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.
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).
We here at Teleport City are no strangers to sword and sorcery films, and chances are, if you are here reading this, neither are you. In the 1980s, when I was going through my formative years and had a friend with satellite TV (back when that meant you had a huge NASA sized satellite in your back yard), I don’t think there was any genre we loved more. That’s because the sword and sorcery movies of the 1980s are perhaps the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind that a ten-year-old boy could ever hope for. Yes, yes, I know. Ten year old boys were too young to watch such filth. We were also too young to read Heavy Metal magazine, know who Sylvia Kristel was, and have opinions about the best Playmates. Get with the times, ya squares. Sword and sorcery movies were great because not only could you stay up late and watch the R-rated ones, but even the PG ones were full of everything we wanted: monsters, gore, and big-boobed chicks wearing tiny fur bikinis, if they were wearing anything at all. And if that represents the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind, then the movie Sorceress represents a sort of cask strength version of that particular spirit. Because Sorceress asks the question, “Sure, what if you had all that, but also the heroes are hot, naked twins?”
Granted, Barbarians asked that same question, but it answered with twin bodybuilders Peter and David Paul. They aren’t really my type. My taste in lads runs to leaner and more athletic rather than big ‘n’ beefy. But Sorceress… now Sorceress answered the question in the curvaceous forms of Leigh and Lynette Harris, twin sisters from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who appeared together in Playboy magazine and then continued to appear together in the imaginations of lascivious young lads for years to come. You should all regret that I was only ten or eleven when I first discovered their existence, because had I had my way, I would have made a pretty good movie starring them with Mary and Madeleine Collinson, the equally large-breasted, equally nude twin sisters from Hammer Films’ Twins of Evil. I think the title would have been something like Getting Naked…Lots! Also We Fight Robots. I reckon I can go ahead and throw Peter and David Paul in there as well. I’m nothing if not fair minded, after all, and Peter and David had breasts at least as big as the Collinsons and Harrises.
Honestly, I don’t think I ever saw Sorceress during its initial run on cable. I’m not sure what happened, really. It must have been on HBO at some point, sandwiched between Beastmaster, which was followed by Conan the Barbarian, then followed by Beastmaster. My friend Robby and I rarely let something this important slip through the cracks, but I guess no one is perfect. We did, however, know who Lynette and Leigh Harris were, thanks to the stack of Playboy magazine his dad kept hidden… IN THE TOY ROOM! God bless that man. Sure, he kept the harder stuff, your Oui, your Hustler, hidden in his bedroom closet, but he was understanding enough to store the Playboys right there on the metal utility shelves next to Robby’s piles of Battlestar Galactica guys and tauntauns. Good issues, running from the late 60s, through the 70s, and into the early 80s. March, 1981. They appeared in other issues, but March 1981 was the one we had. And that one I remember vividly. The “twins” issue, though for some strange reason, the centerfold was just one woman. But it was in that magazine that we discovered the buxom Harris twins. And dare I say we discovered a little something… about ourselves. I guess not knowing that the twins had also made a sword and sorcery movie was for the better. Had I seen something that awesome at that age, I might have exploded or coughed up my own skeleton.
Of course, there’s a long, sordid, and often laughable history of Playboy Playmates trying their hand at acting, which is why Playboy was happier to shell out lots of money to get established movie stars to pose nude instead. But it seems like every nude model, like every musician, really wants to be an actor (the same way every actor seems to want to record an album). And it says a lot about the acting chops of most Playboy Playmates that the most successful of them was Julie Strain. Oh wait. She was Penthouse, wasn’t she? Well, I bet she showed up in Playboy at some point. So I guess the most successful Playmate turned actress is… I don’t know. Jenny McCarthy, maybe? I suppose Anna Nicole Smith was a success in a certain way, for a little while anyway. Was Pam Anderson in Playboy? I guess so. Wow. There’s just too many of them littering the landscape to keep count. Look, to be honest, pretty much after we worked our way through the stack of from the 60s and 70s, I lost track. Playboy always had a thing for blondes, and I’ve always had a thing for brunettes and red heads. And frankly, once the era of silicone breast implants took hold, I just couldn’t relate. Pretty much all of the other Playmate-actresses crashed and burned, though Andy Sidaris did what he could to support them for a time.
But even aside from Lynette and Leigh, for the moment, Sorceress is a weirdly “important” cult movie. It was the first film for Jim Wynorski (working here as a writer), who would basically become a one-man exploitation film factory shortly thereafter. It was the last film for Jack Hill, who’s storied career as a director and writer of exploitation films included Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Spider Baby. And Roger Corman was the producer, but it was like his eight millionth movie, and there would be like another fifteen million yet to come, so that’s not as much of a milestone. I think it might have been his first producer credit for a sword and sorcery (80s style) movie, which I guess is something. But it’s not like it was for Wynorski on his way in and Hill on his way out. I wouldn’t exactly call it a passing of the torch, though.
Traigon (Mexican television actor Roberto Ballesteros) is your standard-issue sword and sorcery bad guy. He has it on good prophecy that, in order to maintain his black magic powers and control of the realm, he must sacrifice his first-born child. Unfortunately for Traigon, his wife isn’t as keen on the deal as he is, and so she flees. But even once he catches up with the wily wench, Traigon’s woes aren’t over, because his wife has given birth to twins. Traigon needs to know which one was born first, lest he knife the wrong baby, but his wife remains steadfastly stubborn in her unwillingness to make the task of infanticide easy. And since a murderous wizard warlordly type guy can’t catch a break, not only does he not know which baby was born first, but then the guy from the cover of Aqualung appears to slaughter Traigon’s minions, then slaughter Traigon himself! So, movie over, I guess? Oh no, wait. Traigon has three lives and will reincarnate again in twenty years, at which time he will presumably pick up where he left off. In order to protect the twins, the victorious old hero, Krona (Martin LaSalle, who appeared in a number of superb horror films by Mexican director Juan Lopez Moctezuma), takes them from their dying mother, so that he may see that they are raised properly and schooled in the ways of war and wisdom. “But…” the mother says, “they are girl children!”
GIRLS??!!? But… girls can’t be doctors!
Naming them Mira and Mara, Krona leaves the twins with a local couple, instructing them to not only see that the kids learn how to fight, but also that they are raised as boys. If anyone finds out their true identities, the reborn Traigon will surely come to hunt them down. Twenty years pass, and in that time chaos reigns. Actually, no it doesn’t. Even though the forces of Traigon are still in control, well frankly, it looks like they’re running a decent enough kingdom. The cities are thriving, there is law and order, the strip clubs employ exceptionally attractive women. All seems well. Mira and Mara have grown in to buxom young lasses who think they are boys, and while they are whiling away the hours doing what all twenty year old boys do together (skinny dipping), they notice that they are being watched from the bushes by the single most horrific creature ever committed to screen: Pando the Goat Boy.
Pando (David Millbern, who despite this disturbing turn, has a perfectly healthy career, provided you accept that Ice Spiders and Chupacabra Terror are healthy) is an unholy union of Eddie Munster’s hair, Lee Van Cleef’s head, Robin Williams’ chest, and the legs of a guy I once saw at a nude beach. His legs were so hairy that they looked like a couple gorilla legs had been grafted to his body, and he let them remain natural and hirsute — but had shaved his ass completely smooth, so that it looked like he was strutting around in a pair of hair chaps. Mira and Mara don’t know what to make of this curious beast, nor of the mysterious third “horn” dangling between his legs, so they do what anyone would do when they catch a horny man-goat watching them swim naked: they kick his ass and send him scurrying back to the bushes.
Soon after, we find out that Traigon is back, and it’s time to look for those twins once more. This way, we can get to the sword and sorcery movie’s requisite scene of a village full of grass huts getting pillaged and put to the torch. Traigon has done pretty good at tracking down Mira and Mara quickly, which doesn’t say much for Krona’s skills as a hider of prophesied children. Luckily, a Viking (!) named Valdar (Bruno Rey, Santo vs. the She-Wolves) strolls by and rescues Mira and Mara from the marauders. Krona soon reappears as well, now charging Valdar with guarding the twins. You know, Krona, maybe you should watch the stinkin’ twins instead of always pawning them off on the first person you meet. What is Krona doing most of the time anyway? Entering Gandalf lookalike contests? Valdar has nothing better to do, so Mira and Mara tag along with him, clad in their “we’re just a couple of strapping young lads with big boobs, curvy hips, feminine faces, and sexy legs” disguises. It also turns out that Valdar is friends with Pando, so everyone makes up and marches off to a town crowded with the very soldiers they’re supposed to be avoiding. While there, we will get several more standard issue sword and sorcery moments — including the nude dancer scene, the bar room brawl scene, and the “wandering around the bazaar” scene — before Mira and Mara are captured. Valdar also picks up yet another new member for the gang, a young prince masquerading as a gambling barbarian.
So begins the game of escape and recapture, until finally the group is ambushed by a gang of monkey monsters throwing fruit grenades.
So let’s stop right there. You have sexy naked twins. You have a viking. You have Pando the bleating goat boy with an erection (you’d think someone would make him put on some pants). And now you have monkey monsters lobbing fruit grenades. Jack Hill… you, sir, know how to deliver.
Mara is captured, along with the prince guy, Erlick (Bob Nelson), and taken to Traigon and Traigon’s scheming mistress. When they discover Erlick is actually a prince — interrupting Traigon’s plan to cram a metal spike up the wayward barbarian’s butt — they devise some crazy scheme to get Mara and Erlick together, produce an heir, then have Traigon kill the kid. Or something. When Traigon explains to Mara that he is her father, she drops the desire to kill him for murdering her mother and the inhabitants of the village in which she and her sister grew up. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to get Mara and Erlick together. Ever since the girls discovered that they were girls, Mara has been struggling with the mysterious tingling she feels every time she looks at Erlick. Valdar is momentarily distressed when Mira starts writhing around in ecstasy while Mara is getting it one, but he soon figures out that it’s just that psychic sex bond all twins have. Pando, one assumes, was off in the bushes furiously polishing his third horn.
Mira uses the psychic link to lead them to Traigon’s castle, where Traigon unleashes his amazing green animation finger rays on them. Mara and Erlick, under Traigon’s dastardly hypnotic spell, seem undisturbed by the apparently death of their friends and sibling, and one of the monkey monsters is pissed that Traigon killed the other girl, upon who the monkey monster had designs. Hey, with Pando the goat boy lurching about, a hot and bothered monkey monster is the least of the weird things in this movie. Anyway, it turns out that Valdar and Mira aren’t dead; they just sunk down into the catacombs below Traigon’s castle. Does this mean, on top of everything he’s already done for us, Jack Hill is going to give us zombie sword fights, too? Indeed it does. Unfortunately, zombie sword fights always sound cooler than they actually end up being. What with one side being zombies and all.
Of course, everything culminates in the ritual Traigon is throwing to sacrifice Mara and get some sort of undoubtedly disappointing ultimate power. This battle is realized by a super-imposed…what is that thing? I might know if I had my Monster Manual with me. A lion-dragon-horse thing, that battles a superimposed lady’s head. f you ever saw the finale to Wizards of the Lost Kingdom — and Pando the Goat Boy help you if you have — then you’ll recognize the finale of this movie as well. Man, when a movie is so cut-rate that it steals special effects finales from Sorceress, you know you’ve strayed too far from the good and righteous path. The two gods or whatever they are supposed to be float on opposite ends of the screen and shoot beams at each other while a sword fight rages below and Traigon shrieks and capers about like all proper effeminate evil wizard-emperors should.
Hey, you know what? Sorceress is pretty awesome. Cheap and ridiculous, yes, but also packed with badly choreographed action, gratuitous nudity, goat men, monkey monsters, zombies, animated magic death beams, and cackling wizards. Jack Hill is a steady hand behind the camera, which means that this movie, unlike many others that would come from Roger Corman’s 1980s sword and sorcery factory, is actually well paced and pretty exciting. There’s always a lot happening, and most of it is pretty enjoyable. And despite the nudity and the violence, there’s something almost…wholesome about it. Sword and sorcery movies usually work in gratuitous nudity by throwing in rape scenes, lending them an unsavory and mean-spirited edge that takes the fun out of what should be a stupid and hilarious genre, and this movie has at least one such scene. But while Sorceress probably has more gratuitous nudity than many sword and sorcery films, most of it comes in relatively harmless scenes of clothes changing, skinny dipping, and sex between consenting adults.
The acting is also surprisingly better than you might think. Much of the cast is Mexican. I assume it was shot down south of the border somewhere, as many of Corman’s barbarian movies were. But the Mexicans are all old hands, and they perform with an admirable level of professionalism you can detect even through the dubbing (which, for the most part, is actually decent as well). Roberto Ballesteros, in particular, seems to be having a grand old time with all the hissing, eye bulging, and mincing about that defines evil wizard warlords.
As for the twins, they do radiate a certain charm. I know, I know. What set of naked twins wouldn’t radiate “a certain charm”? Leigh and Lynette are two in a long line of Playmates who would show up in a sword and sorcery film. Barbi Benton was in Deathstalker. Monique Gabrielle was in Deathstalker II. Rebecca Ferratti was in Gor and Outlaw of Gor. None of them come across as likable as the twins, though. I think that has a lot more to do with the director than it does with Leigh and Lynette, though. Jack Hill was an exceptional exploitation film maker, one who always made sure that he delivered everything fans of a certain genre expected, but was also capable of making a movie that was a little smarter than the others from the same genre. Only Jack Hill could have made a sexy cheerleader movie and somehow also make it a credibly feminist (well, for a 70s exploitation film) movie, with characters who not only got naked, but also had actual depth to them. Under Hill’s guidance, Lynnette and Leigh come across as likable, if not entirely skilled, performers.
The movie also handles the action well enough, certainly better than you get in a lot of other cut-rate barbarian movies. Everyone throws themselves into the fist fights and sword swinging with gusto. Even Leigh and Lynette take on the physical stuff OK, and by that I mean the fight scenes. Not exactly believable or graceful, but better than one usually sees in such productions. In general, Jack Hill helps the Harris twins be, in every way they need to for this movie, better than they need to be (since all they really need to do is take off their shirts). And the Harris twins, for their part, seem to really be trying to do their best.
After this movie, the twins disappeared almost entirely from movies, though not from public life. They appeared once more on screen, together and naked again, in an adaptation of Micky Spillane’s I, The Jury. That was it for Lynette. Leigh made one or two other small appearances before disappearing. Lynette went on to carry on the tradition of former Playboy Playmates marrying rich old men and inheriting their money. She got into some legal trouble when she failed to claim the money in her income tax, something she argued she didn’t realize one had to do.
This is one of those movies you might go into expecting to laugh at, and sure, Pando is easy to laugh at if he doesn’t make you run into another room and weep in the corner. But it’s also a really easy movie, at least for me, to enjoy the heck out of. It’s not polished. It sure isn’t Conan the Barbarian, but it’s also got some effort into put into despite being “just another dumb barbarian movie.” Even disregarding the naked twins — which few viewers will want to disregard — Jack Hill keeps the movie moving briskly, crams it with action, and really delivers one of the more entertaining entries in the genre.
Jack Hill grew up in the film business. Born in Los Angeles, with a father who worked as a designer for both Disney and Warner Brothers, Hill was more or less destined to go to the University of California film school that served as the incubator for the cinematic revolution that occurred in the 1970s. He was part of the group of young up and coming film students that included, among others, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola, in particular, was close to Hill. The two worked on student films together then later both became apprentices to Roger Corman. In 1963, Roger Corman wrapped shooting of his supernatural comedy The Raven a couple days early. Realizing that he still had horror icon Boris Karloff under contract for like another day or so, Corman figured he might as well throw together another movie and get the most out of having Karloff around. The movie was The Terror, starring Jack Nicholson (who was hanging around because he was a nobody who had also just finished working on The Raven). Making a feature film in under a couple days, from concept to the end of shooting, is a mighty task even for one as famously efficient as Roger Corman, so he tapped his two apprentices, Hill and Coppola, to help direct.
Roughly ten years later, Coppola was collecting an Oscar for The Godfather. Hill, on the other hand, stuck around in the B-movie market. His 1968 film Spider Baby is considered by many to be a classic of off-kilter… not exactly horror. Just unsettling weirdness. While Coppola was busy making The Godfather, Jack Hill was in the Philippines shooting two movies that would spark a whole exploitation genre and make a star out of struggling young actress Pam Grier. 1971′s The Big Doll House and 1972′s follow-up The Big Bird Cage helped define the “women in prison” movies that would flood grindhouse theaters during the rest of the 1970s, while the two movies also served s examples of the genre at its most darkly humorous sand satirical. It was, as I said, largely because Jack Hill was making exploitation movies, but he didn’t seem to be holding exploitation film making in contempt or regarding the source material as a reason to crank out a lazy, sloppy production. No matter how silly the movie was, Jack handled it with professional seriousness.
After doing their tour of duty in the Philippines for Roger Corman, Hill and Grier returned to the states and once again made a duo of genre-defining hits. Coffy and Foxy Brown are a little rough around the edges, a little more independent feeling than low-budget but big studio productions like Shaft and Superfly, but they’re also fantastic fun and set the template for the “chick on a rampage” style of revenge flick that gave so many struggling black actresses a chance to kick some cinematic ass. Shortly after that, Hill was back with Corman, who was producing his batch of cheap cheerleader sexploitation films like The Cheerleaders and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Jack Hill contributed The Swinging Cheerleaders, and once again, there was a lot more to his movie than the genre demanded, though he didn’t forsake fulfilling genre expectations in favor of thinking what was doing was “important.” No, he just figured that if he was going to take the time to make a movie, even a silly cheerleader sex film, he might as well put some effort into it.
After The Swinging Cheerleaders, Hill made Switchblade Sisters, then seemed to retire. His wife wanted to immerse herself entirely in the study of meditation, and Jack wanted to write. Neither passion was well suited by a side career making quick grindhouse movies with Roger Corman. From 1975 until 1982, Hill wrote a couple screenplays but basically played it cool. Then, in 1982, for whatever reason, he came back to work one last time with Roger Corman, showing Jim Wynorski the ropes as Hill directed and co-wrote Sorceress. His years in the wilderness did little to diminish his desire to handle all his movies with professionalism, which is probably why Sorceress is a whole lot better than most other sword and sorcery films, and why its script, if a bit daft, is otherwise logically put together. Well, logically by the standards of the sword and sorcery genre. And as long as you don’t think about things like, “what the hell was Traigon’s cult doing while he was dead” or “so now that they killed Traigon, who was running a peaceful kingdom other than hunting down the twins, who’s in charge?”
It’s probably not the swan song a director would dream of, but as far as exploitation film swan songs go, Hill could have done a lot worse. Much of what’s wrong with the movie happened once it was turned over to Roger Corman. Although famously able to turn a profit on any old crap for much of his career, Corman was taking a beating in the early 1980s. Production of Sorceress had been a string of calamities that saw location shooting scheduled for Portugal, Italy, and The Philippines (with Cirio Santiago) before they ended up in Mexico. It took forever for the deal to get finalized, and once it was, the shooting schedule was cut short when Dino De Laurentiis showed up with his crew for Dune and seized the backlot. When Sorceress went into post-production, Corman was simply too tired and too broke to deliver on any of the special effects that the movie needed, and in fact, didn’t even bother to finish some of the most basic work. In several spots, dialogue and sound effects were never looped in. Animation was left out where people were supposed to be shooting beams and whatnot. Shots that were composed for matte paintings never got their mattes, meaning you could see equipment and the tops of sets. Jacki Hill was so exasperated by the experience that he took his name off as director and screenwriter, and he hasn’t directed since.
All that said, I still think the movie is fun despite the shoddy construction. Even when defeated by every setback imaginable, Hill never once throws int he towel or treats the film like the sinking ship that had everyone else lounging around and not giving a crap. Released in 1982, Sorceress was a pretty early entry into the sword and sorcery boom. Most of the movies that came after Conan the Barbarian didn’t attempt to mimic that movie’s profound sense of seriousness. They were more than happy to follow the lead of The Sword and the Sorcerer, which saw no need to handle the material with any sense of gravity.
Sorceress is somewhere in the middle. It has its comedic bits (the way the final battle between the heroes and Traigon’s zombie army pans out is pure goofball Wynorski), but it also plays things straight. Light-hearted, I guess you would say. That it isn’t filled with anachronistic one-liners and jokes is something of a small miracle. Writer Jim Wynorski would go on to become a prolific director of goofball genre movies, and almost everything he does is infused with a juvenile sense of humor. When he got to direct his own sword and sorcery film, Deathstalker II, he turned the entire thing into a comedy. That may have been for the best, mind you, but he’s maintained that tendency to yuk it up in most of his movies, which is why it’s no surprise that he eventually fell in with Fred Olen Ray, the two of them together accounting for 99% of the world’s movies about half-naked girls fighting space aliens and dinosaurs. Wynorski rarely seems to have much respect for his own material; Hill always seems to have respect for his material, no matter how dumb. The two of them together actually strike a pretty solid balance.
Wynorski found himself working for Roger Corman in 1980, after moving to LA from New York with dreams of getting into the movie business. Corman put the anxious young man to work making trailers. Considering that Corman’s mode of operation was, as it had been when he himself was a hungry young film maker at American International Pictures, to come up with a movie title and artwork before the movie had even been written, and sell the movie on the merits of its outrageous title and ad art alone, putting together coming attractions previews for Corman productions was a pretty important task. Eventually, Corman let Wynorski start writing screenplays, and it’s likely that he paired the man with Jack Hill because there was no finer director at Corman’s disposal for teaching a kid the ropes of making a solid exploitation film.
After working in that capacity for a couple years, Corman approached Wynorski with another offer. Kids loved hanging out in shopping malls, so a distributor wanted a movie about a killer in a shopping mall. Corman told Wynorski to write it, and if the script was OK, Wynorski would also get to direct. Taking the concept of “a killer in a shopping mall” in a somewhat unexpected direction, Wynorski turned in the script for, and soon got to direct, Chopping Mall, in which high tech security robots at a shopping mall go berserk and start butchering teenagers. Wynorski would stay in the director’s chair for something like 150 movies more — and counting.
Although Wynorski learned how to make a professional looking product during his apprenticeship with Hill and Corman, he doesn’t have the same sense of… seriousness isn’t exactly what I’m thinking. He likes to goof off and cram his movies with silly jokes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. His unwillingness to handle Deathstalker II with even an ounce of seriousness is what probably saved the movie from being as dreary and boring as the original Deathstalker – and if you can find it on DVD, Wynorski’s commentary is hilarious. These days, Wynorski seems to while away the hours making breast-themed spoofs of major motion pictures, including such direct to DVD hits as The Bare Wench Project, The Breastford Wives, and House on Hooter Hill. He’s also a dependable hand for silly Sci-Fi Channel movies like Komodo vs. Cobra and Bone Eater, among many others I’ve wasted a perfectly good Saturday afternoon watching for like the third time. All things considered, Sorceress is one of the best films in his filmography.
But wait, you might say to yourself — where the hell was the sorceress? Shouldn’t a movie called Sorceress contain at least one sorceress? Well, umm… hey look! Naked twins! Zombie sword fight! Pando the goat boy! Wait, Pando, what are you… no! Bad Pando! Bad!
Release Year: 1982 | Country: United States, Mexico | Starring: Leigh Harris, Lynette Harris, Bob Nelson, David Millbern, Bruno Rey, Ana De Sade, Roberto Ballesteros, Douglas Sanders, Tony Stevens, Martin LaSalle, Silvia Masters, William Arnold, Teresa Conway | Screenlay: Jim Wynorski, Jack Hill | Director: Jack Hill | Cinematography: Alex Phillips Jr. | Producer: Roger Corman, Jack Hill | Alternate Titles: Devil’s Advocate
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.
With the combination of my wife’s gameness, Lovecraft’s semaphore-like emotional cues, and the fact that the mildewed pages of the 1970s paperback edition of Dunwich I’d found gave off a scent that, with a little imagination, could be interpreted as being primordial, we were, as far as I was concerned, all set. However, after five solid pages describing the blighted landscape of Dunwich town, my wife made clear that she wasn’t having it, saying something to the effect of, “What is this shit?” All of which is not to discourage you from reading Lovecraft to your own spouse or significant other; but it’s certainly important to make sure you’ve done the proper amount of prep work.
By the way, the old Jove paperback of The Dunwich Horror that I purchased features a cover illustration that is a very literal depiction, based on Lovecraft’s description in the story, of Wilbur Whateley in his true form, which looks like the upper half of Golem from Lord of the Rings grafted onto something that looks like a cross between the lower half of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a pineapple, and one of those cat-shaped wall clocks whose eyes move from side to side with the second hand.
I imagine that Lovecraft’s tendency to devote more words to telling his reader how scared he or she should be than to describing the thing to be feared posed a problem to those filmmakers initially assigned the task of bringing his work to the screen. After all, until the advent of modern J-Horror — whose sensibility is pretty much right in line with Lovecraft’s — the common wisdom would have been that you were supposed to scare your audience by showing them something scary, rather than by just showing them a bunch of people being scared, or, even worse, showing a bunch of people talking about how potentially scary some vaguely defined thing might be if it it actually existed. Furthermore, such filmmakers might understandably conclude that a film whose every character was in a constant state of near-wordless cowering for no clear reason might quickly forfeit audience interest.
It is this last conviction that might explain the casting choices made in connection with director Daniel Haller’s first Lovecraft adaptation for AIP, Die, Monster, Die!. A veteran art director, Haller had also worked in that capacity on AIP’s initial Lovecraft outing, The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman. While by no means a close adaptation of its source material, Die, Monster, Die! did an admirable job of achieving Lovecraft’s patented mood of mounting dread and creeping, formless horror. The only departure from that — and it’s a radical one — was the placement of American actor Nick Adams at its center, probably the most un-Lovecraftian protagonist imaginable, who would be much more likely to call the great Cthulu a “jerk” and punch him in the nose than to simply be driven mad by the impossibility of his existence.
When it came time for Haller to make his second Lovecraft adaptation, 1970s The Dunwich Horror, he and screenwriter Curtis Hanson chose to add another very un-Lovecraftian element to their quintessentially Lovecraftian tale with the introduction into the mix of a sweaty dose of eroticism. Lovecraft’s stories, with all their references to tentacles and other undulating protuberances coming out of things at all angles, were certainly sexual — if in a repressed/hysterical way — but they were far from sexy. In fact, judging from the man’s writings alone, I’d imagine that any attempt by him to describe any normal type of human sexual congress would be one of the most excruciatingly awkward, squirm-inducing things you could possibly read. If there does not exist somewhere a porn parody written in Lovecraftian prose, or myriad examples of erotic Lovecraft fanfic, then the internet truly has no right to exist. It’s not for me to put the effort into finding out, though. Of course, the concept seems less strange when you consider that it was no doubt partly a result of AIP fulfilling their early Seventies mandate to serve up at least some explotational content with every offering. But the whole enterprise rockets back into the realm of the unnamable when you consider that the actors they chose to place at the center of all this heat and steam were Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.
The Dunwich Horror was something of a landmark for Sandra Dee, in that the Gidget star was required by its action to spend much of her screen-time writhing and moaning orgasmically on a sacrificial altar while in a state of near undress, and even to treat the audience to a brief flash of her — possibly body-doubled — breasts. Of course, Dee was at an unavoidable crossroads in her career by this time. The wholesome, girl-next-door image that had propelled her to stardom in the early sixties was now not only hopelessly out of sync with the times, but also impossible to maintain now that she had undergone a very public divorce from her husband Bobby Darin. Given these factors, that she would slam her knockers out in an AIP picture was probably as inevitable as it was surprising.
On the other hand, Dean Stockwell’s transition from sweet-faced to unsavory had been accomplished long before he arrived on the Dunwich set, with any memories of the adorable child star he used to be forever tainted by roles such as that of the effeminate child murderer in 1959′s Compulsion. To say that Stockwell comes off as a “little” creepy in The Dunwich Horror would be the Mona Lisa of understatement. From the nervous sidelong glances, to the unwavering hushed monotone, the speech riddled with odd pregnant pauses, and the intent, wild-eyed staring, his performance is, in fact, the whole creepiness package, without one unsettling tick left behind. Of course, given he was charged with portraying a character who, in the original story, was depicted as being a goat-like, preternaturally intelligent, prepubescent eight foot giant who conceals beneath his garments a body that is part T. Rex , part pineapple and part cat clock, you could forgive him for over-compensating.
By the way, my writing this review gave me the opportunity to allay a misconception about Dean Stockwell that I’ve been entertaining for quite some time. I’ve long had this vague notion, which I had the nagging feeling wasn’t true, that he had some kind of strong Walt Disney affiliation. This turns out to be due to me confusing him with that star of countless, animal-themed, live action Disney movies from the sixties, Dean Jones, a man who is creepy in his own right, though in a quite different, more Disney-like way than Dean Stockwell. Now, thanks to Teleport City’s stringent research standards, I can tell you with utmost certainty that Dean Stockwell absolutely, positively did not star in That Darned Cat!, The Ugly Dachshund, Monkeys, Go Home! or The Million Dollar Duck. In fact, during this period in Dean Jones’s career, Dean Stockwell was playing roles like that of an acid-tripping Haight-Ashbury hippy in Psych-Out. So, how wrong can you be, really?
Aside from being the movie that tried to generate sexual heat between Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell, The Dunwich Horror is notable for being one of the AIP Lovecraft adaptations that — like The Haunted Palace, but unlike Die, Monster, Die! — directly addresses the author’s much vaunted Cthulhu Mythos. Granted, it may not do so with enough authenticity to satisfy fans of the author, but much lip service is indeed given to such touchstone concepts as “Yog-Sothoth”, “The Old Ones” and the “The Necronomicon”. However, as alluded to above, both the Old Ones — that ancient race of unimaginable non-human creatures who, according to Lovecraft, once ruled the Earth and are itching to return — and their followers are portrayed as being much hornier than in any of Lovecraft’s tales. Their most fully-formed emissary in the human world, the unnamed “thing” locked up in a mysterious upstairs room in the Whateley house, seems to be most concerned with first ripping off all of its victim’s clothes when it encounters its first human prey. Similarly, the rituals that Wilbur (Stockwell) must perform in order to summon the Old Ones back into our dimension seem to mostly involve him feeling up a drugged and prostrate Sandra Dee and reading incantations while standing between her splayed legs.
There is a familiar feel of that smarmy, late-to-the-party seventies version of hippie free love to all this, though, of course, in a much more overtly sinister form. It’s a tone that’s driven home even by Les Baxter’s main theme, a narcotically swooning swinger’s revelry with a decadent European sensibility that could just as easily have come from the mind of Serge Gainsbourg or Michel Legrand. Mind you, I don’t think this quality detracts from The Dunwich Horror. I think that an adaptation of Lovecraft’s work for a more permissive age would have no choice but to address the creepy sexuality that underlies it, and Haller’s take here is indeed suitably creepy. That this imperative was put in the hands of a studio like AIP, who was more than happy to deliver on the required nudity and implied sexual shenanigans, just represents a fortuitous dovetailing of interests.
The potent sex magic that Dean Stockwell wields in The Dunwich Horror — at least as it applies to Sandra Dee — is shown to be pretty much in full effect from the very opening moments of the film. It is at this point that we meet Dee’s character, Nancy Wagner, a student at venerable old Miskatonic University. Her professor, Dr. Armitage, has entrusted her with the between classes errand of returning his surprisingly crisp looking copy of the ancient book of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon, to the school’s library. The mention of the book’s name attracts the twitchy attentions of the proximately lurking Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), a visitor to the university from the nearby town of Dunwich whose consummate creepiness is matched only by his single-mindedness. Wilbur follows Nancy to the library and asks her to let him see the book before she replaces it in its case. She resists at first, but it is only a matter of Wilbur making whammy eyes at her for a few seconds before she relents, despite the objections of her obviously unaffected friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala). Wilbur makes off to hungrily devour the tome’s contents, only to be intercepted by Dr. Armitage, who rents it from his grasp with a stern rebuke. This bit of awkwardness does not preclude the four of them from going out for a drink at the pub later, at which time Wilbur engages Dr. Armitage in a conversation that goes more or less like this:
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Oh, Okay, but… can I see the book?
Dr. Armitage, by the way, is portrayed by the veteran character actor Ed Begley, a man who played supporting roles in almost as many classic film noirs as Elisha Cook Jr. He’s a great, if unusual, choice for the role, because, while he’s appropriately gray and distinguished, his history of playing tough guy roles gives him a two-fisted air decidedly at odds with the tremulous demeanor of the typical Lovecraftian academic. That may not make his character authentic to the text, but it certainly makes him a more credible opponent to the forces he’s up against, and when he and Wilbur face off to shout incantations at one another at the movie’s conclusion, you get the sense that you’re seeing a dramatic showdown between more or less equally matched adversaries — a markedly more satisfying and movie-like conclusion than if the makers had stuck with the finale as presented in the book, in which a bunch of frightened old men cower in the rain while shouting spells and praying that Yog-Sothoth doesn’t kill them.
Wilbur eventually manipulates circumstances so that Nancy has to give him a ride back to his creepy old house in Dunwich, and, once there, sabotages her car so that she has no choice but to spend the night. Nancy is already falling increasingly under Wilbur’s sway by this point, so she raises little objection to this turn of events, but Wilbur still drugs her drink just to be on the safe side — possibly because, in her chemically-induced stupor, she will be less likely to notice the ominous gurgling sounds coming out of the locked room at the top of the stairs. That night, as she slumbers, Nancy dreams that she is being groped and chased by a bunch of hippie mud people who caper around and mug at the camera as if they were auditioning for the Broadway production of Yog-Sothoth: Superstar. This experience seems only to increase Wilbur’s hold over her, and the one night’s stay extends to a series of days, as, all the while, it becomes clearer that Wilbur is grooming her for a very specific purpose, a purpose that is more than hinted at when Wilbur shows Nancy the ancient sacrificial altar perched atop a desolate hilltop near his home.
Once Wilbur has finally gotten his mitts on the Necronomicon and set in motion the rituals necessary to bringing the Old Ones back into the world of men, The Dunwich Horror, like the story it’s based upon, sees out its final act as a pretty sweet little monster on the loose story. The film is helped greatly in this regard by the fact that Lovecraft described the unnamable thing locked up in the Whateley house, once freed, as being mostly invisible to human eyes. This enables the filmmakers to represent it through some pretty effective shots of trees being rent about by unseen forces, an interesting use of negative effects, and reaction shots of the monster’s horrified victims (one of whom is played by a very young Talia Shire). All in all, it’s a satisfyingly apocalyptic payoff to the slow-burn piling on of unease that makes up the film’s first hour, and even survives the fact that, once we do catch a fleeting glimpse of the beast, it appears to be Dean Stockwell wearing a mask made out of plastic snakes.
While the sleazy, swinger’s leer that The Dunwich Horror affects certainly dates the picture — and may go some way toward undermining its scare factor for modern audiences — the film in most respects still holds to the high standard set by AIP’s earlier gothic horrors drawn from the works of Poe and Lovecraft. As with those films, the modest budget is compensated for by both a handsome production design and a studious attention to the creation of a pervasive atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Bolstering that is a range of reliable, if somewhat over-the-top, performances by a cast made up of stolid old troopers, among them Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandfather and Lloyd Bochner as Armitage’s ally, Dr. Cory. Only Sandra Dee, out of all the performers, seems to be holding back, but the fact that she comes off as a bit narcotized is actually in keeping with her character’s situation. Still, it’s a bit odd that Dee, who had not all that long before been a fairly major star, agreed to take a part in a film in which she really ends up being more of a prop than a character.
And pondering that image of Sandra Dee, lying prone and half-conscious while being the subject of all kinds of uninvited groping, I might be inspired to reconsider my previous statement about what might constitute The Dunwich Horror‘s true source of horror for modern audiences. After all, isn’t the thought of being groped by a leering, permed and mustachioed Dean Stockwell really the definition of horror at its most profound and unnamable? More courageous souls than I have doubtless been prompted to tear off and eat their own faces at the mere thought. In fact, if that’s the only way to purge that image from one’s mind, I recommend that we all do that right now.
See you on the other side of madness!
Release Year: 1970 | Country: United States | Starring: Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Joanne Moore Jordan, Donna Baccala, Talia Shire, Michael Fox, Jason Wingreen, Barboura Morris, Beach Dickerson, Michael Haynes, Toby Russ, Jack Pierce | Writers: Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkosky | Director: Daniel Haller | Cinematographer: Richard C. Glouner | Music: Les Baxter | Producers: Roger Corman, Jack Bohrer
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.
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
Anyway, as much as we pointed and laughed at Angelfist, which also triumphantly proclaimed “Starring Eight Billion Time American Karate Champion Cat Sassoon” or something to that effect, we never actually got around to renting it. At the time, we had so many old Shaw Bros. and Ocean Shores releases to work through that piddling around with a Roger Corman karate movie seemed rather a poor use of our time. Alas, I was so young and naive back then, and in my then recently discovered fervor for Hong Kong action cinema, I turned my nose up at so many films that… well… deserved to have noses turned up around them. But now I know better and willingly embrace such films. Thus, back when skinnyguy.com was still around and you could buy 50 crappy VHS action and kungfu films for like five bucks, I ended up with my very own copy of Angelfist, along with about a hundred Godfrey Ho/Thomas Tang/Joseph Lai ninja movies starring Richard Harrison. So whenever I complain to you about my financial woes, you can always respond by going, “Don’t you own copies of Ninja Phantom Heroes and Diamond Ninja Force?” And I will have to hang my head in shame, even if deep inside I am secretly proud of owning such movies.
Just as I was pleased that “post apocalyptic rollerskating movie” is not a description of a single film but of an entire genre, so too am I happy that “movies featuring nude kickboxing” yields expansive enough results that I can sit back and say, “You know, I think I’m going to become an expert in films that feature nude kickboxing.” Angelfist certainly doesn’t fail to deliver in the nude kickboxing arena, though it does fail to deliver in just about every aspect that a movie might otherwise strive to achieve. It joins a storied list of films that includes Angel of Destruction, Redline, Girls on the Run, Rolls Royce Baby, Naked Fist, and Kungfu Leung Strikes Emanuelle in my collection of nude kickboxing movies. Rolls Royce Baby in particular teaches us that there’s nothing appealing about watching a sleazy Eurotrash lounge lizard do full frontal nude katas. In general, nude karate is not a sport that lends itself to the male anatomy, though I don’t begrudge any man who chooses to make it his chosen form of exercise. If only they’d had the good sense to accompany his workout with a similar scene of Lina Romay, but she’s spending too much time in that movie standing on her head while nude for no good reason other than it never hurts to feature Lina Romay nude and standing on her head. I know there are plenty of other films out there featuring nude martial arts, and I intend, one by one and while dressed like Coffin Joe, to possess them all.
So it turns out the awkward looking blonde on the video box isn’t Cat Sassoon at all. We’ll get to the blonde later. It turns out Cat Sassoon is the daughter (in real life, that is) of shampoo empire tyrant Vidal Sassoon, who I assume achieved his high rank in society through liberal use of karate fighting thugs, and even now he forces hobos and prostitutes to fight in underground martial arts tournaments where the combat takes place in huge pools of mousse. Catya’s biography is one of a typical “live fast, die young” (she did both) Hollywood kid, and I’m not sure at what point she picked up the various karate championships the movie celebrates as being in her possession (actually, she picked them up when Roger Corman invented them and assigned them to her via movie poster). She seems to have spent most of her short life doing drugs and being a supermodel thanks, in large part, to the fact that she was the daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams. At some point, she parlayed her modeling and “daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams” gig into a movie career and appeared in the film Tuff Turf, the movie that had the unenviable task of making James Spader seem like a bad-ass. From there, it was straight to the bottom of the barrel, and before too long she found herself in The Philippines working in films by our main man, Cirio Santiago.
As far as authentic martial arts bad-assery, and despite the claims made on the cover of this movie, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Cat Sassoon was possibly one of the very worst of the many “next female martial arts superstars” that surfaced in the 80s and 90s with dubious claims about winning international tournaments and Vidal Sassoon Hair Mousse Kumites. She’s definitely not to be measured alongside actual bad-asses like Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Shepherd, both of whom made awesome movies in Hong Kong before coming back to America to make movies that were just awesomely bad. But they both knew their stuff, cut their teeth in Hong Kong, and had easy to verify martial arts careers. The waters get murky really quickly beyond them, though.
I’m ranking Sassoon — who must have been slapped on the back while eating lemons, thus freezing her face in an expression of pouty disgust (Joe Bob Briggs described her as having “the fist of an angel and the face of a fist”) — below Mimi Lesseos (who at least worked as pro wrestler before trying her hand at being the next direct-to-video female martial arts superstar), although Angelfist is remarkably better than anything Mimi Lesseos ever starred in. Probably above Maria Ford, who did time in her own bargain basement Filipino nude kickboxing movie, Angel of Destruction). It’s a hard call. And maybe above some of the women who tried to do martial arts in various Andy Sidaris T&A masterpieces. But whatever the case, when you’re locked in a battle for last with Maria Ford and former Playboy Playmates, well, you’re a long way from the surface. Plus, the trailer for Angel of Destruction has the narrator saying “She gets caught between a rock…and a hard place!” as they show Maria Ford kicking a rapist in the balls, so that might actually get the edge.
The claim is that she’s a “WKA North American Forms and Weapons champion,” but if this is true, the WKA doesn’t seem aware of it. Of course, I suppose Cirio Santiago could have created a different WKA than the World Kickboxing Association. Maybe it stands for “Women Kick Ass” or “Wonderfully Krappy Awfulness.” I think everyone who ever starred in a martial arts movie got to be the champion of some organization or tournament. In 1992, my friends and I shot about two minutes of an epic we were going to make about a Misfits-loving zombie who returns from the grave, is disillusioned by how punk went all hippie-crusty or metal, and so decides to destroy the world, with only the staff of a local Chinese restaurant to stop him. I think as a result of filming those two minutes, which consisted I think of footage of me jumping over a railing in a parking garage, I became de facto two time world champion in forms and combat for the Global Regional Karate Union of North Florida.
So if we’re going to drown at the bottom of the barrel with the late Cat Sassoon, we might as well do it in the company of another daft movie by Cirio Santiago. Of course, this movie, with its gratuitous martial arts tournament footage, is positively rational compared to some of his more feverish efforts, but that still leaves plenty of room for you to shake your head and say, “No! No. Wait, what?” The gist of the thing is this: while either vacationing or working as a photographer or participating in a karate tournament, a woman named Kristie (Sibel Birzag, who appeared in Angelfist and…oh, just Angelfist) catches an assassination on film. Although she phones the American embassy with news that one of their top generals has just been murdered by dudes with pantyhose on their head, and that she has photographic evidence, no one seems to consider it all that big a deal. Must be the same army as we saw in American Ninja, where the continuous slaughter of American soldiers at the hands of Filipino ninja hijackers didn’t really raise much of an eyebrow. So rather than go into the embassy or the police or anything, she goes and competes in a round or two at a karate tournament where all the women wear sexy leotards, halter tops, and thongs instead of actual martial arts clothing. She then has the film delivered not to the embassy or the police, but to a friend who works as a nude dancer at a club that specializes in the world’s least enthusiastic stripping. And then, of course, she gets murdered.
When the woman’s Los Angeles cop sister (Cat Sassoon) gets wind of the murder, she travels to the Philippines to solve the case and deal out plodding kungfu justice to those responsible, even though the local authorities use the “I know you’re a cop back in LA, but this is Manila. We do things different here,” shtick, which has never deterred a single rogue cop ever. It’s no more effective than “I just spent the entire morning getting my ass chewed out by the mayor,” or “your methods are too extreme, Inspector Nico!”
Along the way, Cat will enter the martial arts tournament in place of her sister, since movies have taught us that all gangsters and would-be revolutionaries are also shady martial arts tournament promoters. Ostensibly, this has something to do with getting close to…I don’t know. There were some Mexican drug dealers, or something, and some of the revolutionaries responsible for the murder are involved. Look, I sort of lost track, so I’m going to say that Cat enters the tournament so that she can keep land developers from knocking down the local community center in order to make room for a shopping mall. The primary purpose of the tournament really is to pad out the film’s running time with lots of really bad martial arts bouts and only slightly more interesting shower scenes in which Cat Sassoon proves that no amount of shampoo empire money can buy you decent martial arts skills or a decent pair of fake boobs in the early 1990s. I’m sure hers, which she shows often in this film, cost a lot of money, but that doesn’t stop them from looking like someone took a couple honeydews, wrapped them in those pointy little knit caps worn by Tibetans and hippies, then strapped them to Cat’s chest. Thhis is one of those extremely rare moments where the nudity comes and I say, “You know, why don’t we just put those away for now?”
Anyway, you better get used to them, because as I said, she pulls them out pretty often, God bless ‘er, including during a scene where she is attacked in her hotel room by a bunch of ninjas and has to fight them off while wearing nothing but a pair of panties. The two most striking things about this scene are how awful Cat’s martial arts are, and how no matter how much she tumbles and stumble around, her breasts remain completely motionless, like a couple of gyroscopes with a fake tan.
And she’s not alone. Joining her in her quest to showcase gratuitous boob shots and astoundingly awful karate fights is lovely Melissa Moore (and her much more natural breasts), a Versailles (that’s vur-sails to y’all — if the French didn’t want you to pronounce the “L’s” then they shouldn’t have put them in the word), Kentucky native who found herself slumming it in all sorts of movies like Hard to Die, Vampire Cop, and Sorority House Massacre 2, among many others. The martial arts she showcases in the film don’t look any less awkward. You know though, maybe it’s me. I mean, I’m no kungfu master, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the proper fighting stance for the martial art they’re using is indeed to curl your arms up like an Incan ice mummy and mash them against your chest.
Whatever the case, I like Melissa regardless, even though her part consists mostly of sitting in the audience and watching Cat fight while nodding to herself. Well, when she’s not busy taking showers. And apparently someone else likes her too, because there’s a comic book about her, Melissa Moore, Bodyguard from Draculina Publishing. I’m not a big reader of comic books, so I don’t know too much about it. Somehow, I think that even if I was a big reader of comic books, I still wouldn’t know too much about it. Never the less, I’m still glad it exists.
So now that I’ve had some fun ribbing the ladies, let me say that I love that both of them are willing to give their all, however much that may be, for a movie like this. I mean, good or bad, Moore and Sassoon are in there, taking their lumps and starring in crummy kungfu films. I love ‘em both for it. Working the Corman-Santiago Manila circuit can’t be steak and onions, as stories from the likes of Walter Hill and Pam Grier attest to. And I don’t know about Melissa Moore, but Cat Sassoon certainly didn’t have to do anything more than sit back and live off the sudsy wealth of her family. Instead, she went to the Philippines and made low-budget action films. Good for her! And as for Moore — what can I say? I have a soft spot for Kentucky girls. I’d love to do a long interview with her or pay to have her write a book. As I’ve said many times before and will doubtless say as long as I keep reviewing crappy low budget Roger Corman productions shot in the Philippines, the stories behind these films are probably way more interesting than both the films themselves and the making of stories behind the standard Hollywood project. So if I poke fun at the ladies, it’s done out of love and with nothing but good nature.
Not so much, though, for the comedy relief male sidekick and the usual host of “You kicked their ass? But…but…you’re a woman!” and “That was amazing! Could you teach me some of that kungfu jazz?” shtick that invariably follows him and his Chess King wardrobe around. And since I’ve cracked jokes at the expense of poor Cat Sassoon, who wanted nothing more than to make shitty kungfu films and show us her fake boobs as often as possible (and don’t think I don’t appreciate her for that), I might as well mention that actor Michael Shaner looks like someone mashed Matthew Modine and John Malkovich together. There’s something not quite human about him, like he’s a clay-faced shape shifter doing its best to approximate what a human douchebag looks like. The big difference between Shaner and Sassoon is that by the end of the movie, Sassoon’s crappy acting, terrible martial arts, willingness to show off her weird fake boobs, and her overall strange appearance won me over. Heck, I’m ready to buy more Cat Sassoon action films on 50 cent VHS. Conversely, I want to punch Shaner in the face, even though I know it’s sculpted out of clay and butterscotch pudding, or whatever shape shifters are made of. You know what, Shaner? Your wardrobe isn’t even good enough to be Chess King.
Both Moore and Sassoon turn in nude kickboxing scenes, though I think Moore’s only counts half a point since it’s just a ripped shirt. But Sassoon goes full on, in just her lacy red panties, showing off her otherworldly fake boobs and accompanying fake tan that, coupled with the oily misting job they did on her to give her that fresh out of the shower appearance, makes her look like a particularly aggressive Nathan’s brand hot dog. This is without a doubt the second finest nude kickboxing scene I’ve witnessed (it’s going to be hard to beat the scene from Girls on the Run, though, because that’s a nude kickboxing scene directed by Cory Yuen Kwai). But Cat Sassoon holds nothing back. She throws all her energy into the scene, jumping around awkwardly, growling, yelling, and a few times doing spinning kicks while her face is obscured by a huge dollop of Vaseline or something on the lens.
I think they might have been trying to obscure the fact that a male stuntman with fake orange boobs attached to him was standing in for Sassoon. If that’s the case, oh man! What must that guy’s day have been like? One stuntman shows up and hears, “Well, you’re in the fight, and Cat Sassoon is going to be all greased up and naked, and she’s going to kick you then straddle your face.” And yeah, Cat may look a little weird, but whatever man, and if she’s nude and straddling my face then I still call that a good day at work. So the other stuntman is like, “This is gonna be an awesome day!” until he finds out that his job is to grease up, put on fake boobs and a pair of red lace panties, and be a stand-in for a nude kickboxing woman. And then his children will ask, “What did you do at work today, daddy?”
The rest of the cast seems comprised largely of Filipino kickboxing women who show up for matches and disappear again during the shower scenes (I’ve never seen a Filipino martial arts tournament locker room with so many white women in it). I guess most of these women have some actual martial arts background, but that doesn’t matter all that much since real life tournament martial arts are pretty boring to watch if you’re not an avid practitioner. They’re not any better here and are probably somewhat worse. There are also a couple rebels, and the usual assortment of white guys playing generals, diplomats, and other figures of authority. None of them are really worth mentioning. There is a guy named Mr. Carrion, which I suppose is a slightly better name than Mr. Rottin’ Guts McGee, but just barely.
This is one of the films, one of the many films, that force me to grapple with an assortment of moral questions related to passing judgment. Because this is a terrible, terrible movie, and I like it. It’s completely idiotic, and I like it. I have no justification for this adoration, and certainly I hesitate to tell others they should check it out. The acting is bad, the martial arts are worse, and the direction is nondescript. But like Cat Sassoon herself, somehow all the negatives add up to a decently dumb and entertaining 80 minutes. The action may indeed be bad, but there’s a lot of it. Like Melissa Moore and Cat Sassoon, all this movie wants to do is entertain you. And like its stars, the results are pretty feeble even if the effort is enthusiastic. Liking bad movies is pretty common. Liking bad martial arts movies is a much more, let’s say exclusive, calling. They’re still way easier to like than bad comedies and bad Steven Seagal films, but in a genre where bad stories and acting are glossed over in light of good action scenes, you better have good action scenes. When you don’t, there’s not much going on.
Except, you know, nude kickboxing.
Odd that movies like this are why, in the 1990s, I would write long screeds about how dreadful American martial arts movies are and how it’s a shame the US isn’t paying more attention to Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Now that the US is paying more attention to those guys — a bit too late for them to really deliver much that is worth paying attention to, sadly — I find that the crummy little low-budget productions from America and the Philippines have grown more attractive to me. And isn’t it funny that a number of the Hong Kong action stars of the 80s and 90s, once the action boom faded, sought to ply their trade in The Philippines. Somewhere in Hong Kong, the Chinese Roger Corman has Yuen Biao and Yukari Oshima in his office and is, no doubt, reaching for the bright red rotary dial phone that connects all producers in the world directly to the ghost of Cirio Santiago.
Release Year: 1993 | Country: Philippines and United States | Starring: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Sibel Birzag, Tony Carreon, John Crank, Roland Dantes, Sheila Lintan, Ken Metcalfe | Writer: Anthony Greene | Director: Cirio Santiago | Cinematographer: Joe Batac | Music: Stephen Cohn | Producer: Cirio Santiago and Roger Corman | Alternate Titles: Fatal Angel
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.
We find ourselves in “the future,” something like a thousand years from now, after the wars have turned the world into a vast tract of scrubland and desert. The remnants of the human race live in fortress style city-states and are called statesmen, leaving the majority of the blighted world to be the domain of mutant cannibals and a race of mystic wanderers known as range guides. Machines are rare, used only by the “statesmen” — people who live in the cities. So, wait. Didn’t you just tell us that pretty much everyone lives in the city and is a statesman? Now I haven’t been good at math or logic since sixth grade, but I’m pretty sure that if almost everyone is a statesmen, and only statesmen use machines, then almost everyone uses machines. So I don’t see what’s so special about it.
The mad leader of Helix City, Lord Zirpola (David McClean), wants to attack a neighboring city for no real reason we can understand other than he is mad and evil. To accomplish this act of war, he has invented the future’s ultimate weapon: a motorcycle with some aluminum attached to the front end, and two lasers on the side that are of the same power as lasers people carry and fire by hand, only the lasers on the so-called “death machines” are more awesome because they are a hell of a lot harder to aim. Zirpola wants to prove to his people that the death machines are super bad-ass, so he decides to capture some range guides and showcase their obliteration by death machine in the city’s gladiatorial “deathsport.” This will convince the population that an unjustified war with the other city will be fun and easy, so long as everyone is riding a death machine.
The future as projected by the cheap sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s is jam packed with incredibly lame ultimate weapons. The death machines are pretty high up on the list, though they will pale in comparison to some of the other ultimate weapons we’ll be seeing later in this series of reviews. The death machines may be stupid and unwieldy as weapons, but at least they are still motorcycles. At the very least, you can ride them around and have fun up until Barry Bostwick shows up on his own futuristic motorcycle with crap attached to the front end and brags about how his can also fly. But still, when we first see the death machines in action, a couple female range guides, one of whom is the late Gator Bait herself, Claudia Jennings, take them out with no real problem. Range guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) will also take a few out all by himself — and range guides are armed with nothing but clear plastic swords that whistle when you swing them around. I’m pretty sure I had a toy that did the same thing. That’s all it takes to make a death machine explode? At no point, though, does the army of Helix City think that the death machines are a stupid idea, let alone an especially stupid idea in a world with lots of tall, steep rock formations people have no problem scurrying up to escape the death machines. Oh if only Lord Zirpola has listened to Barry Bostwick and put rocket wings on the motorcycles!
Eventually Carradine’s Kaz and Jenning’s Deneer are captured, though that has less to do with the death machines than it does sheer force of numbers. They come face to face with the leader of Helix City’s army, the black-clad Richard Lynch. Yes, his character has a name (Ankar Moor), but anyone who knows Richard Lynch knows that he plays the same evil guy character in every movie, so we might as well just call him Richard Lynch. I guess the same could be said of David Carradine as well. Lynch has the sinister air of a young Rutger Hauer crossbred with the condescending sneer of William Atherton and the hair of Gladiator Malibu from the 80s version of American Gladiators. Can even David Carradine stand up to such a foe?
It turns out that not only is Richard Lynch evil, but he’s also a former range guide who betrayed The Code and killed the most powerful of all range guides, who just happens to be Kaz Oshay’s mom. Deneer and Kaz don’t take too kindly to being caged like animals. While Kaz kicks the wall a lot and yells “I am my only master,” Deneer is made to wander around nude in a room full of neon tubes that shake around, howl, and electrocute people. Don’t ask me, man. I didn’t write it. Eventually, the two guides are forced to compete against the death machines in deathsport, an event that takes up about ten minutes of the film’s running time and has almost no real bearing on the plot, but is never the less the source of the title. Earlier in the film, Zirpola was angry that Ankor Moor lost a couple death machines whilst pursuing Claudia Jennings, yet here he seems unphased by the fact that the two captive rangers take out like a dozen of the infernal contraptions. Maybe if he’d put trained soldiers on the machines instead of chumps he just picked out of jail, his little dog and pony show would have gone better. The two rangers escape along with a couple hangers on, thus ending the deathsport portion of Deathsport. All that’s left now is for the bad guys to chase the good guys across the barren wasteland until we get a final showdown between Kaz Oshay and Ankor Moor. All in all, Zirpola’s death machine coming out party went over about as well as one of those corporate seminars where the presenter has all his stuff stored online and then can’t get an internet connection (possibly because the internet has become sentient and is too preoccupied with cataloging its vast store of Naruto slashfic).
To enumerate the various points at which the plot doesn’t make any sense would be to wandering into a Minotaur’s labyrinth from which there is no real hope of emerging alive. The death machines having already been covered as being idiotic, we could turn to how much is made of Carradine’s ability to sense the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to him predicting the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to a scene of people going “The dangerous weather is coming,” which then leads immediately to a scene of people coming out of a cave and going, “Whew, I sure am glad that dangerous weather is over.” Cannibal mutants kidnap a little girl, and one assumes that the reason cannibal mutants would kidnap a little girl is to eat her. But weeks later, when Kaz and Deneer finally show up to rescue her, she’s still there. I guess they wanted to soften up the meat. The cannibal mutants had her in a little cage, after all, so I reckon that the world may have collapsed but our love of veal has not. There are also multiple scenes were someone who is supposed to get killed stands right in front of a death machine, but instead of shooting the person with the lasers, the guy on the death machine just does a little wheelie or jumps over a convenient dirt pile next to the person. And then usually the death machine explodes. You may not have realized that hitting a motorcycle with a clear plastic sword would make it explode, but that’s why you’re not a range guide.
And then there’s the matter of Lord Zirpola’s neon tube torture forest. Seriously, just what the hell? I mean, I can understand having a chamber where people dance naked for you. And I can understand that in the future, poledancer poles will need to be more futuristic, and thus making them transparent tubes filled with flashing neon lights is inevitable. But what kind of torture is it to then make them shake all around and howl? That’s not torture; that’s just ugly windchimes, and you can get those all over the place down South. Still, at least the movie does right by us and has not one but two gratuitous scenes of nude dancing in the neon tube forest, one of which goes on for a while and features a woman (Valerie Rae Clark, star of…ummm…Breast Orgy and Breast Orgy 2) we’ve never seen before and will never see again but, for some reason, apart from dancing nude, also gets to kill Lord Zirpola by…umm…offering her hand to him while he’s busy making the tubes shock her or whatever it is they do. Zirpola also has a torture tunnel where he straps you down and flashes lights at you, causing you to scream. This requires Claudia Jennings to be nude for the torture to work. Luckily, it does not require the same of David Carradine.
So let me address this right here. David Carradine in his youth — not really a bad looking guy. In pretty good shape. But the loincloth simply does not become him. It becomes very few men, especially when they are shot from such awkward angles, like leaping spread legged through the air or rolling around on their back with their legs stuck up. It’s just not a good angle. That’s why you don’t see male strippers constantly jumping all spread eagle off the backs of chairs and stuff. They know that it looks goofy. They’ll straddle a chair, but they’ll never jump awkwardly off it. And when it comes to rolling around on their backs in a crouching position, they’re going to skip that and fill the time with a little trick I like to call “around the world.” So while we get to see plenty of David Carradine flesh, most of it is unwelcome because it just ends up looking so goofy. Still, I suppose we should be happy he wasn’t forced to do full frontal nude dancing in the forest of shaking, howling neon tubes.
Probably my favorite part of the movie is when Kaz Oshay leads Ankor and his minions on a motorcycle race through a fuel depot which has no reason to exist out in the middle of the desert. The depot is full of gasoline barrels stacked apparently at random throughout the facility, sometimes in front of ramps so that people can jump their motorcycles through flames once the barrels have inevitably exploded. In classic Corman fashion, scenes of jumping motorcycles are recycled a few times to increase the number of times we get to watch a guy jump a motorcycle over some candy cane colored barrels. This fuel depot was apparently built by the same people who were doing the construction on the building where Jackie Chan has his final fight scene in Mr. Nice Guy. If you don’t recall or never saw the film, that building features a framed-up but not entirely drywalled floor that was apparently comprised of nothing but hundreds of 5×5 rooms with doors in every wall. It was fun for a fight scene, but really, what the hell were they building?
Watching Deathsport is mind-bending enough on its own right, but where the film really shines is in the backstage drama. The movie was written by Nicholas Niciphor. Though he had no experience as a director, Niciphor was also hired to direct — presumably because the vision for Deathsport was so grand and amazing that only the film’s writer could hope to fully realize it, or something. Now, who you believe about what has a lot to do with sorting out what happened, but I’m going mostly with David Carradine’s version. According to Carradine, Niciphor was not only inexperienced, he was also unstable. He was so clueless about directing that he didn’t even now what it meant to set up a camera. He was prone to freak out, especially at Claudia Jennings or whenever anyone had trouble maneuvering the awkward death machines. According to Niciphor, this was often because the cast was drunk, stoned, and unruly, especially Jennings. I don’t really doubt it. Carradine himself admits that there was a bit of partying going on. Former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings was well known as a wild child anyway. But then, you’re making Deathsport. What the hell is there to be so serious about? Niciphor, however, was deadly serious about his film, and if the cast was clowning around, it only served to push him further over the edge. If things didn’t go right on the first take, he would throw a fit and throw out the entire scene and brood about it.
Things came to a head when he tore into Jennings over her inability to effectively handle the clunky death machines. Everyone was having problems with the front-heavy contraptions, but Jennings in particular irked him. It got so heated that Niciphor allegedly struck Jennings, though David Carradine says he can’t verify this since he was down at the other end of a gully waiting to do a take. Jennings was ready to quit the movie, and it was only after speaking with the producer who then spoke to Roger Corman that she was convinced to stay on. Niciphor was eventually phased out, spending most of his time skulking in the background, and Alan Arkush was brought in to complete the film — but not before Niciphor got his nose broken by David Carradine when he walked too close to a fight scene rehearsal in progress. Niciphor claims it might not have been an accident. But that’s nothing, since apparently the temperamental (or perhaps just mental) writer-director also berated Jennings and Carradine to the point where David actually just hauled off and kicked the guy’s ass.
Niciphor refutes many of the claims without actually refuting them. According to his side of things, the altercation between he and Claudia Jennings happened because Jennings was coked out while trying to operate the death machine, and that’s why she was having a hard time. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. Jenning’s cocaine addiction was well known. Niciphor further claims that Carradine was smoking hashish the whole time. Again, I don’t think this is outside the realm of believability — especially when you witness how stoned Carradine looks for most of the movie. But none of this really counters any of what Carradine said, either. The entire thing sounds like a snobs versus slobs teen sex comedy, with Carradine and Jennings cast and the lovable freewheelin’ slobs and Niciphor as the stuffy dean who hates fun. Assuming that the truth is to be found in some mix of all sides of the story, the final verdict is that the the making of Deathsport would probably be a much better film than Deathsport itself.
Things like that are why I like movies like this so much — apart from the fact that this movie is just plain weird. It’s handled with such seriousness, with such earnestness. You can feel that poor Nicholas Niciphor really believed in every line, really wanted this film to have meaning and depth. Does a film this lousy really deserve that much behind the scenes drama? I would love for the DVD to have had some commentary attached to it, either by Carradine or Niciphor — or hell, put ‘em both in the room and let them duke it out. This was the first and last time poor Nick directed a film, though he did go on to work as a writer for a few more films, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s Tusk. Beyond that, he’s been relegated to the realm of writing irate letters to Psychotronic magazine, complaining about David Carradine’s doobie habits in 1978.
Carradine, of course, needs no real introduction here. A dancer who sprung into the American consciousness courtesy of the show Kung-Fu, Carradine went on to become one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, especially when it was produced by Roger Corman. Carradine could be quite good in a role, and when he was bad, he mostly seemed harmlessly sleepy and stoned. That’s how he plays it here, meandering through Niciphor’s ponderous faux-mystic dialogue with the laid back style of a dude who was eating a lot of pot brownies. His fight scenes are awkward, but that’s more the fault of the movie itself. What can you do when you’re forced to swing around a huge plastic sword? His nemesis in Richard Lynch is…well, Lynch is actually understated compared to some of his other performances, but it’s still the exact same performance you expect and always want from Lynch. I can’t say much more than that.
Claudia Jennings is another well known, albeit far more tragic, figure in B-Movie history. Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation cinema when she appeared in the film Gator Bait, which is well known not so much because the movie is worth being well known, but more because every single video store in the universe seemed to have a sun bleached copy of the VHS tape sitting on the shelf. Jennings isn’t a great actress, and she has a sort of sleepy eyed beauty that makes her seem like she was stoned the entire time — which she apparently was. Between her and Carradine, the munchies-related catering bill must have eaten up half the film’s budget. She had her moments of glory in film, though. Unholy Rollers, for example, and Moonshine County Express. Deathsport really isn’t one of those moments, though she does get to wander naked through that neon tube room. This film comes at the end of her career, when she was heavy into drug and alcohol abuse and had a tumultuous relationship with some real estate guy (though rumors have her connected to Deathsport co-star Jesse Vint, and someone — Niciphor I think — also claimed she was attached to David Carradine, a claim that Carradine laughs off as preposterous). She cleaned up her act shortly thereafter, but amid a breakup with the realtor, fell asleep at the wheel of her car and was killed in the ensuing wreck.
But even if Jennings and Carradine were whooping it up, smoking pot, drinking whiskey, and arranging huge Deathsport orgies, nothing in their performance can come close to being as awkward or awful as that of young Will Walker, who plays one of the guys who breaks out of the deathsport competition with the range guides. This is one of those performances that is so weird and horrible that it deserves far more attention than it receives. He looks kind of like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant, with the blond page boy haircut and the same dazed thousand yard stare. But Miles is a much better actor than Walker, believe it or not. Walker’s character of Marcus spends most of his time yelling “Kaz! Help me!” in a bland monotone. If the film has an humor at all, it’s to be found in Kaz’s flashes of annoyance at having to carry this load around on his awesome adventure with Claudia Jennings. She was totally willing to go all the way, but then Marcus kept showing up and ruining the mood.
Post apocalyptic cinema from the 1970s was often slow and ponderous, not to mention incredibly self-important and pretentious. Sometimes the results are pretty great, sometimes they were ridiculous, and often they were just dull. Deathsport is sort of a missing link between the post apocalyptic films of the 70s and those that would come in the wake of Mad Max and, more importantly, its sequel, The Road Warrior. Those films featured much less cornball philosophizing and much more high octane action. Or at least attempts at high octane action. Deathsport has plenty of the corny mysticism and dime store attempts at Zen koans that one expects from 1970s sci-fi, but it also has lots of exploding motorcycles and…well…it has lots of exploding motorcycles. And it is one of the first post-apocalypse films to save itself some cash by predicting that, in the future, the world would mostly look like scrubland dotted with matte paintings of distant cities. It’s pretty fair to draw the line from this movie directly to Mad Max, Road Warrior, and from there you quickly find yourself in the domain of Warriors of the Lost World and Warlords of the 21st Century — movies that, many years after Deathsport, manage to be just as cheap and goofy as it was, but not nearly as much fun. I mean, those later movies have practically no David Carradine crotch at all!
Deathsport presents us with a loopy sort of myticism not unlike The Force as presented in Star Wars and before George Lucas turned it into some sort of genetic disease, but more accurately, it reflects the same sort of New Age filtered half understanding of Buddhism and spirituality that you find in a movie like Circle of Iron (also featuring David Carradine in a loin cloth) or in pretty much any pow wow held by some white dude claiming to be enlightened. Our range guides speak in monotone a lot about consciousness and spiritual union, and we know they are wise because they do not use contractions, but it all sounds pretty much like what a high schooler might come up with. Circle of Iron covers much of the same ground but in a more effective way and with a greater grounding in actual Zen philosophy rather than Zen as filtered through some hippie who read a couple pamphlets and then set himself up with an American ashram. But we’ll come to that movie in good time, and if nothing else, it’s probably safe to say that as many hashish brownies went into its making as went into the making of Deathsport. Star Wars must also have had some effect on this film, though, because the foley artist thought enough of it to take the TIE fighter sound effect and use them whenever David Carradine drives his motorcycle through a tunnel.
Deathsport is a pretty clumsy film, full of bad writing, plot points that make no sense, ominous talk about things that end up never happening, and a titular event that ends up being, at best, a footnote in the film’s action. The acting is lazy, the writing is ridiculous, and the props are laughable. And it’s all worth seeing, just for the sheer spectacle of it. Ill advised motorcycles as ultimate weapons movies wouldn’t have it this good again until Megaforce rolled off the assembly line. The fact that a movie this bad generated so much behind the scenes drama fills me with a sick sense of giddiness, as does the thought that Carradine and Jennings were toking up while an uptight German guy yelled at them to take his film more seriously. I don’t even know if Nick was German. I just like imagining him that way, possibly dressed in the monocle and jodhpurs get up all good directors wear. It may not be a shining example of 70s scifi, or even a shining example of a middling Roger Corman production, but it is pretty entertaining. Plus, neon disco windchime nude dancing, and so many David Carradine buffalo shots per minute that to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive sane men mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened to poor old Lord Zirpola.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United States | Starring: David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, William Smithers, Will Walker, David McLean, Jesse Vint | Writer: Nicholas Niciphor, Donald Stewart | Director: Nicholas Niciphor | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Andy Stein | Producer: Roger Corman
After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
So while Corman was basically getting along with AIP head honchos Sam Arkoff and John Nicholson, he thought that maybe in light of his more or less revolutionizing the way he, the studio, and horror films were regarded in America, he might be entitled to a better contract. AIP politely disagreed with him, and so Corman took himself and his idea for the third Poe film elsewhere. Because Vincent Price was under contract to AIP, he couldn’t cast Price in the lead role, and so he set about looking for a new actor to fulfill the spotlight in his production of The Premature Burial. Corman eventually came up with Ray Milland. Milland was blissfully ignorant of the fact that one day in the future AIP was going to graft his head to Rosie Grier, and so he agreed to take on the Poe-perfect role of a man obsessed with the belief that he will be buried alive, as was his cataleptic father. Because Richard Matheson was also under contract to AIP, Corman turned to screenwriters Charles Beaumont (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). The essence of the films, however, came with Corman. Like the previous two films, The Premature Burial would come steeped in the signature atmosphere of the Poe films: billowing fog tumbling across eerie landscapes, tormented souls, a psychedelically-tinted nightmare sequence, creepy old houses, brooding characters, and as is obvious from the title, a thing or two about being buried alive.
The day Corman was to begin principal photography, he was pleased to see Arkoff (or maybe Nicholson, or maybe both of them) show up on the set to wish him good luck despite the differences they’d had over Corman’s new contract. Differences, hell! It turned out that AIP had just purchased the studio for which Roger Corman was making the picture, so it was going to be an AIP film after all. Granted it was too late to recast the lead, but Milland was still thought of as an Academy Award winning actor, and not as “the white guy from The Thing with Two Heads,” so his casting in the lead was something to crow about, even if the part, like all other leads in the Poe films, was tailor-made for Vincent Price.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, an upstanding and intelligent member of the gentry who has a small quirk in the form of a near crippling fear of being buried alive. Now no one wants to be buried alive, except maybe show-off escape artists and people competing for fifty bucks and a burger on the latest reality show, but Guy’s fear of being entombed while still among the living goes way beyond the usual healthy fear of having dirt piled on top of you. So obsessed is he with the concept that it threatens to ruin his newly minted marriage to Emily Gault, who is played by Hammer Studios veteran Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein, and she would appear later in two more Corman AIP Poe films, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death) — and if you know Hazel Court, then you don’t want to derail anything involving her in your bedchamber. Guy shuns his wife and friends in favor of building the most elaborate tomb ever devised.
I’m not exactly certain what Guy’s occupation is, but it must have something to do with being an architectural, engineering, and mechanical genius, because the failsafe tomb he constructs for himself is a marvel. If I set out to build my own premature-burial-proof tomb, it would probably end up looking like a couple of pieces of plywood nailed together with a hole cut in the back so I can crawl out if I should happen to find myself mistaken for a corpse. Buy Guy’s tomb is utterly lavish. In fact, it’s seems even nicer than his home. It comes stocked complete with a break-away coffin so that should one wake up and find oneself in such a pine box, one need only tap the side to have the whole thing spring open or fall to pieces. A variety of levers sound various alarms to let everyone know he’s been mistakenly buried, just in case the half dozen or so escape hatches don’t open. And should that happen and he has to wait for someone to her the bells, he can while away the hours reclining in plush overstuffed chairs, drinking brandy, and flipping through the tomb’s selection of reading material. And should these ten thousand redundant escape plans all fail, he’s also stocked the tomb with poison, so that when he’s finished all his sausages and books, he can just kill himself rather than be bored. I’ve seen fewer failsafe devices on the nation’s nuclear arsenal! Not that I’ve seen the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but I can’t imagine it’s as well thought-out as Guy’s crypt.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but various things keep happening to keep Guy preoccupied with being buried alive. Additionally, his wife and the local quack think that if he’s ever going to make any progress in combating his phobia, he needs to, among other things, ditch the tomb. You’d think that since the tomb has brought him an unparalleled peace of mind, they’d just let it be. I mean, it is a nice crypt, after all, so why not keep it around? Even if he isn’t buried alive, it’ll be a swell place to just be buried regular and dead. This being a Corman Poe picture, it’s no great leap to figure out that someone is plotting to use Guy’s fear of premature burial to drive him mad and thus achieve some small sort of financial or property gain that hardly merits such a lavishly complex and psychologically difficult scheme. Some people would just whack him on the head with a candelabra and blame it on Colonel Mustard, but these people always have to construct intricate “drive them mad” intrigues that are as complicated as Guy’s crypt.
Like the previous two Poe films, The Premature Burial has a tendency to get bogged down beneath the weight of its own exposition-heavy plot. Unlike the previous two films, however, it doesn’t have Vincent Price on hand to liven up the material. Milland gives it the ol’ college try, but he seems lost with this type of material despite his commitment to delivering a solid performance. Where as Price would have had no problem taking the script and making it work for him, Milland’s portrayal comes across as excessively whiny at times and dreadfully dull at others. Still, at least Milland put effort into the role and manages a few strong scenes, which is more than could be said for the shameful display put on by Jason Robards when, some years later, he too found himself filling in for Vincent Price in a Poe film, that one being Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
If nothing else, The Premature Burial proves that it wasn’t just fan bias toward Vincent Price that kept Milland and the movie from earning a more cherished spot. Price was more than a fan favorite: he was an integral ingredient in making the films successful. Without him, it wasn’t just that “things just aren’t same.” His absence from the Poe films very nearly causes them to cease being Poe films. Exactly why Price is so indispensable to Corman’s Poe pictures is a little difficult to explain, but if you see them, well then you just understand. Part of it, naturally, has to do with the fact that Price was a marvel at turning a bad script into a good movie, and while the script for The Premature Burial isn’t bad per se, it is perhaps something much worse: dull.
Corman pours on the atmosphere – there is more fog here than in the previous two films combined, and believe me those films had a lot of fog in them – but Ray Milland simply doesn’t have Price’s knack for making you want to listen to him talk even during the slow spells. He never manages to invest the character with any sort of spark, and as such no real sympathy for him or his story ever develops in the viewer. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance, and Milland has nothing to be ashamed of (unlike you, Jason Robards!), but, well — just watch the end, when Guy emerges from his inevitable getting buried alive scene and has thus gone completely bonkers and launches into a gleefully mad bout of revenge. Milland is OK, but you just can’t help thinking how great the whole scene would have been if Price was given a chance to do it.
The rest of the cast performs with the usual competency one has come to expect by this point from both AIP and Hammer films, though some of the characters seem to be involved in subplots that never really go anywhere or get fully explained (why was Guy out there helping steal a corpse in the beginning of the film anyway?). Besides Hazel Court, who gets more of a chance to act here than she did in Curse of Frankenstein (and has one of the best scenes in the movie, during which she explains to Guy that he’s already dead, and his obsession with being buried alive has, in a way, already buried him alive), familiar faces like Alan Napier (Alfred the butler from the old Batman television series) and Dick Miller (The Terror, Truck Turner, Gremlins, and about ten million other movies) are on hand to round out the cast with their solid character acting. Unfortunately, the script tends to let the performers down, and almost all the characters are either undeveloped, underdeveloped, or just plain unlikable.
Without Price around to liven things up, the weakness screams at you like one of those screaming skulls. You know the ones. The ones that scream. I don’t know enough to know how closely the movie clings to the original 1844 story, but by all accounts, it sticks to the source material pretty tightly. Poe himself was possessed of a very similar fear of being buried alive, which is why it figures so frequently into his stories and thus so frequently into the Poe movies. Still, after seeing a buried alive plot in both of the previous films, one can’t help but hope for something a little different the third time out. Instead, we get the “total package” buried alive movie, one in which interment of the living isn’t just a part of the plot, but the entire plot. And speaking of plots, did I miss the part where they tell us exactly why shadowy characters are attempting to drive poor Guy insane? Plus, you’d think that after the guy has gone on and on about catalepsy for the whole movie, when he actually does lapse into a cataleptic state, they’d do more than just shrug and go, “Well, looks like he’s dead. Let’s get to burying’”
The lack of freshness combined with some gaping lack of explanations keep The Premature Burial situated firmly around or maybe, if I’m feeling good, slightly above the mediocre mark. Plus, it’s just not scary. Even with the gnarled old trees and fog, there are never any chills, and certainly nothing on par with the rampaging sister Usher in House of Usher or any number of scenes in Pit and the Pendulum. As such, Premature Burial remained for a long time the ignored entry into Corman’s cycle, more or less skipped over as people hastened to get from Pit and the Pendulum on to Tales of Terror, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, when everything was back as it should be and Vincent Price was once again stalking across the screen in period costumes. Premature Burial feels like a misfire – not a dreadful misfire, or an entirely unwatchable one, but a misfire never the less. The pieces — Corman, Poe, Price, Matheson, and musical composer Les Baxter — clicked so perfectly in the first two films that it becomes obvious something is amiss in The Premature Burial. The film does have its moments — chief among them Milland’s exquisitely enthusiastic tour of his “buried alive-proof tomb” — but the whole thing never fully gels. It was obvious that there just shouldn’t be any tinkering with the formula, so AIP made sure everything was back in place for the fourth film, the anthology Tales of Terror.
Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States | Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Dick Miller | Writer: Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell | Director: Roger Corman | Cinematographer: Floyd Crosby | Music: Ronald Stein and Les Baxter | Producer: Roger Corman
In 1960, American International Pictures – well-known for being a low-budget film production house possessed of some genuine talent – released The Fall of the House of Usher. It was something entirely new for the company: a color picture, released by itself instead of as part of a black and white double-feature package as was standard operating procedure for AIP. Director Roger Corman, one of the studio’s most valuable assets, had pushed for AIP to extend their usual shooting schedule (from ten days to fifteen!) and shoot the film in color. AIP was wary, but Corman had proven his ability to deliver profitable results for the company over and over, so after hearing his pitch, they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to his risky venture. With Corman as director, Vincent Price as the star, and Egdar Allan Poe as the source material, it seemed like it would be a decent enough success.
House of Usher was more than just a hit; it was a smash, and critics and fans alike suddenly had to reassess the way they thought about Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and AIP. It was a grand accomplishment of American horror, full of imagination and wit and ambiance. It’s arguably one the best American horror films ever made, and certainly one of the top five or six gothic horrors from the period, ranking alongside the very best from Hammer, Mario Bava, or Antonio Margheriti’s own Edgar Allan Poe film, 1964′s Castle of Blood. It certainly convinced AIP to invest more time and money (relatively speaking) in Roger Corman and a second entry into the gothic horror film drawing from the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
Corman’s initial idea for a second film was to do Masque of the Red Death, but the then recent release of Ingmar Berman’s Seventh Seal bore several very similar images to what Corman was planning for Masque. Considering the reputation Seventh Seal was building for itself as one of the great films of all time, Corman felt it prudent under the circumstances to shelve the idea for Masque for a while and go on to film one of Poe’s most famous short stories, The Pit and the Pendulum. There was just one small problem: the story was really short.
That’s why they call them short stories, after all, and no matter how you sliced it up, there wasn’t enough material in the original story to account for a feature length film. But never fear! Corman and Matheson decided to employ the approach that would work for this and plenty of other subsequent Poe adaptations (especially those directed by Gordon Hessler after Corman’s departure from the world of direction). They wrapped Poe’s story up inside a story of their own design, written to the best of their ability to feel like Poe material. In the case of Hessler’s later films, as we shall see, this didn’t work too terribly well. For Pit and Pendulum, however, Matheson and Corman hit one out of the park, or at least got a triple. If it’s not a home run, it’s only because it bears a number of similarities to House of Usher, those these similarities are there primarily because they’re ever-present in the works of Poe.
Price, playing Don Medina, once again stars as the tortured head of a family cocooned within the walls of a crumbling estate that he believes to be the architectural embodiment of evil itself. In the case of Usher, it was because so many of the relatives who lived in the palace were evil. In Pit and the Pendulum, the sole reason for the lurking sense of dread is Don Medina’s father, a former Grand Inquisitor who used the palace basement as his torture and interrogation chamber. When young Barnard (Johnathan Kerr) receives a vague letter from Medina informing him that Barnard’s sister – Medina’s wife – has died, Barnard sets out for Medina’s crumbling villa to uncover the details of his sister’s untimely passing. Though frustrated initially, he eventually learns that Medina believes his wife was literally terrified to death by something she saw in the house, and presumably, something inside the off-limits torture chamber. Medina is also haunted by the belief that his wife was actually alive when they interred her in her tomb, something the local doctor swears cannot possibly be true.
Barnard is slow to buy into Medina’s “scared to death” explanation, and with no small amount of due reason. Medina, either out of grief, encroaching madness, or dishonesty is consistently aloof and vague in his explanation of things, and though he eventually lets Barnard see the taboo torture chamber, he absolutely refuses to open a sealed door that leads to what Medina pegs as a device of unspeakable cruelty and evil. And as one might surmise, strange and inexplicable spooky goings-on start plaguing the household, so much so that Medina becomes convinced that his dead wife, angry at having been entombed alive, has returned from the grave to seek unholy revenge.
To satisfy Medina’s terror and Barnard’s demand for some sane story of his sister’s passing, they decide to open the tomb. Things, as you would guess, only get worse from there, driving Medina to the point of insanity, then right over the edge of the cliff. The action culminates in the titular pit as Medina, his mind shattered, begins to believe he is his own Inquisitor father, and that it’s high time he got some use out of the old torture implements. It won’t be much of a surprise to fans of Corman’s Poe films to discover that there is a dastardly conspiracy behind the ghostly occurrences.
Despite the obvious similarity to House of Usher — the evil palace, the wretched ancestors, the premature burial of someone’s sister, and Price as a man at the edge of his sanity — Pit and the Pendulum doesn’t feel like a rehash as much as it does feel like a variation on a theme. Indeed, most of the Poe films would involve, in one way or another, the concept of premature burial and the torment of a man by specters from beyond the grave. But Matheson’s script manages to make it all feel, if not completely different, then at least looked at from a different angle. Different enough so that the movie still feels fresh.
In many ways, in fact, Pit and the Pendulum emerges as an even better film than its predecessor. There is something even more clinging, eerie, and nightmarish about the atmosphere. If Roderick Usher’s house was the very picture of decaying elegance, then Don Medina’s cliffside palace takes it to the next level. A sense of dread lurks in every corner. The set decoration is, as with House of Usher, extremely detailed and quite gorgeous. Corman departs from the previous film, and from the Hammer films that inspired him, by setting his tale not in the Victorian era, but instead much earlier. During the 1600s, I believe (Hammer’s Twins of Evil would later place itself during the same era, though in a much different setting). The costumes, like the sets, are superb. And like the first film, the ultimate success or failure of the movie rests on the shoulders of Vincent Price.
They prove most capable shoulders. Where the character of Roderick Usher was quiet, soft-spoke, and sinister, Don Medina doesn’t suffer from Usher’s peculiar sensitivity to loud noises, and so Price is allowed a little more freedom in his depiction of the main character. Price was an actor who was able to gauge more or less perfectly just how far over the top he has to play a character to make it successful. Medina allows him to push things a little further than the previous film, but his performance is infused with an amazing degree of pathos. Medina lacks any of the sinister tendencies of Roderick Usher, and so our sympathies are completely with him as we watch him struggle first with the fear that he buried his wife alive, and later that she is haunting him as revenge. Price’s performance is nothing short of brilliant, and his inevitable breakdown (it is a horror film, after all) is wrenching because he’s such a decent guy.
Countering Price’s noteworthy turn is his co-star, the relatively inexperienced Jonathan Kerr. Kerr’s delivery is stiff and at times awkward, and I believe he sets some sort of record for use of the word, “sir” in a single film. I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as calling it a bad performance, but compared to the rest of the cast, he’s the obvious weak link. And speaking of the rest of the cast, now would be a good time to mention that Pit and the Pendulum marks the America film debut of Italian horror queen Barbara Steele. Steele first came to horror prominence with her career-defining role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and she quickly became one of the icons of the horror genre. She appears here, in flashbacks and during the finale, to torment Price’s Don Medino with her beyond-the-grave beauty. Truth be told, it’s rather a limited role, similar in scope to later horror icon teaming like Price-Lee in Hessler’s Poe films, but then any Barbara Steele is good Barbara Steele as far as I’m concerned.
As with House of Usher, the cast is relatively restricted, though Corman does allow himself one or two more extra characters for a grand total of six — seven if you count the carriage driver from the beginning of the film who has no lines. With such a small cast, each actor counts, even in a relatively small role, and with the aforementioned exception, everyone is up to the task. In addition, they’re given gorgeously spooky sets to inhabit, and the script affords some real chills that I found to be much scarier than anything in the previous film. Of particular note is the scene in which they open the tomb of Medina’s wife to find her corpse contorted into a hideous shrieking pose. It’s quite a striking and terrifying image that relies less on being gross and more on playing to our basic fears, for though we may not obsess about it like Edgar Allan Poe or the characters in these movies, I doubt really that anyone takes too much comfort in the thought of being buried alive. The scene in the tomb capitalizes perfectly on our dread. Whispering voices add to the chills, and when the pit and pendulum torture chamber is finally revealed, it is a marvelous sight the likes of which wouldn’t really be topped until some of the wonderfully phantasmagoric scenes in Masque of the Red Death. The revelation of what exactly is going on isn’t a complete surprise for us looking back, now that so many films with a similar twist have been made, but it’s still decent if not a little underdeveloped in the motivation category.
Whether or not Pit and the Pendulum is a better film than House of Usher is a moot question. What is important is that it’s not a disappointment. It maintains the lofty standards set by the first film and proved the success — both artistically and financially — was no fluke. That Corman showed he could do it again at the same level and with the same results at the box office and from critics practically guaranteed that he would be making Poe films for AIP for as long as they could get away with it.
Release Date: 1961 | Country: United States | Starring: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, Patrick Westwood, Lynette Bernay, Larry Turner, Mary Menzies, Charles Victor | Screenplay: Richard Matheson | Director: by Roger Corman | Cinematography: Floyd Crosby | Music: Les Baxter
So this is the one that started it all, so to speak, so long as you consider “it all” to be the first cycle of films based, sometimes extremely loosely, on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and directed by low-budget legend Roger Corman. Prior to this film, Corman had made a name for himself slapping together drive-in quickies while Price had become a beloved horror film icon working with William Castle. Film production company AIP had specialized primarily in black-and-white genre pictures, made two at a time with ten-day shooting schedules. Everyone came together for this historic meeting of elements that remains, to this day, one of the best examples of American-made gothic horror films. Corman’s Poe films for American International Pictures became to the United States what Hammer films were in England: low budget, wonderfully acted, gorgeously designed horror films dripping with atmosphere and literary tradition. It was Corman’s first picture in scope, and one of AIP’s first color films to be sold as an individual movie rather than as part of a package. It also had an extended shooting schedule – a whopping fifteen days as opposed to ten.