Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 4, 2015
We all know what February brings at Turner Classic Movies: “31 Days of Oscar Malarkey.” (Quoted from memory – that may not be the actual phrase.) Yep, nothing but award winners for four solid weeks. Don’t get me wrong — awarding-winning films are great and some of my favorites took home a statuette or two in their day. I watch CITIZEN KANE (1941) and CASABLANCA (1942) with the regularity of guilty pleasures and I’m just as apt to get jiggy with BABETTE’S FEAST (1987) as BLOOD FEAST (1963)… but in clearing space for all of these classics, TCM has asked TCM Underground to make itself scarce for a while. Tune in at midnight this Saturday night and you’ll be looking at MRS. MINIVER (1942) and THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) where ROLLER BOOGIE (1977) and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) might normally hang. And, okay, fine — that gives us all the opportunity to head on over to Svengoolie’s place without feeling as though we’re cheating on TCM but, man, it’s tough not having access to our regular clubhouse. So as we bide our time, and because I now have nothing to blog about for four weeks, I present to you my Totally Kickass TCM Underground Wish List. But first, a disclaimer:
Because I know how hard the TCM Underground programmer works to bring us all the finest of bizarre, offbeat, disreputable titles that Off-Hollywood has to offer (and we saw some real rarities last month, didn’t we?), I want to affirm that this wish list is merely the echo of my fluttering heart. This is just me thinking out loud about the kinds of movies I would love to see get the TCM Underground treatment. Please give these ramblings the same credibility as you would drunk texting. Anyway, in no particular order…
1. SHOOT (1976). Director Harvey Hart was a Canadian who enjoyed a measure of success in Hollywood in the 60s and 70s, where he helmed the cool surfside drama THE SWEET RIDE (1968) and the busted TV pilot turned theatrical release THE DARK INTRUDER (1965), plus a lot of episodic TV (STAR TREK, THE WILD WILD WEST, MOD SQUAD, THE NAME OF THE GAME, MANNIX, COLUMBO) before returning to his native Toronto to make such beguiling features as THE PYX (1973) and this adaptation of the Douglas Fairbain novel. It’s the tale of bored, middle-aged, ex-military men (Cliff Robertson, Henry Silva, Ernest Borgnine) who get into a skirmish while at their weekend hunting lodge with Saturday shooters from another
2. RITUALS (1977). Actually, you could program a whole festival of “Canuxploitation” and I’d be over the moon. What a great time it was to be a filmmaker in Canada, when tax loopholes were employed to bang out one grimy grindhouse picture after another. David Cronenberg’s career rose out of that era and his early, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)-inspired RABID (1976) remains my favorite of his movies. I’d be hard-pressed to select even ten Canadian exploitation pictures to show, that’s how many great ones there are, but top of my list would be Peter Carter’s RITUALS (1977). Most often fobbed off as a DELIVERANCE (1972) rip-off, RITUALS is something altogether different; not an examination of modern man’s place in this wild world, as was the John Boorman film, but rather a parable about the complicated nature of healing and atonement. A group of doctor friends (Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, and Gary Reineke) head out on their annual getaway, this time to a remote patch of Canadian woodland (“Two hundred twenty two air miles from the nearest cathouse”) known as The Cauldron. While camping and horsing around in the middle of nowhere, submerged resentments percolate to the surface, revealing tensions that only become more pronounced when someone begins playing mean-spirited pranks on the friends — stunts that escalate from swiping their hiking boots to lobbing a buzzing hornet’s nest into camp. Shoeless and spooked, the doctors attempt to march back to civilization, finding only death and obliteration along the way. I’ve been trumpeting this movie for years and even though a decent DVD was put onto the market (long since sold out) a few years ago RITUALS still doesn’t enjoy the currency of later slasher movies that don’t do anything nearly as interesting with this formula. A movie does something rare when it provides you with protagonists you would probably dislike if you knew them personally but with whom you cannot help but side as they struggle from one challenge to the next. It’s a survivalist classic, and one that finds its citified dramatis personae learning to build fires, shelter for the night, and construct crude weapons from what is available on the land. The movie is also educational: I didn’t even know I had a popliteal artery until I saw RITUALS.
3. ORGY OF THE DEAD (1965). If you think Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE is the limit, brother you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The Wood-scripted (adapted from his own novel) ORGY OF THE DEAD is a bona fide mind-bender. It’s like an EC Comic sewn into a Tijuana Bible, a Gothic horror strip tease show in which a horror writer (William Bates) and his woman (the inimitable Pat Barrington, seen at top) crash their car while motoring through the sticks at o’dark-thirty and find themselves held prisoner in a rural cemetery while creatures from Hell prance and shimmy for the pleasure of The Emperor (Criswell) and Princess of Darkness (Fawn Silver). Now, I run with a pretty bent crowd, and always have — but even among the Psychotronic crowd I’ve gotten the most quizzical, almost betrayed looks whenever I spin ORGY OF THE DEAD. It is so off the hook, so stilted and bizarre, on top of being little more than a 90 minute burlesque show, that nobody seems to know what what to make of it. I own this on VHS and have the soundtrack CD, which has all of the dialogue — every labored syllable of Wood’s gassy, pretentious, immortal script. Oh, the quotability!
Though I treasure my ORGY OF THE DEAD soundtrack, you really have to clap eyes on this thing to believe it. The awkwardness, the cheapness, the wall to wall nudity, and the desperation of Criswell (bloated and balding a decade past PLAN 9) to remember his lines as costar Fawn Silver (why she didn’t get her own horror host gig after this is beyond my ken) stares impotently. Man, this is the stuff. I wish I could show it to you.
4. Anything starring Paul Naschy but probably WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN (1972). Paul Naschy (aka Jacinto Molina) was a Spaniard who grew up loving the Universal horror classics and devoted nearly the whole of his life to recreating them on his native turf. Though he played a wide variety of characters in his long and varied career, Naschy’s trademark character was Waldemar Daninsky, a good man cursed with lycanthropy, which earned him the shaggy sobriquet El Hombre Lobo. The actor-writer-director-producer played that character in eleven Spanish features (and one American cash-in), the best of which is arguably NOCHE DE WALPURGIS (“Walpurgis Night”) or, as it was exhibited in the States, WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN. I never get tired saying that title. This is top shelf Euro-Cult, bedecked as it is with flashy cars, stylish duds, exotic locations, and fifty shades of grue. Naschy’s tortured protagonist lives in affluent self-isolation but must bat cleanup when he shelters two comely tourists (Gaby Fuchs and Barbara Capell) unwittingly revive a long-dead lady vampire (Paty Shepard as Elizabeth Bathory, the real-life blood-bather recreated here as an immortal blood-drinker). Naschy’s werewolf makeup is pretty fierce in this and director Leon Klimovsky (who helmed the Naschyless but otherwise essential VAMPIRES’ NIGHT ORGY the following year) keeps the mix lively, throwing in the curveball of a pop-up Knights Templar-style zombie and a great dream sequence that must have had some influence, I’m fairly sure, on the Danny Glick business in Tobe Hooper’s mini series adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘SALEM’S LOT (1979).
5. LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO (TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, 1972). There are so many Spanish horror movies of the 1970s that would slot nicely into the TCM Underground grid: Jorge Grau’s inspired 1974 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) ripoff NO PROFANAR EL SUENO DE LOS MUERTOS(the title translates literally as “Do not disturb the sleep of the dead” and the film is known under a number of alternate monikers, from LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE to THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE to BREAKFAST AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE but I first saw it at the drive-in in 1975 or so as DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW), Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s extremely upsetting ¿QUIEN PUEDE MATAR A UN NINO? (1976), aka WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, aka ISLAND OF THE DAMNED, and HORROR EXPRESS (1972), aka PANICO EN EL TRANSSIBERIANO, which stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as rival British archaeologists who must save themselves and their fellow passengers from an immortal alien entity who has popped out of the fossilized skeleton of the missing link. These are all powerful films but I think my first vote for non-Naschy Spanish horror from the 1970s would be any of the “Blind Dead” films directed by Amando de Ossorio. They constitute a cycle of four: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1972), RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD (1973), GHOST GALLEON/HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES (1974), and NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS (1975). The movies’ army of eyeless skeleton blood-drinkers are, so the mythology goes, the undead Knights Templar, erstwhile Crusaders who lapsed to the worship of Satan while doing God’s work abroad. There’s a sameness to the movies that is actually key to their charm: unwitting regular folk stumble onto Templar territory and get chased and terrorized and cut to ribbons. There are eerie similarities shared by TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD and John Carpenter’s THE FOG, among them dusty, sword-brandishing revenants stamping the terra and one of their victims rising zombie-like from the morgue for no earthly reason. I saw this at the movies as a boy and it has really stayed with me. Being eyeless, the Blind Dead can only catch you if you make noise – what more perfect monster to bedevil noisy children?
6. MATANGO (1965). Man, did this movie ever mess me up when I first clapped eyes upon it late one night in my grandparents’ Bronx living room. It played stateside on television as ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE and for this reason I avoided mushrooms for like thirty years afterwards, certain eating them would cause fungal eruptions all over my body. Directed by GOJIRA/GODZILLA (1954) man Ishiro Honda, MATANGO is super spooky, exquisitely beautiful, and entirely unforgettable. A yacht-load of swells washes up on a seemingly deserted atoll in the South Pacific; as the group struggles to adapt to their environment and survive, environment and psychology work to split them into factions, while mysterious, misshapen figures seem to haunt the decks and passageways of a rusted-out schooner in which the castaways have taken shelter. If you love jungle movies, as I do, and zombie movies, and ghost ship movies, then MATANGO is the full Monty and would pair with a number of other likeminded films, from Hammer’s THE LOST CONTINENT (1968) to Ken Wiederhorn’s underwater Nazi classic SHOCK WAVES (1977)… though you might also consider a Nipponese double shot and fold in Hajime Sato’s equally vibrant and disturbing KYUKETSUKI GOKEMIDORO (aka GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL, 1968), which is about a plane crash in a strange, strange land and the effects of the blasted terra on the survivors. Both of these films feature great use of old school miniatures which are the heart and soul, to my eyes anyway, of movie magic.
7. ORGY OF THE LIVING DEAD: A TRIPLE AVALANCHE OF GRISLY HORROR (1972). I vividly remember the TV ads for this roadshow triple bill of then-old horror movies recut and retitled for fresh cinematic exhibition in 1972. (I was tape recording some program off of TV one night before bedtime and caught this ad, which I continued to replay for myself in the solitude of my bedroom for years afterward.) What we have here are condensed versions of Mario Bava’s OPERAZIONE PAURA (aka KILL, BABY… KILL, 1964, revivied as CURSE OF THE LIVING DEAD), Elio Scardamaglia’s hospital whodunit LA LAMPA NEL CORPO (THE MURDER CLINIC 1966, rechristened REVENGE OF THE LIVING DEAD), and Amando de Ossorio’s MALENKA (1969) starring Anita Ekberg (and rebranded FANGS OF THE LIVING DEAD). It was a genius ad campaign created by renaissance man Alan Ormsby the same year he wrote and starred in Bob Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and wrote DEATHDREAM, which we showed here a few weeks back. Many of us who had the great fortune to catch this campaign as unsuspecting children will never forget the special note of terror it struck in our tender young hearts. Obviously, this is pie-in-the-sky wish-making, done in complete ignorance of the logistics of acquisition and programming. But what’s an underground for, if not to inspire one to reach for the sky?
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