H.P. Lovecraft may not be one of the best writers in the world, but he’s certainly one of the most fun to read — not to mention imitate. For this reason, I got it in my head that it would be a great idea to read The Dunwich Horror aloud to my wife. She not only loves to be scared, but is so committed to the endeavor that she’s even on occasion been willing to meet Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror movies halfway. That’s a perfect attitude to bring to Lovecraft, in my opinion, because he’s an author you really need to be willing to work with. In cracking open one of his stories, you’re making an implicit agreement to be scared; otherwise it’s just not going to work. Of course, Lovecraft does his part to help you along in that regard, always letting you know exactly how afraid you’re supposed to be, even when the object of that fear remains somewhat sketchily defined, and also modeling the desired behavior by populating his stories with characters who launch into paroxysms of terror at the faintest fetid odor.
In 1960, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror and one of the best Gothic horror films from any country. Although more sedate and slower paced, finally the United States had an answer to the wild, Technicolor horror films from England’s Hammer Studio.
The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college edukation to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I was able to point at the screen and exclaim, “Der, that can’t not happen! Har!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot, and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.
Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of those six-to-eight year-old boy might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market, and, as such, seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent Sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces–ideally portrayed by a bunch of green plastic army men–in all-out warfare… beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.
Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in many cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)
In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out–seemingly at monthly intervals–a large number of competent but unremarkable B crime thrillers, and also worked in British television. Similarly, writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews, for his part, was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack the Giant Killer–though it was possibly his work in eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here–and leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guaranty that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.
Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble–at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude–a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, obviously over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.
Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore, an old family friend, to visit her brother in the brain hospital. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore, but does show him a “seismographic drawing”–made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.
Part of that further looking into involves Shore visiting his buddy Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film… and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).
The barking of terse commands into red phones is not just noteworthy in itself, of course, but also because it results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect in their slice of the country–at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super duper important–so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.
It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Still, if fun is being made, Battle Beneath the Earth is doing a superhuman job of feigning stone-faced earnestness throughout, never once tipping its hat or giving the audience the slightest glimmer of a wink.
Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop, who, of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, probably makes the largest blip on the radar screens of Teleport City’s readers. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop–perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice–that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live action series, UFO — if not the best, than certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the Sixties.
Anyway, Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up Champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where, while exploring a disused section, he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel whose walls have apparently been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers. This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high intensity lasers. (These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires.) They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.
At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius Dr. Kengh Lee and his key military aid Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.
Now, as far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciating inscrutability. Major Chai, also, is played by a British actor, David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.
By the way, out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings a twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man) and I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.
Now I have to mention here that I will be describing things in Battle Beneath the Earth that will sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate. To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I should call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations, and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns and a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott (which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit).
Similarly, the high tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way, but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)
So, with all that in mind, let’s return to the business of plot synopsis. After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an Atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.
After this failure, team USA gets the jump on Chan Lu thanks to that aforementioned “condition silent” business, and are able to create a brightly-lit wall map showing the locations of his tunnels. Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano, and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen year old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence, and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color, and has a strange vocal inflection that sounds like it’s half accent and half speech impediment which I found a little distracting at times.
Anyway, it is in the bowels of the Earth below that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stands naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.
For all its failings, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate. In my case, this is partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it (though, of course, with much lower production values). In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.
The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.
Release Year: 1967 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Vivienne Ventura, Ed Bishop, Peter Arne, Martin Benson, Peter Elliott, Robert Ayres, Al Mulock, Earl Cameron, John Brandon, Bill Nagy, Paula Li Shiu | Writer: Charles F. Vetter (as L.Z. Hargreaves) | Director: Montgomery Tully | Cinematographer: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ken Jones
You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump
That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor‘s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.
Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.
Though an “A” picture in its time (it was produced at DeMille’s own studio in Culver City for a cost of $722,000), The Godless Girl bares all the hallmarks of a classic exploitation picture, in that it boasts sensational content housed within the legitimizing framework of social concern. This is not to say that DeMille was disingenuous in that concern — as we’ll see, he put a good deal of effort into insuring the accuracy of the film’s didactic content. He was, however, an entertainer first and foremost, and a crusader somewhere below that, and it would have been a betrayal of his instincts to not present the lurid details of his expose in a manner as thrilling to his audience as possible. That said, those parts of The Godless Girl dedicated to presenting the harrowing conditions of Coolidge-era reform schools might come off as tame to those steeped in the conventions of modern prison movies (in my case, for instance, the last reform school movie I watched subjected its inmates to depradations that would have made Pasolini blush).
The incident that inspired The Godless Girl was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1927 and involved the discovery, on the campus of L.A.’s Hollywood High School, of pamphlets for an atheist student group. Tensions subsequently erupted between Christian-identified students at the school and those associated with the group, leading to a noisome confrontation at one of the group’s off-campus meetings. DeMille and his regular scenarist, Jeanie Macpherson, set out to blueprint a film based on this event and, somewhere along the line, also decided that said film should serve as an expose of the nation’s juvenile reformatories. To this end, DeMille commissioned six month’s worth of research on the topic that involved extensive interviews and information gathering, and even extended to him hiring a young woman to go undercover as an inmate in one such institution. This resulted in DeMille being able to make the claim that, no matter how titillatingly brutal the depictions of reform school life in his film might be, they were all based on documented facts and eyewitness accounts.
As fascinating as The Godless Girl is for being a sort of proto-youth-behind-bars movie, for me its real interest lies in the atheism-themed hijinks of its first act. Given DeMille’s Christian preoccupations, we — looking back upon the film from these ostensibly more enlightened and tolerant times — might expect The Godless Girl to demonize and vilify those who would renounce God. But the surprising fact is that, while DeMille certainly doesn’t advocate the atheist position, he takes pains to present zealotry on the part of the film’s believers as being equally divisive and intolerant as that of the atheist students. In addition, he clearly takes the position that the apparent ferocity of these beliefs, as expressed by his characters on either side, is merely the product of youthful enthusiasm, and in no way cancels out those characters’ essential decency (and certainly doesn’t make them deserving of the punishment that is meted out to them). The end effect is of a plea for calm and understanding, as if DeMille is trying to assure the adult America of 1929 that, yes, the kids really are alright — and, as such, it’s an authoritative, mitigating voice that no doubt would have served the country well during the many youth-focused hysterias that would sweep it during the generations to come.
The film begins with high school student Judy (Lina Basquette), the leader of the atheistic Godless Society, distributing fliers throughout the school for one of the group’s upcoming meetings. These fliers, displaying a gift for deft rhetoric sure to win many converts among the Christ-preferring members of the student body, read “Join the Godless Society – KILL THE BIBLE!” Predictably, much uproar and consternation ensues among both the students and faculty, not the least on the part of young Bob, the president of the student body and one of the school’s most outspoken mouthpieces for imposingly waspy piousness. Bob is portrayed by a ruthlessly handsome young actor named George Duryea, who would not long after enjoy considerable success as a cowboy star under the name Tom Keene — a somewhat vanilla career lived out between the exotic bookends of this film at its beginning and Keene’s role as Col. Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space at its close. Interestingly, despite their mutually-antagonizing viewpoints, there are obvious sparks of attraction between Judy and Tom, and Judy even appears to get noticeably turned on by the righteous fury that Tom beams in her direction. Of course, given that DeMille was more of a “big picture” director who left actors to their own devices, this randyness on Judy’s part could easily have been a result less of the text than of the inclinations of the particular actress assigned to play her.
In Keith’s review of The White Hell of Piz Palu, he remarked upon how the naturalism of the acting in that film contrasted with what one would typically expect from a silent film of its day. Lina Basquette, on the other hand, provides pretty much exactly what one would expect — and, if she doesn’t, it is perhaps by dint of her performance being anachronistic even for its time. Eye bulging, breast heaving, and elaborate, spidery hand gestures are her best friends here, sometimes to the extent that she is at odds with the other cast members, none of whom are slouches in the histrionics department themselves. On top of that, when called upon to express any type of passionate feeling on the part of her character — be it ideological fervor, furious indignation, or what-have-you — Basquette seems to fall back upon an exaggerated carnality as her guiding principle. And, lord knows, no one can express exaggerated carnality like a silent movie actress. After all, while the relaxed standards of later eras may have allowed actors to do and say nasty things, these actresses were required to exude nastiness on a molecular level. In the case of Basquette, this overheated comportment — along with the corresponding reaction to it on the part of George Duryea — gives the distinct impression that much pain could have been avoided had Judy and Bob dedicated those energies spent on petty religious squabbling to what was actually on their minds. Again, whether this was DeMille’s intention is another matter, but it still provides The Godless Girl with an amusingly steamy little subtext, accidental or not.
Anyway, the fateful evening finally arrives, and it is time for the Godless Society’s meeting, held “in a shabby hall on a squalid street… where little rebels blow spitballs at the rock of ages”. (Anyone who holds up silent films as an example of purely visual storytelling is forgetting just how much editorializing tended to sneak its way into the title cards.) It’s during this scene that we’re put on notice that the film’s sober subject matter is not seen by DeMille as necessarily requiring sober treatment — a rude wakeup call delivered by the comic relief stylings of Judy and Bob’s classmate Bozo Johnson (Mack Sennett regular Eddie Quinlan), who, over the course of this sequence, will do several pratfalls and have a monkey run up his pants leg. This monkey, of course, is part of Judy’s characteristically fiery presentation to the group, and is introduced to the assembled blasphemers as “your cousin” — a reference that was probably pretty edgy at the time, given that the Scopes trial was a very recent memory. Despite this scandalous talk, the Society’s meeting is clearly being conducted in an orderly manner, and well within the limits of the law. This places in unflattering contrast the actions of Bob, who shows up at the meeting with his own sizeable God squad in tow, all of whom come armed with crates of rotten eggs and are obviously spoiling for a fight. They get it, of course — after a brief stand-off, during which the devout demand that the meeting be shut down and Judy stands her ground — and soon the scuffle devolves into a full scale melee, at its height spilling out onto the rickety stairwell outside the meeting room.
The multi-leveled set that represents the stairwell is a truly impressive construction, and in this scene is the setting for the first of two breathtaking set pieces that bookend The Godless Girl‘s action. (If you thought that the subject matter of this film would put a damper on DeMille’s predilection for spectacle, you were wrong.) The frantically battling crowd ends up surging out along the entire length of the structure like one giant writhing mass, causing the railings to bulge ominously with their weight. Finally, an unintentional shove from Bozo sends one of the Godless Society’s young female members — identified in the credits only as “The Victim” (Mary Jane Irving) — plummeting from the uppermost landing to her death. DeMille makes the interesting choice of shooting the girl’s fall from her perspective, and presenting it as playing out unnaturally slowly, so that we see the horrified faces of the kids lined up along the stairway watching her as she passes (perhaps affording The Victim the opportunity to say a few quick goodbyes to her friends among the crowd as she goes by — though, since it was shot from her POV, I couldn’t tell you if she was waving or not.)
Once The Victim finally touches down, a distraught Judy rushes to take her in her arms. Asked by the dying girl for reassurance that there really is something on the other side after all, Judy is only able to deliver a series of deliriously overwrought facial expressions. Fortunately, there is a kindly old cop on hand to tell the girl — in a soothing Irish brogue, I imagine — that the J Man is indeed awaiting her arrival with open arms and, probably, a gift bag of some kind, after which the child blissfully shuffles off this mortal coil. With the crime established, and the law present, it is now time for Judy and Bob, as the instigators of the riot — along with Bozo, for his apparent part in the girl’s accident — to be carted off to the youth reformatory.
The reformatory — represented by a surprisingly convincing set constructed by designer Mitchell Leisen on DeMille’s back lot — is a bleak, castle-like structure of brick and mortar with an electrified fence neatly bisecting its yard to separate the male and female inmate populations — a clear visual reference to the divisions wrought by intolerance and zealotry that DeMille is seeking to decry. Here, Judy and Bob, obviously upper middle class kids accustomed to a not inconsiderable amount of creature comforts, step up to the hard slap in the face that the institution’s harsh, military style of discipline has to offer them. For Judy, of course (being, you know, a girl, and all) the first insults are the unflattering haircut and the sack-like clothing (though, I’ve got to say that the hats look oddly fashionable), followed by the lack of privacy and the frequent dressing downs from the shrewish wardens. For Bob, the Civil War-like uniforms and the borderline-emo asymmetrical shearing he gets are also an issue, but are no doubt eclipsed by the frequent, enthusiastic beatings he receives.
Fortunately for Bob, he’s not alone in his confinement, because Bozo is right there with him — which, actually, upon consideration, has got to be nearly as awful for Bob as it is for us. So Judy is clearly the winner here. However, she also ends up with a friend and confidante on the inside: a tough talking, Bible-toting blonde by the name of Mame. Mame is played by Marie Prevost, an actress who is likely known to readers of Teleport City more for having the ignominious circumstances of her death immortalized in song by Nick Lowe than for any of her actual screen performances. It seems that the talkies were not kind to Marie, and, in January of 1937, a lethal combination of anorexia and severe alcoholism lead to her death from malnutrition at the age of 38. As legend has it, some few days passed before her body was discovered, and when it was, the cadaver showed signs of being the subject of some postmortem noshing on the part of Marie’s pet dachshund. Contrary to that legend, the police report at the time indicated that the bite marks were assumed to be the result of the dog trying to rouse Marie, rather than eat her. But being that consumption of humans by domestic animals has always been such a favored subject of popular song, Lowe couldn’t resist that spin, and so, in his song “Marie Provost”, blessed the world with that evergreen couplet, “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner.” (As much of a fan as I am of Lowe — and that song, for that matter — I must say that I think it’s a little raw that, while making light of Marie’s pathetic demise, the singer didn’t even bother to get her name right.) Those sad facts aside, we can here enjoy Marie in her heyday. And I’m happy the report that, as the movie’s representative tough cookie, she’s blessed with all the best, colloquialism-riddled lines, variably referring to her fellow inmates as “Mama”, “Sister” and “Bimbo” while striking all manner of slouchy bad girl poses.
Back on Bob’s side of the fence, we see that one time-honored prison movie convention really is, in fact, time-honored, and that the boys’ wing of the reformatory comes complete with a sadistic head guard, billed only as “The Brute” and played by perennial silent movie heavy Noah Beery. In classic fashion, a battle of wills breaks out between Bob and The Brute, with Bob’s spirited refusal to be broken resulting in ever more severe beatings, blastings with the fire hose, and unwarranted stints in solitary. The Brute even delivers a crippling beat-down to Bozo, which, admittedly, is kind of awesome. Meanwhile, Bob and Judy’s separation has allowed for the nature of their true feelings for one another to dawn upon them, leading to a furtive tryst at the electrified fence. The Brute, unfortunately, is a witness to this meeting and, seeing it as an opportunity to forge new frontiers in bastardry, turns up the juice on the fence just as the two lovers are clasping onto its wires and gazing at each other longingly. Being that electrified fences are notoriously unsubtle, this incident leaves Judy with identical burns on each palm in the shape of a cross, something she chooses to see as a “sign” of some kind — probably related in some way to Jesus, and perhaps having something to do with the fact that she’s been making a halting journey toward Christian belief ever since setting foot within the reformatory walls.
Eventually an opportunity for escape arises when Bob gets the drop on The Beast during a scuffle in the solitary block. After locking the monstrous guard in one of the cells, Bob disguises himself as a laundry cart driver, collects Judy, and flees with her into the countryside beyond the reformatory gates. A brief, idyllic interlude follows in which the lovers enjoy their newfound appreciation for the simple fruits of freedom and the beauty of the open landscape before them. Both, we see, have undergone a shift in their beliefs during their confinement, with Bob coming to question his faith just as Judy is coming to embrace it, and the result is that each is now able to see and respect the other’s position free from the distorting influence of dogma. It’s a development that seems to indicate some confusion on the part of DeMille as to what his message is exactly, since the very harsh conditions that he’s decrying appear to be what has brought about the attitude of humility and tolerance that he is simultaneously making a plea for.
Of course, Bob and Judy’s liberty is short lived, and they are soon recaptured and returned to their prison, setting the stage for The Godless Girl‘s apocalyptic finale — a spectacular fire that consumes the reformatory as Bob struggles to free Judy, who is shackled to her bunk in a solitary cell. The fire effect here is achieved by the most analog means possible — i.e. by lighting the set on fire and forcing the obviously-in-real-peril-actors to struggle their way through it while being pelted by huge pieces of flaming debris from all sides. By reports, DeMille seemed to get a bit of a kick out of putting his actor in harm’s way like this, and was known to berate them when they objected to the notion of being killed in pursuit of his vision. Callous? Perhaps — but, hey, you sure can’t argue with the results. It’s a really riveting sequence, and you certainly have no trouble buying the looks of abject terror that play over the faces of Basquette and Duryea as it plays out.
Though our modern eyes might see The Godless Girl as containing, at best, the makings of a solid “B” type feature, DeMille clearly saw himself as making an epic, and the resulting two hour-plus running time of the original cut might come across to most as spreading the movie’s content just a tad too thin. Its final acts, after all, are largely comprised of prison movie tropes that have become all too familiar in the ensuing years — and the interest they hold pales in comparison to both the juicy subject matter and surprising even-handedness presented in the film’s opening moments. You have to wonder what this movie might have been like had DeMille not gotten distracted by his reformist crusade and instead tried to plot out a path to understanding between Judy and Bob that was less dependent on drastic dramatic interventions like sudden death and imprisonment. Chances are that, at the very least, audiences of today would get a clearer picture than the one hinted at of what popular attitudes regarding these — amazingly — still controversial issues were during the picture’s day. It’s a common assumption that attitudes in eras previous to ours were by their nature less “modern” than our own, even though the reality of our current era often renders that notion ridiculous. In light of that, The Godless Girl — just like any high school teacher worth his or her salt — might handily reminds us of the perils that lurk within the word “Assume”.
Release Year: 1929 | Country: United States | Starring: Lina Basquette, Tom Keene (as George Duryea), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quinlan, Mary Jane Irving | Writer: Jeanie Macpherson | Director: Cecil B. DeMille | Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley | Producer: Cecil B. DeMille