World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.
There are three Roger Cormans. The first Corman is the director Corman. Working primarily at American International Pictures, young Corman was famous for being able to crank out competent, successful films on time and under budget with a surprising consistency. Although Corman’s name is often associated with drive-in schlock, in my opinion most of what he made was, at the worst, adequate for the intended purpose of entertaining the teenagers. And on occasion, Corman directed some genuine classics of genre cinema. His Poe films with Vincent Price, for example, are some of the best Gothic horror films you’ll find.
Blue Movie Blackmail is known by a variety of names, the original being Si può essere più bastardi dell’ispettore Cliff? My Italian is nonexistent and Google Translate isn’t exactly helpful (“It may be more bastards Inspector Cliff?”), but I think the general gist of the name is something like ‘Is anyone more of a bastard than Inspector Cliff?’ When eventually looped into English (in a few cases by the Anglo cast themselves) it was released in the USA as the somewhat baffling Mafia Junction and in Britain as the rather more accurate Blue Movie Blackmail. It does also have the distinction of being shot mostly in London, so I may be able to relate some interesting titbits as a resident of these parts.
You know how some people say if they go back in time and do it all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing? Well, I’m not one of those people. I would do a ridiculous number of things differently and space-time paradoxes be damned. Among the things I’d do differently, especially if I quantum leapt back to around 1986 or so, would be to tell myself not to be such a smug, condescending dickweed my then newly discovered punk rock lifestyle. But what can you do? I was fourteen and high on self-righteous non-conformist fury, certain beyond any sense of doubt that I had it right and everyone else was a poseur or mindless drone. And nothing set me off with a more fiery passion than when some dreg of mainstream entertainment dared play at having some sort of punk rock street cred. They thing they understand my world? Let me take you down to my world, baby, and show you what life on the wicked streets of Buckner, Kentucky is really like.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
Oh Death Spa, what have you done? All those years I spent bad-mouthing slasher films from the 1980s, then you go and immediately make yourself one of my all-time favorite horror films by being one of the most cracked, absurd examples of horror film making one is likely to stumble across. It’s probably because you actually have less to do with the American slasher films that permeated the horror scene during that prolific decade and instead can count yourself the peer of batshit insane Italian horror films from the same decade. You are less Jason Vorhees and Friday the 13th and more Lamberto Bava and Demons. I loved you when in the first five minutes you gave me Ken Foree in micro-shorts, full frontal nudity, and attempted murder by steam room. But then you just kept piling absurdity on top of insanity, so that by the time we got to the frozen flying eel, I was willing to pledge my very soul to you.
As we entered the 1980s and the dawn of the Reagan Years, we didn’t have much to worry about. Other than a recession, the ramping up of terrorism in the Middle East, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets, and people popping the collars on their Polo shirts, things were pretty cool. With nothing to occupy our national sense of anxiety, we retreated into the realm of made-up, silly crap over which to fret and wring our hands nervously. The primary focus of our societal outrage and terror: heavy metal music. And more specifically, the role Ol’ Gooseberry played in its popularity. America’s collective hysteria over Satan and his sinister ability to seduce impressionable youths and bohemians into the folds of his cloven arms began in the late 1960s when hippies started dabbling in Occultism, witchcraft, sex magick and the occasional murder of Sharon Tate.
If exploitation cinema can be traced to a single wellspring from which all its filth and fury flows, an argument can be made that said wellspring is Dwain Esper. Writer, producer, director, and all around impresario, Esper may not have made the first exploitation film. The silent era was rife with exploitation and sleaze, usually masquerading under a flimsy veneer of “cautionary tale,” like 1913’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. I’d be willing to go to the mat, however, in defense of Esper’s position as the godfather of the exploitation industry as we know it today. His impact goes far beyond being a mere director. Working with fellow exploitation godfather Louis Sonney (father of exploitation cinema legend Dan Sonney), Esper helped establish the network of theaters and concept of regional circuits that served as the foundation for the exploitation film. From burlesque to motion picture to roadshow, Esper had a hand in all of it, and for that, his name should be forever enshrined as one of the true pioneers in the history of the motion picture (it’s not). But even if he’d never done any of that, even if all he’d ever done is direct Maniac — known also by the slightly less sensation title of Sex Maniac — he would still deserve to go on the Mount Rushmore of strange film. Incidentally, the Mount Rushmore of strange film is located in an abandoned central Florida amusement park, and it’s made of fiberglass.
This is another one of those fragmented movie memories for me, where the only thing I could remember about it was “Amanda Pays turns into a fish” — and even that I eventually convinced myself happened in Leviathan. But when I rewatched Leviathan and discovered that Amanda Pays does not turn into a fish at any point, protected as she was by the power of Peter Weller’s rolled bandana headband, I knew I had to figure out which film it was where she did turn into a fish. Luckily, you type “Amanda Pays turns” into Google, and the first auto-complete that comes up is “Amanda Pays turns into a fish.” Internet, you are truly a good friend. So anyway, it turns out it was The Kindred, and since I was on a fishy underwater monster movie kick and couldn’t remember anything about this one, I decided to track it down (surprisingly difficult) and see what else happens besides the woman who dated both The Flash and Max Headroom turning into a fish. Turns out not much.
In 2002, I had the possibly once in a lifetime chance to spend an entire summer driving across the United States. My traveling partner and I were able to indulge every whim, sometimes diverting wildly from our vaguely set course in order to visit some out of the way attraction or satisfy some curiosity or whim. Among the many things we both enjoyed was visiting air and space museums. Some we had targeted ahead of time. Others we learned about along the way. Some we stumbled upon entirely by chance out in the relative middle of nowhere. We were, at one point, making our way across Kansas after having already stumbled upon the Mid-America Air Museum in Liberal. We hit a town called Hutchinson, and as we made our way through caught a glimpse in the distance of a couple rockets. Obviously further investigation was warranted, and that in turn led us to The Cosmosphere. By this point in our travels, we’d hit more air and space museums than I can remember off the top of my head, and though I was not tiring of them (who can get enough Ham the space chimp? No one I’d want to know, that’s who), what made Cosmosphere one of the best was that a substantial portion of the museum was dedicated to the Soviet space program.