On NIGHTWING

A look at the underrated 1979 evil bat thriller

Director Arthur Hiller’s NIGHTWING is one of a handful of films that trade in the terror of killer, disease-ridden bats, a loose, unofficial subgenre that seemingly doesn’t command much fan enthusiasm.  And while 1974’s future-shock chiller CHOSEN SURVIVORS remains my winged-rodent romp of choice, NIGHTWING flies not too far behind.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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On MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER?

Musings on James Franco’s bizarre lesbian vampire Lifetime movie

I have a rather nagging fixation on tawdry, leering, Lifetime movies; those television trash films that have long been pumped out of the once noble network to titillate audiences hungry for low-rent thrills. And there’s nothing wrong with this. And if there IS something wrong with this…well, I don’t give a flying fuck.

Apologies for the profanity, but I’m employing it to illustrate a point. Using the “F” word is infinitely more graphic than the stuff you see in Lifetime movies. These are most assuredly exploitation films, filled with sexual deviancy, murder and all manner of lurid transgression. And yet none of this sensationalism strays beyond the level of PG.

And that’s the appeal.

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On TATTOO

A look back on the controversial and lurid erotic psycho-thriller

While re-watching Quentin Tarantino’s magnum 65mm, locked-door mystery/giallo/western/morality tale THE HATEFUL EIGHT, I was once more struck by how damn good actor Bruce Dern is in that film. It’s a deceivingly simple performance, mainly because the then 78-year-old performer never leaves the chair in which he sits, from the first time we see him to the point in which he loses his miserable life at the barrel of Sam Jackson’s vengeful Smith & Wesson. But it’s perhaps the most layered turn in the picture; subtle and oddly dignified despite the fact that his character is a coward hiding behind racist, patriotic bravado and by the end, even somewhat sympathetic.

But that’s Dern. He’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors and an artist who rarely gets the credit he’s due. Not a traditionally “good looking” man, Dern has his own thing going on; a pointed look, almost rat-like, and when he opts to play an unsavory character (as in H8, HBO’s BIG LOVE, THE COWBOYS et al) he is a fiend without peer. And when he’s given the task to actually carry a film himself, the results are startling.

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On THE BIG CUBE

Vintage psychedelic mind-bender is Lana Turner’s last great film.

Poor Lana Turner.

The former Hollywood sex-siren, she being one of the original Femme Fatales in Tay Garnett’s 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, was considered in her prime to be one of the most dangerous and desirable women working in front of the lens. Of course, like most if not all of the living legends controlled by grooming studios during that period, much of Turner’s public persona and carefully marketed myth was fabricated. In truth, the actress was a gentle, troubled soul, an alcoholic and a bit broken after failed marriages and carreer dips and the typical Hollywood sneering at women when the bloom leaves their rose and they slip into middle-age.

It was at this point in Turner’s career that she would find herself starring in what is one of the most outrageous and bizarre films of the 1960s. Director Tito Davison’s Mexican/American co-production THE BIG CUBE was Warner Bros. attempt to out-trip Roger Corman’s THE TRIP and blend noir tropes with druggie youth culture and the still popular “horror hag” wave of films, the likes of which usually starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Turner joins their ranks here, in a psychedelic assault on the senses, common and otherwise, a film so over-the-top and wrong of head that cruel critics had a field day eviscerating it and Turner’s appearance and performance in it.

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