Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Blood and Lace" (1971)

Anthology Film Archives is hosting a several month-long retrospective of the great independent movie company American International Pictures. AIP is virtually synonymous with drive-in fodder, exploitation escapism, and guerrilla film-making tactics that re-wrote the book and produced some incredible talent, ranging from Roger Corman to Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Harrington, and many, many others.

To kick off the festival, Anthology asked cult cinema maestro William Lustig (director of Maniac, Vigilante, and the Maniac Cop series, and founder of the Blue Underground video label) to pick and introduce a film. His choice? A rarity from the AIP catalog: Blood and Lace (1971), directed by first-and-only-time filmmaker Phillip Gilbert.

The story is about a teenager, Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) whose mother was a prostitute who was murdered by a hammer. The killer is still on the loose. While the police are investigating, Ellie is placed in an orphanage run by the sadistic Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame), who has the tendency to kill any of her children who try to run away and hides their bodies in the freezer along with her deceased husband, who she is keeping on ice until science can revive him. Meanwhile, Ellie has the hots for a young stud who does yard work bare-chested, but her roommate, Bunch, is the jealous and spiteful type who will do anything to keep the boy all to herself. Then there is the lecherous janitor who lures girls into the basement. And then there is that hammer-wielding killer who is still on the loose.

All in all? Hell yeah! Vintage sleazy, low-budget thrills.

But there are also some specific things I like about this movie.

First and foremost, Gloria Grahame. B-movies have long been the place where stars go when their career begins to fade, and that was certainly true in the 60s and 70s when a number of classic Hollywood talent started turning up in horror movies, thanks to the run of "psycho-biddy" films in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. Blood and Lace falls into this boom, and as was often the case, even though the picture might have been beneath the talent of the star, the star still shined. And in Blood and Lace, Gloria is amazing. An original femme fatale, Gloria was never just the sexy bad girl waiting to lure a man to his doom. In movies like In a Lonely Place and Human Desire, there was a real vulnerability to her character, a palpable and desperate need for human connection. But when the time came, as in The Big Heat when she slugged Lee Marvin with the coffee pot, she could be a violent spitfire. In Blood and Lace, she gives a nuanced and subtle performance of an aging widow who is struggling to hold on to her home and business, and will do anything to maintain her sense of control and authority. She obviously has some sexual hangups as she's willing to torture and kill those libidinous teens when their hormones take control. And yet, she's devoted to her husband and the thought that one day medical science will bring him back to her. Gloria is pathetic, pathological, perverse, and psychotic, but it's the combination of all those things that makes her both the film's villain but also its most sympathetic character.

Another thing I like? The opening first-person murder sequence that predates Halloween. The film begins with the camera stalking a suburban house at night, it sneaks inside, pulls a hammer from a drawer, and murders the sleeping victims. It's a shocking opening that grabs and pulls you into the story.

And another thing? Crazy guy with burned face running around with the hammer. Is it all part of Ellie's dreams, or is he really stalking her? Great make-up effects, as the guy looks really freaky.

Structurally, I also like the way the film builds itself around several separate plot impulses. There's the mystery of the initial murder, then there's Ellie's desire to escape from the orphanage and find her real father, then there's Gloria's struggle to hold onto her home, and then all those bodies in the basement, and of course the love triangle with the roommate and the yard boy. With so many different elements at play, it often feels like the film could go off in another direction at any given moment. And when the film finally does conclude, and all the plot strings finally tie up, everything suddenly makes sense. A sick, perverse, and darkly funny sense.


Now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 6

I feel like I'm in a Cornell Woolrich vinyl nightmare. When I last confessed, this shelf was completely empty. Where did all these records come from? Am I suffering from some sort of LP amnesia? Did I rob a record store and conveniently forget it? Or did I actually buy all of these?

In true noir fashion, the truth is the worst possibility of all.

I'm guilty as charged.

But since I still haven't regained my memory, I'll have to go through all of these another day to see what is on the shelf. In the mean time, here is another batch of new acquisitions.

Stiff Little Fingers - Nobody's Heroes
Kitty Wells - The Kitty Wells Story
Count Basie - Basie Jam
Porter Wagoner - The Carroll County Accident
Graham PArker and the Rumour - Stick to Me
Tangerine Dream - Sorcerer Soundtrack

The Beatles - Beatles '65
The Beatles - Introducing The Beatles
Magazine - After the Fact
George Benson - Beyond the Blue Horizon
The Impressions - Greatest Hits
Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Al Hibbler - A Meeting of the Times

Friday, July 31, 2015

"The Golden Gizmo" by Jim Thompson (1954)

I absolutely loved The Golden Gizmo. It might be the most batshit crazy Jim Thompson book I've read (16, so far) and for Thompson, that's saying something. The Killer Inside Me may be nutso, but does it have a talking dog? No. But The Golden Gizmo does. The dog also sings. And it kills. And that's just for starters. It reads like slapstick anarchy: full of pratfalls, perversion, and psychosis, like some long-lost Marx Brothers noir made by Roger Corman.

The main character is Toddy Kent, a door-to-door gold buyer. When he accidentally pockets a 24-karat gold watch from Mr. Alvarado, his life turns upside down. His room is tossed, the watch stolen, and his dipso wife, Elaine, strangled with her stocking. Toddy thinks Alvarado is guilty of the theft and murder, and Alvarado thinks it was Toddy. But before Toddy can figure out what really happened, however, he finds himself working an illegal gold running scan across the Mexican border for Alvarado, and everywhere he turns there seems to be someone waiting to sap him over the head or chase him into an alley.

Originally published by Lion in 1954, this is certainly Thompson's most bonkers plot yet, and it reads like one giant slapstick chase scene after another. In one gloriously zany escapade, Alvarado's partner, Dolores, and the talking dog chase Toddy into a cabaret, where he joins the performance on stage, then a chorus girl swings at him with a wine bottle, he escapes into an alley, and then into a brothel where he must engage the services of a girl, but before he can use them he is on the run again, through a hidden door in a wall, he interrupts another man's liaison and beats the guy up, climbs up a fire escape while hands emerge from windows grabbing at his ankles, on the roof he knocks over a chimney, falls through a skylight into a flophouse where he is shuttled into a church service where, wouldn't you know it, the dog is waiting for him, singing with the choir. The dog's singing, however, is so bad it gets the both of them kicked out onto the street where is he picked up and taken to Alvarado.

Yeah. And you thought I was kidding about how weird this book is …

But just when you thought Thompson has gone off the deep end, he throws in a paragraph like this, a perfectly crafted story in just a few lines so packed with a lifetime of hurt and despair. Slightly pathetic, but at the same time sympathetic.

Toddy hadn't cried since the night he ran away from home. He'd half-killed his stepfather with a two-by-four, bashed him over the head as he came into the barn. He'd tried to make it look like an accident, like one of the rafters had broken. But he was shaking with fear, with that and the bitter coldness of the night. He'd huddled down in a corner of the boxcar, and sometime during the night a tramp had crawled into the car also. Observing the proprieties of the road, the tramp had gone into a corner, that corner, to relieve himself. And Toddy had been soaked, along with his thin parcel of sandwiches. The stuff had frozen on him. He'd cried then, for the last time. 

And, in a nutshell, that's Thompson for you. A bit of a maniac, yet somehow strangely human.


Available in print/ebook from Mulholland Books.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"The Cat Girl" (1957)

The Cat Girl (1957) is the lesser-known but still notorious remake of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 classic, Cat People. I say "lesser-known" because it has never been on DVD (though you an stream it here at AMC), and "notorious" because those who have hunted down a copy seem to all have a negative opinion of it. I beg to differ.

I liked The Cat Girl. Sure, it's no Cat People (what is?), but there is still much to enjoy about the remake.

Barbara Shelley, star of Village of the Damned and Hammer classics like The Gorgon, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, plays Lenora, a young woman summoned to her family's creepy estate to learn about her inheritance. Unfortunately, she's not getting any money, just a family curse that turns her into a cat with the urge to kill. Surrounded by a cheating husband and an old-flame who married someone else, Lenora has a lot of rage she's looking to unleash.

Like its predecessor, The Cat Girl leaves much to the imagination and relies on the shadow of implied violence. And despite its low budget, the film works well within its limitations of small, interior sets.

Another thing I like about The Cat Girl is that it combines two of my favorite psychological thriller concepts. First is the, "Look, you're crazy, even though you don't yet realize it" scenario when the family is trying to convince her the curse is real. Second is the, "Look, I'm crazy, even though you don't believe me" scenario after Lenora is convinced of her duplicity and she can't convince the law or the doctors that she is guilty of murder. There's something utterly terrifying about having your friends and family tell you you're crazy or illogical, when everything appears normal to you. It makes you feel so vulnerable and alone. And then, to make matters worse, once she accepts the truth about the curse, she can't convince anyone else about it. The rest of the world thinks she's even crazier than ever. The effect of such psychological alienation is a fascinating cinematic subject, and I'm drawn to plots that explore that area.

Barbara Shelley gives a marvelous performance as someone whose mental state is constantly shifting, from skepticism and disbelief to shock, denial, guilt, remorse, and ultimately vengeance, all the while unsecured by a sense of sadness and rage that she was never able to express or even admit to herself. The public and private perception of her psychosis is something The Cat Girl goes into more depth than the original. When Lenora is locked in a cell for observation by doctors, the film follows in the tradition of Jane Eyre, The Yellow Wallpaper, and other narratives about misunderstood "madwomen" locked away behind closed doors. Seeing her as neither a simplistic villain or victim, The Cat Girl sympathizes with Lenora's vulnerability against a system and society that represses both her mental and physical desires and changes.

I also like the whole "creepy family mansion" and "family curse" pretexts. What happened to those? Did families downsize to smaller, suburban homes or city condos? And did curses go away with the internet? It seems like butlers (or uncles, as is the case in The Cat Girl) must be depressed, without un-notarized wills to read to younger family members who they haven't seen since they were children.

With its creepy gothic atmosphere, feline violence, unsupportive family and friends, and a mentally unstable protagonist, I gotta admit, The Cat Girl is a pretty good remake that brings new things to the table.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"After the First Death" by Lawrence Block (1969)

Upon waking in a strange hotel room with a hellish hangover and a dead prostitute not the floor, with the door bolted from the inside, Alex Penn had a discomforting realization:

"I've done it again."

The second time he's woken up from a bender with next to a beautiful corpse, Alex doesn't think the law will be very lenient with him this time around, he goes on the run, hiding out in sleazy midtown hotels, determined to figure out who has framed him--twice--for murder. That is, unless he is really is guilty of murder.

Block is one of my favorite New York City writers, with impeccable  depictions of Manhattan's scummy streets and scummier inhabitants, and After the First Death is one of my favorite books of his. Originally published in 1969, its firsthand intimacy of the island's geography and cultural climate is invaluable. Block gives us a vivid impression of the bygone days of the dirty Forty Deuce, of Times Square hustlers and their desperate bustle, of Village nights spent ripping off sailors and setting them up with a couple of imaginary girls that won't give them a happy ending, of fleabag motels and dirty sheets, and endless wanderings and nights that go on forever.

Block's early work is edgy, his characters dangerous, and their intentions disreputable. They're not likable people, their vices aren't charming, and their violent habits aren't heroic. In the case of Alex Penn, he's a scumbag. A history teacher who cheated on his spouse, ruined his career, alienated friends and colleagues, and contributed to the death of two women (whether by his hand or whoever framed him). What's interesting about the plot of After the First Death is that Alex is pursuing a truth that could very well confirm his guilt instead of absolve him. Even at best, recreating the alcoholic nights lost to his memory is only going to show just how reckless and despicable he is.

So many mystery novels use booze as a crutch, but Block's books show the destructive effects of alcohol on the self and on others. He doesn't make alcoholism and debauchery attractive. The opening chapter is one of the most vivid and nauseating renderings of a hangover. There's nothing cool or romantic about it. Alex Penn is miserable, and he has only himself to blame. And that emerges as one of the biggest themes of the book--regardless of whether or not someone is framing him, Alex has already screwed himself and others over in the past, and here he is repeating the past, "again" as he so bluntly puts it.

Told in the first-person, much of After the First Death is stuck in Alex's head as he tries and fails to make sense of what happened. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is that he is well aware that things might be as they seem--he might have killed the woman. Even if he didn't, he knows he was capable of it, which is almost just as bad. He is in a perpetual state of guilt--every drink he takes is a crime waiting to be committed, and therefore every desire to drink represents potential violence. It's a steadily downward trajectory that reminds of David Goodis, an introspective narrative of relentless self-doubt and self-loathing.

Lest I make this book sound like a total downer, Block's characteristic wry humor is peppered throughout the book. Above all else, Block is an incredibly story-teller with an addictive, inimitable voice that brings you back time and again to his work. The timing, the structure, the scenes, the rhythm of the dialog, everything you love about Block is here.

Visit Lawrence Block's website for links to purchase the book.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Monster and the Girl (1941)

Call it gorilla noir.

After a gangster sullies his sister's reputation, Scot Webster goes gunning for revenge and winds up framed for another murder before he can kill the guy he wants! After his execution, scientists remove his brain and put it in the head of a gorilla. Once the experiment is complete, the gorilla escapes and goes hunting for revenge.

In case you were wondering, this movie rules.

The Monster and the Girl is just over an hour's worth of classic Hollywood guy-in-a-gorilla-suit goodness. It's also directed by Stuart Heisler, who in just a few years would direct the great Veronica Lake-Alan Ladd adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key. You can tell this isn't some hack job by just how seriously Heisler treats the material. Strong, compelling performances from the actors, and richly stylized camera compositions and direction. The last third of the movie, when the gorilla goes on his murder spree, is stunning to watch unfold. Much of it occurs without any dialog, just silent stalking and vicious, sudden attacking. Remarkably photographed and dynamically edited, it evokes the same shadowy anxiety and dread as some of the great film noir endings--only with a gorilla thrown into the mix.

"The Monster" is played by Charles Gemora, one of the legendary Hollywood gorilla guys. Gemora also had a long career behind the scenes, working on sets for silent classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Thief of Bagdad, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Black Pirate, and later he spent decades working as a makeup artist. "The Girl" is Ellen Drew, a terrific actress who also appeared alongside Dick Powell in Preston Sturges' wonderful comedy, Christmas in July, as well opposite Vincent Price in Samuel Fuller's western, The Baron of Arizona, and with John Payne in Robert Florey's great B-noir, The Crooked Way. Also in the cast are Phillip Terry as the brother, and Paul Lukas (Academy Award-winner for Watch on the Rhine) as the wicked gangster.

And the scientist who makes all the magic happen? None other than the great George Zucco!

I've seen it a couple times, and will be watching it many times more. I'm glad I have this one on DVD for future reference.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Thrill Killers (1964)

The credo of exploitation cinema is to have the most shamelessly provocative, alluring, and tantalizing title possible, even if the film doesn't live up to it.

Thankfully, The Thrill Killers more than lives up to its name.

Joe Saxon is a down-on-his-luck, out-of-work actor, and his wife Liz is sick of it. She leaves him and goes to visit friends at a nearby diner, and Joe goes looking for her. Little do they know that they are both walking into not one, but two unfortunate situations. Not only have three lunatic murderers escaped from a mental institution and taken over the diner, but a fourth, unrelated psycho is hitchhiking around around the outskirts of Hollywood and killing everyone in his path.

Oh, hell yes!

This movie has it all. Decapitation. Axe attacks. Hollywood pool party debauchery. Groovy dancing. Diner invasion kidnappings. A horse and motorcycle chase. A trip down the Hollywood Walk of Fame (including Buster Crabbe's star). People are thrown off mountains. There are fist fights. Gun fights. Spousal fights. Cowboy campers.

I loved this movie. It has a hard pulp edge and an unhinged aesthetic sensibility. It's a spit in the face to slick, mainstream, and morally grounded movies. The whole plot unfurls like some nightmare: one minute you're at home with your lame ass husband, the next you're meeting a friend for a burger at the diner, and the next three ax-wielding maniacs have you hostage, and then just when you think you're home free there's that other maniac roaming around. The story is over-the-top, but it is supposed to be, and this film manages to balance being both exciting and frightening at the same time.

The movie was directed by Ray Dennis Steckler (who also stars as the hitchhiker under his pseudonym, Cash Flagg). In an interview on the DVD, Steckler explained, "I just wanted to make a crazy movie … and then I got carried away at the end with the horse chase … I'm playing Federico Fellini, now, I can do what I want!"

As if the movie didn't have enough psycho cred already, apparently the horse chase stunt double lived on a nearby ranch with the Manson family.

69 minutes of pure pulp psychosis.

I think I need to see more of Mr. Steckler's movies.

Available on DVD.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 5

The first step to overcoming addiction is to admit you have a problem.

While I'm not ready to admit that I'm a vinyl addict, there certainly was a problem.

A big problem.

A big stack of records on my floor. That grew to two piles. And then three. [Note: This is not the monstrous stack, but a smaller counterpart.]

After facing my demons face-to-face, I decided the only solution was not to buy less records, but to buy shelves.

Now I not only have shelves, but all my records are alphabetized, and I have one free shelf, so I can totally buy more records, right?

Well, I already had three bags of LPs I hadn't gone through, so I decided to open one up and take a look.

Here's the loot:

Ray Charles - "Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul"; Glenn Ohrlin - "Cowboy Songs"; MFSB - "Love is the Message"; Sarah Vaughn with Oscar PEterson, Joe Pass, Louie Bellson, and Ray Brown (HOLY SHIT) - "How Long Has This Been Going On?"; Buddy Holly - "A Rock & Roll Collection" (2 lps); Charles Lloyd - "Soundtrack"

Three Art Tatum Albums - "Solo Piano" (Capitol), "Piano Starts Here", and "Masterpieces" (2 lps); Chick Corea and Gary Burton - "Crystal Silence"; Annette Funicello - "Annette's Beach Party"; Ralph Sutton and Jay McShann - "The Last of the Whorehouse Piano Players"

Leroy Holmes - "Once Upon a Time in the West"; Duane Eddy - "The Twangs The Thang"; Earl Hines and Jaki Byard - "Duet!"; Roy Clark - "Guitar Spectacular!"; Hank Snow - "Spanish Fireball"; Len Chandler - "To Be a Man"
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