Aug 9 2016

Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979)

guyanaWTFStuart Whitman is the Rev. Jim Jones in Guya … wait, what? Okay, if you say so.

Take two.

Stuart Whitman is the Rev. Jim Johnson in Guyana: Cult of the Damned!

Yes, the inch-high-eyebrowed Treasure of the Amazon star plays the real-life deranged and delusional cult leader who convinced nearly 1,000 of his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned Flavor Aid in 1978. Dubbed “the Jonestown Massacre,” the tragedy quickly beget two screen adaptations. Hollywood went prestigious with the 1980 telefilm Guyana Tragedy, for which Powers Boothe won the Emmy; Mexico, however, struck sooner with 1979’s Cult of the Damned (aka Guyana: Crime of the Century), for which Whitman won … well, nothing, but maybe he got to keep his character’s omnipresent, They Live-style sunglasses? One can dream!

guyana1Hey, at least Whitman’s film, with Tintorera: Killer Shark’s René Cardona Jr. at the helm, played theaters. It aimed for pure exploitation, which might be why its subject is named Johnson instead of Jones. (Make no mistake: He’s totally playing Jim Jones.) Whatever the reason, Cult of the Damned opens in San Francisco as Jones Johnson preaches fire and brimstone from the pulpit. Clad in all-white, cape included, he hammers and yammers for six minutes before unveiling visual aids: a map of South America, with which his parishioners kinda need to familiarize themselves, since he’s just all but ordered them to ditch their possessions and move there to live and work at the Jonestown Johnsontown compound, as God supposedly has instructed. (Disclaimer: The Lord does not appear in this motion picture. But The Munsters’ Yvonne De Carlo does.)

Ostensibly, Johnsontown is established as a farming community, yet the only crops his highness seems interested in yielding are human slavery and total submission. Disobey and there’s hell to pay … and shock value for viewers. For instance, a man who attempts to leave finds his back whipped to bloody shreds. A little boy who swipes food from the kitchen is tied to the ground and tortured with live snakes, while an accomplice is strapped to a wooden contraption and dunked underwater. A young man caught fornicating with his girlfriend must endure rape by a big, scary black man Johnson hand-picks from his congregation.

guyana2That last bit proves Cardona’s trip to Guyana was charted solely for ruthless purposes. The reverend’s teachable moments might carry more dramatic weight if they happened to people we cared about, much less knew who they were, but every Johnsontown resident who isn’t Johnson is poorly delineated; Cardona and co-scripter Carlos Valdemar (1978’s The Bermuda Triangle) have sketched them so lightly, it’s as if they were created from a dot-to-dot puzzle with four points at best.

Guyana: Cult of the Damned may “just” be a classic case of headlines-torn exploitation, yet the movie is disturbing all the same, particularly in the section focused on the ill-fated exploratory visit/rescue attempt by a congressman (Gene Barry, 1953’s The War of the Worlds). Lucky for us, either no one told Whitman this flick was a cash-grab or he just didn’t care that it was, because the man delivers a performance that goes for broke … and, yes, a plate of ham. There’s kitsch in its grip. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 13 2016

Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (2015)

WTFDCterrorfrankNo matter the budget or number of cooks, film sets are a bitch. Think of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Odds are you haven’t thought of 1977’s Terror of Frankenstein, but oh, how you should. The Swedish/Irish co-production proved to be a highly peculiar farrago, with one of the actors murdering several fellow cast members!

Now, decades later, all is revealed by director Gavin Merrill and screenwriter David Falks — always heard, never seen — through a DVD commentary track, of all things. To hear it is to witness a mind-boggling, historical record of an unfortunate nexus of cinema and crime, talent and tragedy.

DCterrorfrank1Except that it never happened; Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein is bogus. Given that premise, you can be forgiven if you assume the cheap-looking film at its center to be fake as well — otherwise, I’d be a hypocrite — but Terror of Frankenstein is the real deal, albeit rightfully obscure. The merry pranksters behind this put-on, director Tim Kirk and producer Rodney Ascher (collaborators on Ascher’s Room 237 documentary), have taken great pains to preserve the facade, including starting this meta project with the familiar FBI warning of home media, tracking issues and a shoddy menu our omniscient viewer navigates, taking a gander at the special features’ two-bit slideshow before selecting the filmmakers’ commentary.

From then on, speaking for the entirety are the opportunistic Merrill (Clu Gulager, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) and irascible Falks (Zack Norman, Cadillac Man). At first, we’re in the dark that the ’77 Terror has a tortured backstory, but it doesn’t take long for their conversation to grow contentious, with an uncomfortable Falks blaming Merrill for the deaths, as well as exploiting them for financial gain. Even if Gulager and Norman can’t quite carry the illusion to total legitimacy, they hook you from the start and are a hoot to hear — especially Norman’s sour-puss portrayal of the guilt-stricken scribe. As information is doled out in small chunks, the story builds and builds toward a payoff that Kirk can’t help but fumble because of Commentary’s confining structure. However anticlimactic, Kirk’s unique experiment is as devious as Victor Frankenstein’s in the film within the film. —Rod Lott

Mar 1 2016

Wild Guitar (1962)

wildguitarWTFIn Wild Guitar, Arch Hall Jr. is Bud Eagle, a hopeful musician from Fuckstink, Texas, who takes off for Hollywood with (literally) 15 cents in pursuit of his big break. As with any such case, Bud becomes an overnight sensation in about an hour.

There are lots of bad, warbly-sung Arch songs, like the kind you’re probably still humming from Eegah (“…oh, Vickieeee”) and Bud immediately falls in love with an almost pretty girl, conveniently named Vickie (Nancy Czar, Winter a-Go-Go). Hall Jr. also gets to show off his gift for physical comedy, poolside. Thanks, Dad — er, I mean, Mr. Producer who is not my dad.

wildguitar1But I have to say, this is a very well-made movie. There’s some zingy dialogue, some beautifully shot photography and a biting, cynical view of the music industry (especially for 1962). And Arch Hall Jr., dare I say, is actually pretty good.

This was directed by Ray Dennis Steckler, best known for his really messed-up later works like the superhero comedy Rat Pfink a Boo-Boo and the marquee-busting The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Even in a black-and-white film, Arch still looks pink, yet Wild Guitar is a solid movie by any standard. —Richard York

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 28 2016

Trailer Trauma (2016)

trailertraumaWTFPackaging for Garagehouse Pictures’ Trailer Trauma makes the dubious claim that while it’s far from the only coming-attractions compilation on the market, “only [it] contains the ultra-rare titles that you absolutely will not find anywhere else.” And dammit, with the likes of Ironmaster, Dr. Frankenstein on Campus and Smokey and the Hotwire Gang — to name only three — the Garagehouse gang actually makes good on that promise!

Elsewhere on the back cover, the consumer is warned that the 137-minute collection “is going to hurt.” This, too, turns out to be true; in the immortal words of John Mellencamp, it hurts so good. For lovers and mistresses of B-movie advertising, this disc is essential.

Speaking of dubious claims and immortal words, the program overflows with gems of taglines and selling points. In this category fall The Incredible Torture Show (aka Bloodsucking Freaks) as “the show that will make anyone retch”; Grave of the Vampire’s dire warning that “if the sight of an infant child nursing on human blood will make you sick, do not see this gruesomely explicit horror film”; and, best of all, the announcer for Nine Deaths of the Ninja proclaims, “A cat has nine lives … Sho Kosugi has nine deaths!”

trailertrauma1Not all of that ballyhoo works as intended, which is half the fun of revisiting trailers of the grindhouse era. For example, Sunn Classics’ Beyond and Back, a 1978 “documentary” about death and the afterlife, presents itself “an exciting experience for the whole family.” Little kids love mortality, right? Meanwhile, Stoner promises “the most dynamic kung fu team ever!” And yet the 1974 actioner pairs that Deadly China Doll Angela Mao with one-time 007 George Lazenby — one of these things is not like the other.

Found among the 65 trailers are early roles for Mr. T (Penitentiary II) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (No Retreat, No Surrender), as well as cinema’s only teaming of Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale and the onscreen comic-book sound effects of TV’s Batman (The Legend of Frenchie King).

Where else can the discriminating viewer find a tribeswoman breast-feeding puppies, Dabney Coleman as a blaxploitation heavy and an ad for Oliver Stone’s Seizure dubbed into French (because, hell, why not), all in a single source? Nowhere, of course! But speaking hypothetically, even if there were, I’d still bet Trailer Trauma bares a higher BPM (breasts per minute). In this realm, that counts for everything. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 5 2016

On Her Bed of Roses (1966)

onherbedWTFAlbert Zugsmith’s On Her Bed of Roses begins with a wordless, 15-minute prologue that rivals the surrealism of Vincent Price’s drug-fueled dream sequence in Zug’s own Confessions of an Opium Eater from 1962: In his backyard, the handsome, but shy Stephen Long (Ronald Warren) grabs a rose so hard that its thorns pierce his skin. With bloodied fist wrapped around that plucked flower, the totally clothed, totally dazed young man walks into a swimming pool and emerges at the other side, then retrieves an instrument case from the garage and gets behind the wheel of a car. Paying no attention to the rules of the road and still clutching that rose — hey, hands at 10 and 2, son! — he drives willy-nilly until he comes to a hillside, removes a rifle from the case, and picks off a few wrong-time-wrong-place motorists from his perch. When the police arrive, Stephen turns the gun on himself.

Annnnnd scene!

onherbed1What, pray tell, triggered this college dropout (“I didn’t fit in with the rah-rah boys”) to zonk out and exercise his trigger finger? We learn the answer through flashbacks as Melissa Borden (a breathy Sandra Lynn, Zugsmith’s 1966 Movie Star, American Style or; LSD, I Hate You), tells her shrink. Not only was she Stephen’s nymphomaniac next-door neighbor, but also his kinda-sorta girlfriend. Theirs is the oddest of romances, if Roses can be called that — after all, its alternate title comes from the psychology text from which it is loosely based, Psychopathia Sexualis. That classic 19th-century study on deviant sex was written by Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, here portrayed by actual psychologist Dr. Lee Gladden (who plays himself in 1965’s The Incredible Sex Revolution, also written and directed by Zugsmith), to whom Melissa spills all secrets.

Those include sexual abuse by her father (“A Taste of Honey” songwriter Ric Marlow) and having her mom (Barbara Hines, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules) steal the boys Melissa brings home to bang. Stephen has “mother troubles” of his own, being smothered by his domineering mom (Regina Gleason, Revenge of the Cheerleaders). Melissa tells the doctor it’s her belief that she and Stephen could have saved one another, and the funny thing is, you want to see them do just that. However, going into the film at Stephen’s suicide, we know that’s futile, so we settle for wanting to see how events A and B and C led to the tragic Z.

Now, don’t mistake that engagement for eminence; we’re still talking about a Zugsmith production — one whose narrative halts in the middle to make way for extended scenes of nude dancing just for the sake of nude dancing (similar to his “hot” cut of 1960’s Sex Kittens Go to College). His dialogue, when he gets around to it, remains histrionic and hysterical, such as the lines exchanged between our Cupid-struck teens during their meet-cute:

Melissa: “Do you like peanut butter?”
Stephen: “Gosh, how’d you know? I like it best on apples!”
Melissa: “I like grape jelly on mine!”

That’s true love. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.