life big enough that even a book couldn't hold it all. He grew up on a ranch, participated in WWII, attended a year of college, went to art school, became a sculptor, became a nudie photographer, helped Marilyn Monroe shop for a house, appeared in films, began making industrial films (for Carnation, Mattel, Lockheed, etc), began making feature films, began writing non-fiction books (Contemporary Erotic Cinema
), began writing fiction, began writing licensed material (for Marvel Comics and Star Trek
, among others) and novelizations (The A-Team
, Grease 2
, and even Joanie Loves Chachi
!), and wrote for, drew for, and published fanzines. He published more than 50 books, titled Harlan Ellison's famous short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", supplied Uhura from Star Trek
with a first name, was nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo awards, and I have barely even scratched the surface. He was the sort of person who alters pop culture from beneath the surface, so you are familiar with him without even knowing it. He also brought us movies like AGONY OF LOVE (1966), THE GIRL WITH THE HUNGRY EYES (1967), SUBURBAN PAGANS (1968), THE GODSON (1971), and STREET OF A THOUSAND PLEASURES (1972). He passed away in 1997 at the age of 71, but left behind an epic and expansive body of work.
LILA is also known as MANTIS IN LACE, and was released in at least two different theatrical versions—one capitalizing more on the sex, and one capitalizing more on the violence. The version appearing on the Something Weird DVD release appears to combine elements of both, and is said to be the most complete version available. Included as a bonus feature are outtakes and unused footage that runs longer than the film itself, so an industrious superfan could theoretically piece together an extended fan edit that would defy all comprehension.
If you are that superfan, please send me a copy.
In 1991, aspiring filmmaker Kelly Hughes began production on his very own horror-suspense anthology series entitled HEART ATTACK THEATRE, which aired on Seattle’s public access television. The schedule was a rushed one, from script-to-broadcast in one week’s time, and the budgets were decidedly limited. What was not
limited, however, was the passion and dedication needed to crank out a new mini-movie week after week. Shot on VHS and utilizing a rotating roster of local performers, the themes ranged from drugged-up freak-outs to psychotic breaks, but each one was down and dirty exploitation. If John Waters was Rod Serling, then this would be THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
Hughes also went on to direct a couple of feature films—TWIN CHEEKS: WHO KILLED THE HOMECOMING KING (1994) and LA CAGE AUX ZOMBIES (1995), the latter of which featured Russ Meyer starlet Kitten Natividad as an obscenely large-busted victim that unwillingly supplied a pair of cross-dressing zombies with breast milk. That’s a sentence that pretty much sums up the nuttiness that runs rampant in Hughes’s work.
HEART ATTACK! THE EARLY PULSE POUNDING CINEMA OF KELLY HUGHES functions as both a documentary and a retrospective of the man’s filmography. Composed almost equally of talking-head interviews with those in the know and clips from his films, this was an utterly fascinating look into a side of moviemaking that rarely gets attention: not the Major Studios like Universal or Sony; not the Major Minors like Full Moon or Troma; but the real
minors, the true
independent that exists solely because the creative force behind it is simply too determined to quit.
Full disclosure: I had never heard of Kelly Hughes before watching this doc, and I had certainly never seen any of his movies. But now? Now I want to see every single one of them, so I would have to say that this was a success. HEART ATTACK! was fascinating, entertaining, and more than a little inspirational. This was truly one of the most special films I have seen in a long time.
If you’re a fan of cult, horror, exploitation, or micro-budget cinema—and especially if you hope to someday create your own—this is the best piece of advice that I can offer you:
Visit Kelly Hughes's webpage by clicking HERE
, and rent/purchase a digital copy of the documentary HERE
(Special thanks to Kelly Hughes for the screener)