With a few exceptions scattered throughout the past hundred years or so of feature filmmaking, the French never really embraced the horror film. Instead, drawing from a literary tradition capped by the writing of Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, the French response to what we in the United States (and Britain, and Italy, and Japan, and…well, most of the world) define as horror was cinema fantastique. Certainly it had elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, but more traditionally recognizable characteristics of horror were mixed into a dreamy mist that also included romance, science fiction, mystery, and melodrama all spun with a disregard for logical narrative structure and progression in favor of a dreamlike (or nightmare) quality. It did not matter if one scene connected to the next, or if there was a rational explanation for a particular image or action. That was not the point. The language of cinema is vast, figured directors working within this nebulous genre of cinema fantastique, and the idea that film has to conform to a particular structure or style or storytelling — or that it need tell any story at all — is tragically limiting. Of the many films that make up the body of cinema fantastique, few have developed an enduring reputation, good and bad, quite like Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage, aka Eyes without a Face.
Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy was Russia’s less internationally known Tolstoy. While the one was writing thousand-page tomes about sad people losing things (pretty sure that’s the plot of most Leo Tolstoy books) that would be forced upon generation after generation, the other Tolstoy was writing slick science fiction adventures like Aelita (1923, adapted into a movie a year later), Engineer Garin (1924), and Count Cagliostro, which American high school students did not get to read, since there was no time left after plodding through Anna Karenina — in which absolutely no one travels to Mars, builds a death ray, or practices alchemy. To be fair to Leo Tolstoy though, it’s been twenty-six years since I read Anna Karenina, and all I really remember is a chapter where two rivals for the love of the title character retire to a nearby barn to try and outdo one another in feats of gymnastic prowess, and I may even be getting that wrong. In fact, I think much of what I remember of Anna Karenina is actually Great Expectations. I am, however, quite certain there was no death ray.
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.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a cheap and lazy starring vehicle for Martin and Lewis copycats Duke Mitchell (yes, the same Duke Mitchell who later went on to make Massacre Mafia Style) and Sammy Petrillo (yes, the same Sammy Petrillo who later went on to star in Doris Wishman’s Keyholes are for Peeping). And as you might guess from the title, Bela Lugosi shows up (though he barely seems cognisant of the fact) to earn himself a little more morphine money and does indeed encounter a gorilla from — but not in — Brooklyn. I’d been hearing for years how awful Brooklyn Gorilla was from people possessed of substantial strength when it comes to tackling the very worst cinema has to offer.