On MANDY

Acclaimed hallucinatory horror drama is now on Blu-ray

There’s a primal, animal power that propels director Panos Cosmatos’s acclaimed experimental horror head-trip MANDY. A kind of danger pulsing beneath its arcane imagery, bubbling-forth from its moaning electronic music and arch, hissing dialogue. The film just feels alien. It feels evil.  It courses with a sort of seething darkness and descends into such brain-swelling madness that you can almost smell it.

Since its early festival appearances, the picture has armed itself with a torrent of critical buzz and within weeks of its brief theatrical release has become an instant cult film. And it deserves its reputation and its fevered following. Certainly the presence of contemporary expressionist actor Nicolas Cage as its rage-riddled protagonist has provided the hook in which MANDY has mysteriously ingrained itself into the mainstream, with many scribes citing that Cosmatos (who previously gave us the bizarre and even harder to grasp BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW) had finally given Cage the psychedelic landscape in which his brand of bug-eyed, screaming method acting could thrive, or at least seem less glaringly misplaced. They’re half right. This is one of the most ideal cinematic landscapes for the performer to play in, but his work here is not merely camp, nor is- despite its over-the-edge nature – the film itself. MANDY is in fact a grand guignol phantasmagoria of the highest order, a living, breathing work of art and a bona fide nightmare blasted onto the parameters of the moving picture.

The plot of MANDY is elemental. Here, Cage plays Red (a character that echoes in some respects his equally mesmerizing turn in HALLLOWEEN director David Gordon Green’s brilliant 2013 dark drama JOE) , a rugged logger who lives a quiet life in the deep woods with his beloved wife and soulmate, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Embraced in their womb like cottage, the pair are inseparable, their passion palpable. When the doe-eyed, scar-faced Mandy goes wandering in the woods  one night (or is it day? Night and day seemingly bleed together here) and catches the eye of a roving cult leader (Linus Roache, PRIEST) and his sycophantic, drug-addled followers, she and Red are beaten and kidnapped by a mythical band of motorcycle riding meth-mutants and “delivered” to the cult. Mandy resists the leader’s perverse, egomaniacal come-ons and is in turn burned alive, while her husband watches, screaming. We watch too, of course and while the sequence itself is difficult to endure, Cosmatos bathes it in such poetry and pathos and delirium that it becomes almost beautiful, like a SUSPIRIA-bathed version of THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. When the smoke clears, the left-for-dead Red, frees himself from his bonds, loses his mind and arms himself as he goes deep, deep, deep into the forest, into the heart of darkness to hunt and kill the monsters, human and otherwise.

It’s difficult to describe MANDY without making it sound like a conventional revenge-fueled horror movie and while it IS a simplistic DEATH WISH informed thriller at its core, Cosmatos has no interest in making Red’s journey conventional or familiar. He takes his time sinking into the rhythm of the film, creating a sense of unease and baroque beauty from the very beginning, with King Crimson’s “Starless and Bible Black” slithering majestically across the soundtrack while he introduces his magenta-tinted netherworld.  Characters speak sparingly and when they do converse, its about the cosmos, mythical things, unknowable things. So meandering is MANDY’s opening  half hour that many viewers might tune out and it’s almost as if Cosmatos is daring you to stay inside his hot, fluid little Hell. But if you do stick around, if you are patient, he rewards you with visions so maniacal that they’ll be burned onto your brain for longer than you might wish them to be there. And if nothing else, MANDY is the only film I have every seen to honor obscure American indie director Don Dohler, with scenes from Dohler’s wonderfully awful no-budget monster mash NIGHT BEAST weirdly spliced into the picture’s story.

RLJE’s Blu-ray release looks astounding, with DP Benjamin Loeb’s darks and bright reds and blues melting the screen and even if you missed being swallowed by the film in a theater, seeing it on the best possible monitor will dazzle your senses just fine. The disc’s features are spare, with a brief behind the scenes doc and a few deleted scenes that were understandably removed from the final cut plus a longer look at the now famous Cheddar Goblin ad. Simply put, there’s no other film like MANDY. It’s not a movie to watch. It’s an experience to be had, an environment to lose yourself in. And it will damage you.

On GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS

A look at the legendary 1973 killer sheep cult movie

It’s not easy reviewing a film as singularly fucking insane as Fredric C. Hobbs’ jaw-dropping 1973 freak-out GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS.  So much has been written and spoken about the picture, mostly by people saddling it with the dreaded “so bad it’s good” handle and certainly, it would be easy to dismiss this Something Weird Video favorite as a slab of inept trash made by desert-touched madmen who lapped up too much LSD in the late ’60s. But GODMONSTER is anything but a bad film (more like a baaaaaaad film). Rather it’s an almost experimental, totally unpredictable and fever-pitched horror-western that seems beamed-in from another dimension and it simply refuses to behave by any conventional film structure standards. It leaks a kind of authentic, hard-wired weirdness that so many other phony baloney “cult” filmmakers have forever tried hard to capture, but that’s impossible to fabricate. And while it often feels like a forgotten Alejandro Jodorowsky movie, I’d much rather watch GODMONSTER than THE HOLY MOUNTAIN any day of the week.

The manic plot of GODMONSTER involves a wool-vested cowpoke shepherd who goes to Reno, wins big and is ripped off by a saloon full of cackling goons and snickering whores. He then passes out in the sheep stable, sees a blurry mass of sheep psychedelia and wakes up to find one of the beasts has become a mutant. Soon the local anthropology professor takes both the hungover rube and his freaky sheep to some sort of lab to study the beast, who quickly grows into a wild, shambling mass of a monster that is actually a sculpture created by Hobbs. See, Hobbs’ fimmaking career was more of a sideline to his multi-media art experiments and his writing. He was an abstract multi-hyphenate and a true eccentric who made sure his wild-eyed ideas and weird world-view was blasted on as many platforms as he could muster. That one of said outlets was this incredible picture is certainly one of the greatest things that ever happened to the America counterculture in the 1970s. And no, we’re not joking.

Anyway, while the “Godmonster” is baaa-ing away behind bars, the corrupt Mayor of the dusty, time-warp caught town and his braying, surveillance-equipment fetishist sheriff hatch a plan to toy with and hang a black prospector representing a corporation looking to develop on their land. First they fake a dog’s death, then beat him up, then frame him for a shooting before stringing the poor bastard up. It’s hard to describe this mania but as mental-case as it reads, it actually kind of makes sense in the context of the film. Soon the “Godmonster” escapes – as does the prospector – and the town is running for its life from the poor, shaggy and misunderstood sheep creature. By the time the movie reaches its howling climax, wherein literally everything flies off a cliff in an a fiery mess while the Mayor gets locked into a kind of rapture and more mutant sheep are born, you’ll be picking yourself up off the filthy floor, wondering what the hell you just watched.

GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS is AWESOME. Like, seriously. No irony here. It’s awesome and Hobbs knows exactly what he’s doing, with his rapid-fire, spastic pacing and quick edits and over-the-top characters and impossible scenarios and buried social commentary. It’s the ultimate!

SWV and AGFA team up for this fun-packed Blu-ray release, giving us a 4K scan of one of the only surviving prints of the film. It still looks pretty battered but it’s as good as it gets and plus, how clean do we REALLY want GODMONSTER to be, anyway? In classic SWV release fashion, the disc is larded up with oddball extras, like a turgid UFO sightings “documentary” and a funny-as-fuck school bus safety film plus an entire, barely watchable second feature film, THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT.

GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS is a work of art made up from gobs of trash and filthy refuse, like a Kuchar brothers film made for the atomic monster set. I’m so sorry I’m just discovering its glories now because, had I seen it earlier, during my formative years, my life might have taken a very different course. But it’s not too late for YOU, reader! Find it! Find it NOW!

Interview: Nicky Henson on PSYCHOMANIA

A conversation with the star of the classic British exploitation movie

From its first dreamy frames, as a gang of leather clad, skull faced bikers poured into black leather come charging over a mist drenched hill in slow motion, to its final surreal wind down, with men, women and motorcycles morphing into massive tombstones, to all its cheeky, wonderfully lunatic mayhem in the middle, cinema history has never, ever seen the likes of a picture quite like Don Sharp’s unapologetically mental PSYCHOMANIA.

Released in 1971 (in some markets on a double bill with the equally nuts WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS) and made to crassly ride the coattails of EASY RIDER, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with perhaps a dash of ROSEMARY’S BABY added for supernatural spice, PSYCHOMANIA (filmed as THE LIVING DEAD and also known as THE DEATH WHEELERS) is an artifact of post-mod, British kitsch, admired with irony and worshiped by millions, perhaps thousands, even dozens of cult movie fans around the globe.

The film charts the misadventures of cocky, lithe London based bike gang leader Tom Latham (WITCHFINDER GENERAL’s Nicky Henson), whose devotion to his gang of miscreant riders known as ‘The Living Dead’ is matched only by his interest in black magic, not to mention his love for his mystical mother (Beryl Reid). When his shady butler Shadwell ( a slumming George Sanders) turns him on to the secret of eternal life through suicide, Tom leads his followers into an outrageous ( and unintentionally hilarious) orgy of self sacrifice and night riding living death. Meanwhile, composer John Cameron’s ear shredding psych-rock score buzzes away in the background…

And though he would evolve into one of Britain’s premier theatre and television stars, the wonderful Nicky Henson (who indeed, as the devil-may-care Tom, owns every frame he’s in) still holds the experience of making this demented gem close to his former-frog worshiping heart.

I rescued Henson from his stone monolith prison to blaze the trails of his memory about those glory days of British B movie bliss…

ALEXANDER: So, you know that in some circles, PSYCHOMANIA is considered the epitome of cool…

HENSON: Cool? (laughs) I can’t believe that, I don’t think it was ever cool! But I’m astonished at its popularity, really. It’s just bizarre that I now get invites to go to universities and talk to their film societies about it.

ALEXANDER: Well it was written by two ex-patriot Communist sympathizers. And if you really dig, there IS subtext there…

HENSON: There is? Well, I guess you can make anything mean anything, can’t you!

ALEXANDER: You’ve had such a long and varied career on stage and screen, but can you recall the time when the script for PSYCHOMANIA ended up in your hands?

HENSON: Yes, I remember distinctly. I was in the theatre, I have always been at the theatre, that’s me, that is where I live. But at the time, I was at new theatre called The Young Vic, run by Frank Dunlop, who was my mentor. It was a theatre for 15 – 25 year olds, for a young theatrically virgin audience, to show them the classics. The money was low – only 35 pounds a week – but it was a great experience. Now in England at the time, we still had the B movie industry and the unions would allow you to be in a play in the evening and you could do films in the day time, until 5:30pm. So this script comes through the letterbox one day from my agent and I since I was always a motorcyclist…

ALEXANDER: In your first film, you played a biker…

HENSON: Yes, I did! It was called FATHER CAME TOO, you’re right. So, this script comes by and it opens with the line “Eight chop hog Harley Davidson’s crest about a hill…” and I said, ‘hey I’ll do the fucker!’ without even reading it. Then I get on set and they weren’t Harley’s at all but rather they were these terrible Norton’s that were 20 years old at the time. They had four mechanics working full time on set just to keep these things going and that was the biggest expense in the movie, believe it or not.

ALEXANDER: Did you do your own stunts?

HENSON: I did, yes. All but three. You know, in America a professional stuntman can specialize; one makes a living falling off horses, another flips cars, others fall off houses. But English stuntmen at the time had to do it all. My guy – and God, I don’t even know if he’s still alive – was a bloke named Cliff Diggins and for those three stunts for me, he ended up in the hospital every time. I always knew Cliff was doing a stunt when I heard the ambulance wailing…

ALEXANDER: Was one of those stunts the scene where Tom goes through the wall?

HENSON: Yes, and again he ended up in hospital after that. The first one he did was the bridge, where I fly off and kill myself, that was him and he managed to hit the water before the bike did and the bike landed on top of him. The second was the wall. It was a polystyrene wall which was painted, and when he went through it was like a Warner Bros. cartoon in that the bike went through but he stayed the same side!

ALEXANDER: One of the great eccentric touches in the picture is the very odd, unhealthy relationship between Tom and his mother, played by the great Beryl Reid…

HENSON: I knew Beryl from before, in the theatre, and she was lovely. They were originally going to cast another American actress but she turned it down at the last minute, so Beryl was having a quiet time and she did it. And of course , there was George Sanders…

ALEXANDER: Yes, whatever was he thinking doing this grotty little film?

HENSON: Exactly. That’s what he was thinking, I’m sure. They shot all his scenes in 10 days to save money because he was making so much, more than any of us. In order to save 15 bob or something, the production gave Beryl and I chairs that didn’t have our names on them so when George arrived two weeks into production, there were these two famous prop men at Shepperton Studios named Jack and Bobby who were so ashamed that they brought a chair out onto the set with his name printed on the back in ball point pen. And poor George , the story goes, eventually saw a answer print of the film and went back to his hotel in Madrid and killed himself.

ALEXANDER: He did kill himself and there was that very sad, despondent suicide note. Do remember Sanders as being morose on set?

HENSON: No, not at all, we laughed and laughed and laughed. There are even moments in the film that are meant to be serious where you can see the corners of his mouth start to twitch because he couldn’t contain his laughter.

ALEXANDER: Tom is such a charming character and its clear at all times that you’re having a good time…hard to take such a cheeky lad seriously as a villain.

HENSON: Yes, I know, I know. Incidentally, all the gear I wore in the film was mine, the leather pants and jacket. I used to arrive in work in them actually.

ALEXANDER: Do you still ride?

HENSON: No I stopped riding at 40. I had a big smash and burned myself very badly and so my kids said no more dad, sorry.

ALEXANDER: Those bad-ass helmets have become iconic. Did you get to keep one?

HENSON: No, no, none of us kept them. They had to hang on to them for re-shoots, I believe. It’s too bad because maybe they’d be worth money now…

ALEXANDER: In some circles, yes, they would be. Everyone loves the scene when that beautiful folk song ‘Riding Free’ is played with you about to be buried while mounted on your bike. Was that you in that shallow grave or a dummy?

HENSON: That’s me! Had to sit there while this guy is singing this stupid fucking song and throwing flowers at me and keep a straight face. Ridiculous!

ALEXANDER: What are your memories of Don Sharp?

HENSON: Don was a man under a huge amount of pressure. He had just done the second unit on PUPPET ON A CHAIN, doing boat stunts in Amsterdam so he chosen because he knew how to film these stunts. There was no budget, it was a short shoot and it was terrible with these bikes breaking down and all these young kids who we could never find were always sneaking off, having smokes in the bushes and playing this card game we always played, which actually makes it into the picture in the scene when we’re in jail, he could never finds us. He was very patient, because we were a nightmare.

ALEXANDER: Genre fans also remember you for your part in an equally celebrated , but for very different reasons, film: WITCHFINDER GENERAL. And like Sanders, director Michael Reeves took his own life not long after that film…

HENSON: God yes, it was a great loss, and Michael was a great friend. It was a great loss to cinema and a great loss to us – me and my best friend (and WITCHFINDER co-star) Ian Ogilvy, who used to make movies with Micahel when they were kids. We would have all been movies stars if he lived. He was supposed to do BLOODY MAMA for Roger Corman and we would have been in it. WITCHFINDER was important, we knew it was important when we made it. It’s the only British Western, really.

ALEXANDER: And Vincent Price was magnificent…

HENSON: Yes, Michael never wanted Vincent, he wanted Donald Pleasence and Vincent had heard this and it bothered him to no end. At the time he was one of the foremost art lecturers and collectors, acting was just his hobby. They would fight endlessly. Michael would say “Vincent do nothing, do nothing, stop acting!” and Vincent would retort “ This is my 94th picture and you’re doing the wrong way, how many pictures have you made young man!” and to that Michael said “three good ones, Vincent.” Vincent walked off the set and never said goodbye. Three months later he saw an answer print and wrote to Michael and said” my god I’m sorry, this is the best acting I’ve ever done.”. When Michael died Vincent paid his own way to come to London to tell that story at a tribute festival.

ALEXANDER: You’ve had a very fruitful, interesting career as an actor, Nicky.

HENSON: Yes, I’ve been very, very lucky. And lucky that it didn’t all end with PSYCHOMANIA!

Interview: Celeste Yarnall on THE VELVET VAMPIRE

An interview with the late actress about her seminal horror film

On Sunday, October 7th, the planet lost one if its prettier souls. The lovely, kind, brave and talented Celeste Yarnall passed away after a long, torturous battle with ovarian cancer, a condition she and her beloved husband, Nazim, raged against both in private and public. Pop culture will remember Celeste best as THE VELVET VAMPIRE in Stephanie Rothman’s same-named masterpiece and as one of Elvis’ girls in the 1968 musical LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE as well as for her appearances in STAR TREK, HOGAN’S HEROES and a myriad other programs. I knew her enough to know that she truly was a warm, lovely woman and she fought tooth and claw to beat the disease that eventually got the upper hand, though even at her darkest,Celeste lived a great, open and positive life.

Here then, is an interview I conducted with Celeste back in 2013 for DELIRIUM Magazine #1.

RIP beautiful Celeste.

***************************************************************************************After Hammer Films took full advantage of decade changing censorial belt loosening and brought Sapphic bloodsuckers to the screen in 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, explicit lesbian vampire epics became something of an epidemic. And we’re not complaining of course. With such titles as Jess Franco’s notorious VAMPYROS LESBOS, Harry Kumel’s DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS and Jose Larraz’s VAMPYRES, that titillating cocktail of blood, breasts and biting was a seventies swoon, artful, hot and weird.

Nestled amongst the European sex vamp shockers is director Stephanie Rothman’s moody and melancholy 1972 Roger Corman produced masterpiece THE VELVET VAMPIRE (aka CEMETERY GIRLS). Set in the sun-bleached California dunes, the film sees lovers Michael Blodgett (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and Sherry Miles (THE PACK) fall into the seductive embrace of exotic So-Cal, desert-dwelling “queen of blood” Yarnall, a kind of sun-baked Carmilla (her character’s surname is LeFanu). Soon both young, hormonal specimens are bedding the horny bloodsucker and much sweating, bleeding and angst-y vampire awesomeness ensues.

But it’s Yarnall who draws all eyes to her like bugs to bright lights. And in life as well as on screen, the model turned actress turned holistic health guru turned sociological oracle may just be one of the most fascinating people you’d ever dare to meet. Transposing the fan-base built around her time spent in from of the camera, Yarnall uses her celebrity status to point arrows towards her spiritual and now humanitarian projects, the latest of which is a new film she produced with her husband, UK painter Nazim Artist, a documentary called FEMME: WOMEN HEALING THE WORLD.

“ A lot of people hear that title and think this film is exclusively for women,” says the still gorgeous performer and scribe, whose youthful glow and beauty betray her near 70 years.
“ This is a 90 minute documentary that serves as a call for partnership for women and men to heal the world starting with the now and the next generation. I’m so passionate about this project. The man behind this creatively is director Emanuel Itier (THE INVOCATION) who – like me – is an amazing connector and lover of people and is trying to make a difference in the world. The point of the film is for men and women not be at odds with each other, to start working together, to heal , to nurture and nourish each other and not declare war on each other. The film is executive produced by Sharon Stone and features Maria Bello, Traci Lords, Maria Conchita Alonso and over 100 women offering insight”.

It might strike some ardent fans of THE VELVET VAMPIRE curious, that the woman who portrayed a sex and gore starved, bisexual parasite in a Roger Corman produced fever dream is now on a dedicated quest to heal the world, but maybe not, considering both her character of Diane LeFanu and the film FEMME aim to bring men and women – and women and women – together. But despite the fact that Yarnall has written myriad books on pet health and nutrition, is a recognized speaker on holistic medicine and treatments, she is not ashamed of her past days parading around starkers in a lurid grindhouse vampire epic.

“I embrace the past,” Yarnall beams, “it has made me who I am. Life taught me that there was more to it than being thin and pretty and to know my lines and doing that was fun and great, but now I want to take what I learned and share it with the world. There but by the grace of god –or goddess – go all of us.”

After her eye-popping, sweaty palmed turn in THE VELVET VAMPIRE, Yarnall slowly detached from Hollywood. The actress had her reasons for fleeing her blossoming on-screen career.

“People today wonder what happened to me in the early 1970’s, they wonder why I vanished. Well, what happened was my daughter Camilla was born in 1970. I separated from her father right after she was born by choice and became a mother and father. I got involved in commercial real estate and owned my own real estate brokerage. And because of what I went through as a single parent, I am passionate about educating on subjects such as birth control, the degree of what it means to be a parent. You know, it’s fascinating. Everything a mother eats drinks think, in utero all of that information is being downloaded into the fetus. The first 1000 days of that child’s life are so vital.”

Cosmic, heady stuff coming from the lady Elvis once crooned “A Little Less Conversation” to in 1968’s LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE and who, in the film, the King eventually, coldly, snubs. One might think Yarnall’s rebirth in middle age as a fervent feminist might stem from starring in such gleefully sexist romps as this and VAMPIRE but on the contrary. In fact her experience working for director Stephanie Rothman – a vital trailblazer for women calling the shots in exploitation cinema – was a pivotal one.

“I was honored to have been personally cast by Roger and Stephanie,” Yarnall recalls.
“We were a tight knit group on set in fact. Now, remember, I had just had my daughter on July 4th 1970 and was still breastfeeding when I did the movie, so I brought my daughter with me and everyone was very accommodating, just a joy to work with. Stephanie is very reclusive now from what I understand, but then she was wonderful, open. It was my first experience having a female director and it was remarkable especially concerning the sexual scenes. Stephanie was very sensitive. She closed the set during the more explicit shots, and there was often just Michael and I and the cameraman. We had a skeletal crew that made sure everything was in place. And then of course, the robes came off…”

Though readers of DELIRIUM embrace Yarnall primarily for her turns in VAMPIRE and in Eddie Romero’s riotous Philippines shot “Blood Island” shocker BEAST OF BLOOD (in which she romances John Ashley while running afoul of the chlorophyll monster), her greatest source of fandom royalty might stem from her role as Chekov’s main squeeze Yeoman Martha Landon in the original STAR TREK series, her short skirt offering male (and no doubt, select female) viewers a glimpse of what awaited in THE VELVET VAMPIRE. In fact it is her cult status as Landon that has propelled her return to the screen, starring in the upcoming Trekkie spoof UNBELIEVABLE!!!!! (yes, as of this writing all five checkmarks are in the title). Yarnall co-produces, along with her husband.

“We’re almost finished principal photography,” she says, “and the cast consists mostly of STAR TREK actors. Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) is a producer too. Because of the age of the players, this will be the last time we can pull together this many STAR TREK actors in one shot and it’s a spoof about us STAR TREK guest stars who sit around and wait for the phone to ring. We don’t understand why we’re not on the new STAR TREK shows and movies so we decide at our weekly meeting that we’re going to produce our own STAR TREK movie. It’s about us making this crazy movie. It’s like ED WOOD meets GALAXY QUEST. My husband did the poster art for it too.”

Rare is the artist who transitions careers as dramatically as Yarnall has and yet openly and warmly embraces all of her lives, all of her wildly diverse legacies. And even more impressive is the fact that she has more energy than most women 50 years her junior. Yarnall attributes her success to a refreshingly positive, healthy philosophy.”

“I don’t put out expectations; I put out gratefulness and let the universe do its job. You know, the first two lines of the song Elvis sang to me in LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE were ‘A little less conversation and a little more action, please…’ and that’s what I say to people: we have all the knowledge to just stop talking, start acting, come together as a team and help people. People are so into the “me” when they should embrace the “we” that I just want to hit ‘em on the head sometimes!”

Or bite them…

On MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY

Words on the undervalued erotic vampire drama

Mexican horror filmmaker Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s 1975 American co-production MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY is a true anomaly. On one hand, it’s an obvious – if somewhat late-from-the-gate – entry into the “lesbian vampire” cycle of exploitation film that reigned throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. It certainly is kin to movies like Jess Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS, the Hammer Horror riff on Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and especially the Stephanie Rothman directed, Roger Corman produced Southern California sex-vamp oddity THE VELVET VAMPIRE. And yet there’s so much more going on within its meandering running time. And while it lacks the stylistic flourishes of earlier Moctezuma fever dreams like THE MANSION OF MADNESS and ALUCARDA, it is no less hypnotic and surreal, albeit in a much different, much more manic way. It often feels like a perversion of a 1970’s American prime time drama, complete with wonderfully tacky lounge music, eye-level framing and brightly-lit action.  Hell, even the fonts used for the opening titles feel like they’re ripped right out of FANTASY ISLAND.  But every time MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY settles into some class of  clean, safe, even borderline banal groove, Moctezuma steers it into absolute insanity. There are plenty movies like it and yet…there’s nothing quite like it.

The film stars Cristina Ferrare (who, incidentally starred in an episode of FANTASY ISLAND years later) as the Mary of the title, a pretty and quite obviously disturbed bisexual artist living on the fringes of Mexico. This is apparently just the latest stop for a woman who is always on the move, trying to stay one step ahead of both the law and a black-hatted, shadowy figure (the legendary John Carradine), both who relentlessly pursue her. Why? Because Mary leaves a body count in her wake. She’s a sort of vampire, a woman cursed with a disease that turns her into a killer, insatiable in her lust for human blood. Into Mary’s alternately grisly and glamorous life comes a handsome American lad (David Young, NIGHTBREED) who loves the murderess unconditionally, affections she reciprocates and the likes of which deeply compromise her lethal appetites and  life on the lam. And while Mary’s smart enough to outfox the probing eyes of the authorities, that dreaded feral man in that giallo-inspired outfit – who, as it happens is actually her equally vampiric father – is far harder to shake.

The plot of MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY drapes loosely over the film, lazily propelling a series of strange, sometimes beautiful, often erotic and occasionally deeply disturbing sequences that drift in and out of the screen like the seaside waves that Moctezuma so clearly is enamored with. Ferrare makes for an unforgettable villain/victim; when she kills, she’s savage and yet we empathize with her plight, with the struggles – both moral and physical – of her disease. No better is this dichotomy illustrated than in the stunning set-piece that sees Mary approaching a jovial fisherman whose coffee she drugs. When the previously warm and gregarious older man realizes his drink has been spiked, he tries to run, with the blade-wielding Mary clumsily chasing and slashing away at her “food”. The scene goes on for some time and Moctezuma expertly jerks our emotions around, before the pair finally collapse in a bloody, sand-stained embrace. Unforgettable.

Driving this gauzy, sexually-charged and bizarre blood opera is that lilting, aforementioned lounge music score by composer Tom Bahler (RAW DEAL), a kind of maudlin, romantic swoon that sounds like the backtrack of a skeezy soap opera, which makes sense as Bahler’s main composing credit is serving as the soundsmith for long running daytime drama GENERAL HOSPITAL. This is NOT a horror film score which – when juxtaposed against scenes of a rotting Carradine stabbing at his vampire child, or Ferrare making love to and murdering her lesbian lover, or children poking at the corpse of a real dead, beached whale – certainly creates a sense of disorientation and greasy shock. It all feels so off-kilter and wrong and that’s why it works.

MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY is kind of a messy masterpiece. The character of Mary reminds me somewhat of Marilyn Chambers’ Rose in David Cronenberg’s RABID, but Moctezuma’s movie is a far more passionate work, a film that is as fascinated by the artistic inner life of its “monster” as it is her impulse to commit the most atrocious of acts. It’s a picture that refuses or is simply unable to behave by rational horror movie rhythms. And it’s maddening that more contemporary horror fans don’t speak on it more.

 

 

 

On LET THE CORPSES TAN

Stylish, sun-soaked Italian-inspired thriller is an anti-genre film

Let the Corpses Tan, the most recent – as of this writing – style overload immersion into Eurotrash fetish excess from husband and wife filmmaker team Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet is, aesthetically, more of the same sort of stuff they’ve been supplying fans for almost a decade. If you’ve seen their breakthrough film Amer and its follow-up The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, you know what we mean. Taking the motifs and moments and rhythms and iconography from European genre films of the 1970s and literally remixing them with new narratives and subtext, Cattet and Forzani are at this point untouchable. It’s not fair to lump them in with other filmmakers who mine and mimic the same period – people like Quentin Tarantino or Rob Zombie – because this duo are artists doing something different, something far more abstract, more elemental and organic and avant garde. Their films are admirably dedicated to being so focused on valuing style over story that they often become a challenge to stick with, especially for the average viewer simply seeking a bit of escapism. But like their first films, if you do stick with Let the Corpses Tan, you probably won’t ever forget it.

While Cattet And Forzani have previously exclusively nodded to the giallo tropes of the Italian genre picture, Let the Corpses Tan is a wild riff on the poliziotteschi, the Mediterranean police thriller and the traditional, sun-baked Spaghetti Western with more than a dash of Alejandro Jodorowsky weirdness. The push to place the action outside of the urgent and claustrophobic interior worlds of the giallo pays off as this is probably the most delirious and earthy film of the trio.The film, based on the 1971 French pulp novel, sees a writer and artist (Marc Barbe) living in a beautifully-ruined home in Corsica with his craggy-face girlfriend (Elina Lownesjohn). Soon, a tribe of gangsters shows up to wreck their boozy zen, along with a pair of bikers and later, the writer’s wife, nanny and young son. Tensions mount and soon, everyone is shooting each other. And scene.

But it’s not the plot one should focus on when absorbing this madcap orgy of gunshots, paint explosions, surrealism (I especially love the Bondian gold girl at the header of the picture), Jess Franco-worthy hyper zooms and sweat and blood and fluids. No, the only hope you’ll have of truly embracing the film is to take it as a moving comic book, with each panel an explosion of fetishized, switchblade-edited violence and exaggerated cool. Of course, this is ultimately a comic book with a soundtrack and, like Cattet and Forzani’s other movies, the music is a melange of music, much of it from other films and at least one track composed by the secret handshake of the Italian genre movie, Ennio Morricone.

Is Let the Corpses Tan a good movie? That’s a stupid question. It defies such facile classifications and almost defies proper critical response. It’s informed by genre, and yet it’s anti-genre. It’s a Cattet and Forzani film, a perverse, kinetic shot of celluloid psychosis that doesn’t give a damn what your expectations are or what popular tastes demand. It just exists to kick you in the teeth. We suggest you let it do just that…

On THE ULTIMATE THRILL

Long lost “ski-sploitation” thriller is ripe for rediscovery

In the pantheon of stories distressingly over adapted and ripped-off for cinema, Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game sits high on the list. The story tells the tale of a wealthy hunt-happy lunatic who shifts his interests into stalking humans to be his next trophies, setting his “guests” loose on his remote property to give them a sporting head start. It’s a great premise that has both an allegorical sting, a haunting anti-hunting soul and both hardcore action and blood-chilling horror.

And while there have been a handful of “legitimate” versions of the tome made (most impressively, the 1932 same-named Fay Wray riff), it’s the ripoffs that are the most fun, everything from 1982’s Turkey Shoot to 1993’s Hard Target to 1994’s Surviving the Game, movies that freely steal the premise and pervert it to their own ends. Lost amidst this slew of awesomely low-grade films is the totally bonkers 1974 sleaze-fest The Ultimate Thrill (aka The Ultimate Chase). The movie is directed by the late Robert Butler, a veteran TV hack (and we’re not saying that to be derogatory) who steered episodes of everything from the ’60s Batman show to Kung Fu to The Waltons to the small screen. But The Ultimate Thrill is one of his few feature film undertakings and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like a TV movie, albeit one armed with a bigger budget that presumably paid for the hospital bills for the myriad hot dogging skiing stuntman who fly off mountaintops like clockwork.

The Ultimate Thrill stars soap opera legend Eric Braeden (Victor on The Young and the Restless and who appeared as the villain sans mustache in 1971’s Escape From the Planet of the Apes) as Roland Parlay, a power-mad business man with a gorgeous trophy wife (played by the stunning Britt Ekland, from the previous years’ cult masterpiece The Wicker Man) who combines business and pleasure at a Colorado ski resort. Initially appearing charming, it soon becomes clear that Parlay is a sadist, a privileged maniac who treats his wife Michelle like another piece of his property and who is so soul dead that he becomes addicted to destructive behaviors. One of these transgressions is setting up scenarios in which his gorgeous missus is left as bait for horny men. Though Michelle rebuffs any passes made by anyone other than her husband, Parlay perverts these scenarios in order to make the clumsy suitors his prey. First he obliterates hapless ski bum Michael Blodget, chasing him around the mountain in his helicopter before bashing him up and murdering him in cold blood. Then he tries the same thing on the savvier Barry Brown, who gives the tycoon a real run for his money.

In between Parlay playing these “dangerous games,” he — and several other unnamed members of the supporting cast — ski. They ski a lot, in fact. If you’ve seen Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead, you might remember all the damned stock footage of wild animals mincing around the brush. It’s kind of like that here, but with skiers flailing around in slow motion. The scenery is lovely (the movie was shot on location in Vail) and the ski scenes become almost hypnotic, meditative even, all set to the strains of Ed Townsend’s delirious and amazing lounge music score.

But what makes The Ultimate Thrill so mesmerizing is its leads. As Mr and Mrs. Parlay, Braeden and Ekland offer complex performances that are unsettling in their suggestiveness. For example, after Parlay kills his first victim (that we see, anyway), he returns to his chalet to punish his wife for her imaginary indiscretions. His cultured veneer drops, he slut-shames her, beats her and then rapes her. And, like with Susan George in Straw Dogs, it appears Ekland is liking the rape. Or at least has made peace with this being her “new normal”, the price to pay for living a life of luxury. Is Michelle in on her husband’s sick, murderous games? Does she get off on it? The movie never spells it out and it’s all the more unsettling for it.

I don’t think The Ultimate Thrill has ever been officially on DVD. I bought it at a junk store on VHS for $5 when I was a teenager. A release via the long-defunct budget label Star Classics, with a hand painted box (that I used to think was ugly but I now think is really cool). Video Gems also released the film on “Big Box” VHS, in a much sexier edition. But so far, outside of the odd bootleg, It’s a damned hard film to find. Shame, that. The Ultimate Thrill is a flawed, weird, exciting and morally confusing thriller with great performances and a stunning location. What more do you need from your art/trash cinema? Here’s hoping a prestigious  boutique Blu-ray label digs it up and gives it the proper restoration it richly deserves…

On the Original PLANET OF THE APES Films

A brief look back at the original 1968 classic and its essential sequels

Recently, I took my three little boys to see a revival screening of what is still one of my all-time favorite motion pictures and a work of daring, groundbreaking popular science fiction that has long ago attained the status of myth. I’m speaking of Planet of the Apes, a picture I was obsessed with as a child and – thanks to the nurturing influence of my Uncle and his own passion for the movie – became part of the fabric of my life. The toys, the sequels, the short-lived television show, the mass-merchandising and most importantly, the dark, cerebral moralist spine of the series, one that was put in place by a draft of the script penned by my hero, The Twilight Zone architect Rod Serling. Sure, Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” was the source of the story, but that book trades in social satire while the resulting hybrid motion picture and the legacy of entertainment that followed, was most assuredly a byproduct of the late-60’s and early 70’s cultural fixation of future-shock tales of terror. Indeed Planet of the Apes was my first real taste of heady, grimly prophetic and sophisticated fantasy filmmaking, one that was charmingly washed down with those iconic make-up designs, lively dialogue, primal action and appealing – to a child – genre tropes. It was and remains a work of startling art and the films that followed both built on, fumbled and re-directed its messages in fascinating ways.

Needless to say my children – ages 11, 9 and 7, respectively -all  fell under the film’s spell (I highly recommend seeing this classic in the theater if you have yet to do so) and  it sparked an “Ape Fever” in my house that, as of this writing, is thriving enough that we now own a set of the original 70’s MEGO Planet of the Apes dolls, the POWER! book and record sets and more.

And after the kids and I cycled through those first five films, discussing them at length and interpreting the maddening “time loop” metaphysical nature of them, I was inspired to write down some quick feelings on each and every one of them.

Here, then, are those thoughts…

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Franklin J. Schaffner’s untouchable adaptation was a labor of love for all involved and it was a huge success, both critically and commercially. It stars aging Hollywood icon Charlton Heston as Col. Taylor, an American astronaut lost in the brutal landscape of a planet ruled by talking, socialized simians, one where mute humans are the “dogs”. Heston offers his best genre work here, forming the first of his sci-fi trifecta of Soylent Green and The Omega Man and the rest of the cast adds gravitas to what under a different director and lesser actors would be nothing more than a pricey B-movie; Kim Hunter’s progressive and rebellious doctor Zira, Maurice Evans as the conservative, terrified and fascist Dr. Zaius and of course, the inimitable Roddy McDowall as Zira’s mate, Cornelius, the company man who refuses to live a lie. Jerry Goldsmith’s nightmarish music still chills, John Chambers’ ape masks allow the actors to use only their eyes and voices to create deft characters and, whether you’ve seen it 100 times or for the first time, that final shot is unforgettable, in both aesthetic and meaning. A perfect film.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Rushed into production after the astonishing success of the first film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes suffers from Jaws 2 syndrome, attempting to replicate the beats of the first film too closely with much of the same cast reprising their roles and character ticks and because of that, it simply doesn’t have its own fingerprint. That, and the absence of Roddy McDowall as Cornelius (McDowall was off directing his surrealist horror film Tam-Lin) and general dour, joyless tone of it sink this one and do not lend it to pleasurable multiple viewings. It’s a real bummer, albeit a mesmerizing one. Surprisingly, despite the film’s bloody and nihilistic climax (one that Heston insisted on if he was to return to the franchise), the film was rated G in the U.S. The best part of the film is James Gregory as the horrifying General Ursus, whose public proclamations that “the only good human is a dead human!” are chilling and iconic.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

With the planet decimated at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, director Don Taylor and writer Paul Dehn wisely brought their chimp heroes Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) to earth. What starts as a goofy, fish-out-of-water romp quickly turns deadly serious, jerking the viewers emotions around expertly and ending on a final image that is almost as haunting as the one in the original. A great film even isolated from the franchise and an essential bridge entry in the series.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

J. Lee Thompson’s righteous fourth Apes film is, in the cyclical initial Apes timeline, an origins film, telling the tale of the creation of the “monkey planet” itself. Diminishing budgets meant that the supporting ape masks were cheap rubber cowls but Roddy McDowall gives what might be his career best performance as the fugitive Caesar who, after he witness the brutalization of his people and his kindly “father” ( the brilliant future Fantasy Island star Ricardo Montalban) is killed, launches a full scale revolution. The original climax sees Caesar enacting the bloodiest of acts and that censored violence was restored for the recent DVD and Blu-ray versions and it radically alters the very fabric of the movie and its messages. It’s a mean, oppressive film that feels exhaustively claustrophobic, its action centered on a sterile city block and scattered, computer-soaked offices and labs. And while it’s only a PG-rated picture in either cut, it’s the most relentlessly intense and violent entry of them all.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

The fifth and final of the initial Apes series, J. Lee Thompson’s lower-budgeted entry is often derided as being cheap and childish. But it’s really rather exciting and moving, with Roddy McDowall’s Caesar venturing into the wasteland to find evidence of his parents and then doing battle with racist Gorillas in his base empire. The film boasts a great cast, including Phantom of the Paradise legend Paul Williams as Caesar’s trusted adviser Virgil and Claude Akins as the brutal General Aldo. And Severn Darden makes a memorable villain indeed. What’s perhaps most interesting is that Battle is a sequel to the theatrical cut of Conquest, with Caesar being a kinder, more loving leader who lives in peace with the humans. If the series had stopped at Conquest, it would have simply chased naturally back to Planet of the Apes as far as its evolution is concerned. But Battle instead ends with a deep sense of melancholy and grace, a timeline defying notion that Caesar’s decency in fact altered the course of history. And while some might balk at that as being a facile notion, I find it rather beautiful and cite Battle as perhaps the most interesting of all the sequels. It was after all written by husband and wife scribes John and Joyce Corrington, who brought the same spirituality and dark beauty to the loose “I Am Legend” adaptation The Omega Man, itself starring Apes legend Heston. Also of note is that the recent Blu-ray release of the film restores the extended international cut, which is slightly longer and more violent and adds character moments that serve to enrich the film.

On STRAIT-JACKET

A look at William Castle’s startling Joan Crawford psycho thriller

Anyone who saw the recent FX series FEUD, knows the story of Hollywood legends and career-long “frenemies” Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. That remarkable and wildly entertaining show saw Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Davis and Crawford, respectively, who lay down their never-ending professional rivalries long enough to co-star in director Robert Aldrich’s hyper-melodramatic Gothic shocker WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE in 1962. As both glamorous leading ladies were well-into middle age at this point, with decent roles drying up (as they often did and sadly still do for women in cinema), the chance to essay such intelligently written and scenery chewing characters was a gift and with the critical and commercial success of the film, an unofficial sub-genre of horror film often called”Hagsploitation” was born. Both Davis and Crawford would lead the pack in these sorts of films (along with others like Shelley Winters, Olivia de Havilland et al), which always saw women past their youthful primes driven to madness and often committing murder or just so far gone into psychosis that they become easy marks for the plots of others. Watching “earth mothers” and noted aging screen beauties go bonkers translated into boffo box office…

But while Davis jumped into this new phase of her professional life with open arms, grateful for the work and success,  Crawford did not go gently, feeling much of the post-BABY JANE material offered to her was beneath her, and was notoriously difficult to deal with.  But master showman and horror producer/director extraordinaire William Castle (13 GHOSTS, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) was up for the task and landed the actress for his 1964 shocker STRAIT-JACKET, a pulpified slab of post-PSYCHO slaughter that pushed – in typical Castle fashion – its mania and melodrama to fevered, dreamlike heights.

Like his 1961 murder mystery HOMICIDAL – a much more direct riff on Hitchcock’s 1960 gender-bending game-changer – Castle laces STRAIT-JACKET with a heightened sense of reality and an (un) healthy undercurrent of sick sexuality. But while HOMICIDAL was penned by frequent collaborator Robb White (THE TINGLER), STRAIT-JACKET was actually written by PSYCHO source novel author Robert Bloch. And unlike HOMICIDAL – which stopped its story dead for the gimmicky Castle-approved “Fright Break” – STRAIT-JACKET employs no such audience-baiting shtick. Well, Castle DID arrange for exhibitors to hand out cardboard axes at the box office, but no similar carny tricks wind up on screen. Rather STRAIT-JACKET is and remains a potent dose of mania that has few peers and is propelled by Crawford’s fully-committed (in more ways than one) performance.

In the wild, surreal and sensational opening, STRAIT-JACKET sets-up the shenanigans to come,  illustrating in tabloid-fashion how Crawford’s boozy broad of a wife Lucy walks in on her philandering hubby having a tryst in their home with another woman. She goes bananas and grabs an ax, hacking the humping couple to pieces while her young daughter Carol watches in horror. It’s a stunner of a first act and immediately jumps twenty years later to the present, with Crawford’s traumatized little girl (played by Diane Baker) now all grown-up and preparing for her murderous mom’s release from the local loony bin.

Lucy, now cured but still obviously emotionally disturbed, is now a kinder, gentler woman who has paid for her crimes and had her illness eradicated after years of intensive – and grueling – treatment and only wants to be a good mother. Carol is on the cusp of getting married to a well-to-do lad (John Anthony Hayes) and all seems to be heading in the right, healing direction for the mother and daughter. That is until Lucy begins finding phantom severed heads in her bed and hearing strange sounds coming from locked rooms. And when a spate of gruesome ax murders grip the town, suspicion firmly – and unsurprisingly – falls on Lucy’s trembling shoulders. Is she losing her mind again? Or is there someone else behind the gory killings?

Anyone whose seen a Castle film or read a Bloch shocker will likely figure out the serpentine mystery before the insane – and awesome – corker of a climax. But that’s not why you watch STRAIT-JACKET. It’s a film to savored for its over-the-top plotting, its leering characters (including a young George Kennedy as a sweaty and sinister handyman), its cauldron-bubbling oration and – for 1964 – its brutally graphic head-choppings. Hell, even the grand old Columbia Pictures dame gets her noggin lopped off in the film’s final image. The entire thing is rapturously ridiculous and boiling-over brilliant.

But naturally, none of this hyperbolic cranium-removing mayhem would matter were it not for the presence of Crawford, who fearlessly dives into the part of Lucy, jerking the audience around from terror to pity to disgust to empathy and back again. In the film’s most arresting encounter, Crawford goes up against her daughter’s snooty future mother-in-law, standing her ground and defending her child’s honor while defiantly admitting her crime and the pain she endured in its aftermath. It’s a stunning, moving scene and certainly ranks right up there with the finest of Joan Crawford’s turns.

I have great affection for this last leg of Crawford’s career and life. In lesser films like Castle’s own I SAW WHAT YOU DID and tawdry programmers like BERSERK and especially the unforgettably awful Freddie Francis romp TROG, Crawford refused to phone it in, dedicated to even the lowliest of roles. She may have been mourning her glory days and miserable that the bloom was off her rose, but she remained until the end a major artist and a consummate professional.

Critically sneered at upon release, I’me extremely happy that the delirious STRAIT-JACKET – and by proxy, its larger-than-life leading lady – is now getting the respect it deserves.

STRAIT-JACKET is out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory and Mill Creek Entertainment.

 

 

 

 

On THE KEEPER

Little seen Dennis Hopper and Asia Argento thriller The Keeper is a cult movie in the making

Director William Wyler’s 1965 thriller The Collector set the template for the female-in-forced-confinement two-hander, the likes of which wormed its way it the downmarket exploitation film industry, amping up the sex and violence while putting the focus less on the unnerving social and sexual dynamic and more on gratuitous – and let’s be honest, pretty revolting – female suffering. But there have been a myriad high quality and intelligent shockers that traded in this post-Collector riffing, chiefly stuff like Bob Brooks’ Tattoo, Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena and of course, Silence of the Lambs and all the imitators that followed it.

Director Paul Lynch’s 2004 cable psychodrama The Keeper is a curious thing, nestled somewhere between gutter trash, TV movie of the week and respectable high-gloss horror movie. And what it lacks in budget and balls, it makes up for in the sheer novelty of its casting and deranged narrative. See, The Keeper was made by now-defunct Canadian production house Peace Arch Films for the Showtime network. Peace Arch was, for a brief moment, a kind of Northern direct-to-video AIP, pumping out low-grade tax rebate romps with well-known American actors, spending decent amounts of money to ensure their product had a shot at “making it” in the international marketplace. The Keeper is a prime example of the Peace Arch wave as it’s well-produced, professionally shot and edited at a brisk clip and it does indeed feature well-known actors on the semi-decline who, while no doubt taking a pay check, are also clearly relishing the luxury of a leading role.

For horror fans, The Keeper is a rather interesting bauble. It stars the late, great Dennis Hopper and now-controversial and scandalized (the scandal in question is not mine to comment on, I’m here to talk about the art not the tabloid lives of the artist) Italian actress and filmmaker and daughter of Dario, Asia Argento, both of whom appeared together in George A. Romero’s Toronto-shot 2005 chiller Land of the Dead. I presume that the Peace Arch team nabbed them at a reasonable cost for this Canadian quickie since they were already up here. And while seeing both these totally opposing performers bounce off each other and devour scenery might have been a fun distraction in 2004, the casting – with Hopper no longer with us – makes The Keeper a genuine cult movie in the making, ripe for discovery. Throw in The Believers actress Helen Shaver as a serial killer hag and a director who made the seminal Canadian slasher movie Prom Night and how can any lover of oddball cinema resist?

Argento stars as Gina, a stripper just rolling through town who, after escaping an attempted rape, is “rescued” by local Sheriff Krebs (Hopper). Said cop is actually a full-blown lunatic who has a nasty habit of kidnapping troubled women he deems morally sullied, locking them in his basement dungeon and attempting to “correct” them. Gina is a tough lady however and she bucks his self-righteous psycho-trip at every turn, which makes us admire her spunk but question her foresight seeing as she ends up locked in that prison for months on end, with every attempt at escape foiled.

But that generic set up is only the basic thrust of The Keeper. What makes it so perversely watchable is the fact that Sheriff Krebs is also a children’s TV host and becomes such in his off time when he’s not tormenting poor Argento, leading to the appearance of Shaver’s aforementioned groupie, a woman whose mania even Hopper seems freaked out by (incidentally, Shaver is still looking rather fine here, though she’s well into middle age). The end sequences of clumsy pursuit and Hopper finally losing his mind full stop are outrageously, awesomely tacky and push the already unstable film right off of a cliff. And I mean that in a good way.

Hopper – one of the founding fathers of bad-boy, post-60s indie filmmaking and one of cinemas greatest dangerous eccentrics – is fantastic here, though he was near the end of his days and was simply working to indulge his art-collecting habit and pay the bills. He’s not an off-the-wall evil cartoon like his Frank Booth was in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, nor is he the heroic basket-case lawman he was in Tobe Hooper’s bonkers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. He’ s got a mature, squinty and totally controlled kind of madness here, making his Krebs likable (he IS a kids TV star after all) and even reasonable, despite his penchant for pious torture and murder. Argento looks wasted (though she always sports that kind of junkie-chic appearance) and that adds to the urgency of her character’s frantic plight. With her Italian accent she seems kind of awkward in her line readings but hey, Gerald Sanford’s script aint that great to begin with, so she does what she can with it. But Argento is primarily a physical actress and she uses that strength to give Gina a bona fide presence. And no, in case you wondered, despite her character’s pole-spiraling profession, she does not remove her clothes.

The Keeper is junk, sure. But it’s sublime and strange and hugely entertaining junk and kind of floats in its own awesomely tacky orbit. It’s hard to see but it was released on DVD back in 2006 and if you seek it, you may find it. For fans of Hopper and Argento, it’s an essential curiosity.