Bite Size: Blue Sunshine (1977)

Jeff Lieberman is another of the New York City native eccentrics of genre cinema, with the same flair for the defiantly oddball as fellow hometown boys Larry Cohen and Frank Henenlotter. In his short but varied filmography Lieberman has tackled everything from nature run amok (Squirm), to downmarket Deliverance riffs ( Just Before Dawn), to atomic age alien abductions updated for the VHS era (Remote Control).

1977’s Blue Sunshine was his second feature film, and trades in Squirm‘s down in the dirt small town setting for the sunny streets of Los Angeles. A few old friends are having a party to catch up, but the evening goes off the rails when a guest playfully tugs at the hair of Frannie (Richard Crystal) as he begins to croon some Sinatra. Frannie is apparently bald beneath the hair piece, and runs off into the night in a fit of irrational rage. While the rest of the guests are searching for him, Frannie returns and violently tosses two female guests into the fireplace, burning them to death. Jerry (Zalman King) attempts to subdue the suddenly homicidal Frannie, but their altercation takes them out onto the highway, where Frannie is hit by a passing truck.

Jerry now finds himself on the run, suspected in the 3 deaths at the party. Similar bizarre attacks of hair loss, headaches and homicide are happening all over the city. Desperate to clear his own name, he enlists his girlfriend Alicia (Deborah Winters), and college friend Dr. David Blume (Robert Walden) to help clear his name. Could the truth lie in a bad batch of LSD that the killers took a decade before? And what does soon to be Congressman Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard) have to do with it?

Blue Sunshine is definitely the most conceptually ambitious of the early 70s spate of hippie hangover films, turning a cool, clinical eye toward the anti drug hysteria of classical exploitation and playing it dead straight, complete with a text card square up as the credits roll. Blue Sunshine doesn’t so much contradict the screeching authority figures of the likes of Reefer Madness, or the concern trolling tone that drops an LSD lecture into the middle of drive in classic I Drink Your Blood. The drugs will make you crazy, it just takes a decade of life as a ticking time bomb before your bad choices catch up with you.

By drolly dropping into the cinematic conversation only to facetiously correct the timeline, the film becomes an interesting bit of malicious compliance satire. Its perspective clearly mocks all of the moral panic that spawned those sorts of warnings in the first place, while still drawing horror from it for viewers who miss the archness of that reading.

The initial promise of the premise sags as the layers of the plot add elements of a conspiracy thriller, mainly because Zalman King can’t quite modulate his performance as Jerry. He’s either mumbling blandly or in the midst of bug eyed hysterics, and there’s little nuance or sympathy to be had for him as he fumbles through his investigation. Regardless of where the truth of the crimes lies, it is unsurprising that the film’s other characters don’t respond terribly well to Jerry’s brute force interrogations or dismiss his rants as the ravings of an unstable kook.

What the central performance lacks in style and finesse, Blue Sunshine makes up in spades with stylish set pieces, a cool toned color palette befitting the title, and some confident, steady camera work. There’s a sleek quirkiness to the music and visuals that makes it hard to forget. A blue moon hangs in an inky sky over the opening credits, interspersed with introductions to the major characters. The title is introduced by the almost human croak of the words “Blue Sunshine” by a pet parrot. Those once upon a time hippie longhairs lose theirs along with their sanity, with pathetic scraggly tufts crowning their chalky pallor and bulging eyes as they turn violent. By the time we get to inset shots of a celebrity impersonator puppet show serving as entertainment at a political rally or a climatic fight in the flashing cornucopia of lights at a mall disco, it all makes for a cohesive aesthetic sense that few films of this ilk display.

While flawed in its plotting and performances, the unique blend of familiar mainstream elements, exploitation style exercises, and higher than average production values makes Blue Sunshine an excellent entry point into the more psychotronic side of retro cinema. Plus, sharp eyed viewers will note that in the final department store scene, the sales floor is decorated for Christmas, adding Blue Sunshine to the list of unexpected holiday horrors.





Bite Size: Lola Colt (1967)

Multi-hypenate Lola Falana worked her way up from small club engagements and chorus lines with the sort of dogged determination one would expect from a woman headstrong enough to drop out of high school and move to New York on the slim chance of an entertainment career. A chance Atlantic City meeting with Sammy Davis Jr. led to a long term personal and professional relationship, a featured role in 1964 Broadway hit Golden Boy and a 1965 record deal over at Mercury Records.

The single was only a modest success, but her popularity in the London production of Golden Boy, her European gigs as a nightclub performer and some well received appearances on Italian television helped cement her rising star status overseas. Though 1967’s Lola Colt was only Falana’s third film role (after supporting parts in Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle A Man Called Adam and the somewhat slight Italian musical Quando dico che ti amo), she was given top billing on the movie.

The plot of the film is the sort of cookie cutter oater pumped out by Poverty Row studios throughout the 30s and 40s. Lola Gate (Lola Falana) and her troupe of traveling showgirls are forced to stop in the tiny border town of Santa Ana when one of the performers falls ill. The ladies make a residency as the entertainment at the local saloon while their friend recovers. In between performances, Lola finds herself caught up in both a budding romance with med student Rod (Peter Martell), and the townspeople’s battle with a robber baron nicknamed “El Diablo” (Germán Cobos).

At first retrospective glance, a western with a side of musical numbers seems an odd choice of star vehicle for a Black American singer/dancer/actress. However, the spaghetti western trend was at its peak in 1967, and Lola Falana’s song and dance tours were a proven hit in Italy. It isn’t inconceivable that the producers thought they had a “two great tastes that taste great together” potential success on their hands.

It’s also a stark contrast to many of the other roles in Lola’s later feature film work (which speaks to the limitations of the scope of parts offered to Black actresses, particularly during this era) in that the plot doesn’t hinge on her race. When she’s greeted with a sneering “We don’t like your kind here” upon exiting her stage coach at the beginning of the film, the comment is in reference to the supposed loose morals of showfolk rather than the color of her skin. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film progressive (a flashback to Lola’s childhood and the loss of her family is inexplicably cast with white actors, which is both incredibly lazy and incredibly telling), but it is a notable departure from the dominant modes of the period.


In any case, Lola Falana’s charisma sparkles in Lola Colt, making it readily apparent why she later became a much larger star. The character of Lola Gate brightens up the rather humdrum proceedings whenever she appears. She looks impossibly lovely throughout, be it in her Barbarella at Ye Old Tyme Saloon stage gear or well fringed Western kitsch and a snow white cowgirl hat. The musical numbers, while blithely anachronistic and a bit bare bones in term of production value, are a high energy showcase for her considerable talent as both a dancer and a singer. Her acting doesn’t look goofy even in the face of a truly execrable English dub. There’s a capable, cheerful athleticism to her single action oriented scene.

Unfortunately, despite her billing, Lola Falana isn’t on screen all that much. The bulk of the 79 minute runtime is spent with the residents of Santa Ana, a pile of uninteresting stock types. It is Peter Martell’s square jawed cardboard cut out turn as Rod that gets the hero build up and music cues. This is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the bulk of his role in the film comprises of idle bickering in a procession of near identical drawing rooms. It’s Lola who formulates the perfectly workable plan of attack against “El Diablo”, and reveals that the mysterious hostage holding raider is less of a devil than he is a greedy schmuck named Larry. Despite singing, dancing and hatching the plan for the town’s liberation, Lola only gets to pick up a gun in the final 20 minutes of the flick. The firepower dispatches exactly one bad guy and a particularly pesky lock.

Lola Colt was not a hit, and the film didn’t receive a US release until 1976, when Falana had reached a much greater level of success stateside. The newly christened Black Tigress was a direct attempt to cash in on both Falana’s appearance in 1975 Blaxploitation effort Lady Cocoa and her groundbreaking status as the spokesmodel for Faberge’s Tigress perfume.

Given that Lola Colt is a very minor effort even on the scale of its spaghetti western counterparts, American audiences were doubly disappointed when the the promotional push attempted to position the film as an action packed Blaxploitation epic. A second, even more ridiculous retitling as Bad And Black failed to improve matters. Lola Colt dropped from the bottom of a double bill, and rode off into the sunset of obscurity.

Bite Size: Teenage Innocence/Little Miss Innocence (1973)

The raucous, independent environment of exploitation cinema, along with the early 70s rise of so called “New Hollywood” experimentation and porno chic allowed for the boundaries between categories of film to be far more porous. Actors and crew members could shift much more easily between standard issue theatrical features, softcore films and hardcore erotica, free to work in whatever niche was cashing checks in a manner that seems borderline impossible in the present day.

Director Chris Warfield was one of those cases. Having found modest success as a television actor through the 60s, the dawn of the new decade saw Warfield pivot to the other side of the camera. He made several sexploitation pictures under his given name, plus some well regarded early hardcore features (Champagne For Breakfast) under the pseudonym Billy Thornberg.

1973’s Teenage Innocence (US title, with most of the rest of the world preferring the snappier Little Miss Innocence) bears the mark of that wide ranging experience. The screenplay (co-written with E.E. Patchen) straddles the line between straight up sex film and erotic chamber drama. The movie’s three stars are pulled from both the porn trenches and the more lurid side of low budget films.

Wealthy music arranger Rick Engels (John Alderman, The Pink Angels) is cruising through Los Angeles on a sunny afternoon. On a whim, he picks up two pretty young hitchhikers. Brunette Carol (Sandy Dempsey, Swinging Cheerleaders) is brash and a touch brassy, while baby faced blonde Judy (Terri Johnson, The Cocktail Waitresses) is sweetly shy.

Initially demurring on his invitation to come up to his “neato” pad, the girls change their minds after they get bored of idly wandering in Rick’s pretty but far from swinging neighborhood. Before long, the girls are cozily curled up on his couch, and a bit of brandy makes things go way past the initial idle flirtation. After a few delirious days of assorted hedonism, Rick’s unbelievable luck runs out. The pair refuse to leave, their demands becoming much more all consuming and sinister.

The basic plot outline is very similar to Peter Traynor’s comparatively better known 1977 exploitation flick Death Game, but tonally the two films couldn’t be more different. Death Game plays its riffs fast and loud from the start, shooting straight for the lurid with a shriek and a green gel filter.

Teenage Innocence takes its time in its tonal shift, playing almost like an updated nudie cutie for the first half of the film, with unobtrusive cinematography and a much more naturalistic approach to dialog and the volume at which it is delivered. The wild weekend is all fun and games, until it isn’t.

All three leads put in above average performances, which helps push a concept that is pure male gaze wish fulfillment into a much darker realm. In the back half, Teenage Innocence is a low budget riff on the crimes of Leopold and Loeb, with a tiny dash of Le Grande Bouffe‘s criticism of bourgeoise assumed access to excess. Rick gets everything he had wished for in picking the pair up, and the fact that he then has to live with it is a special sort of Hell unto itself.

Teenage Innocence would pair well with Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot On 42nd St. It’s a ready made double feature of downbeat sexploitation that makes abundant displays of skin and sin decidedly unerotic, instead focusing on a weaponized sexuality honed through disappointment and trauma. Teenage Innocence‘s Carol is almost a kid sister to Fleshpot’s Dusty, with both women using the performance of eroticism to hide just how hard they’ve been faking it the entire time.


Bite Size: French Quarter (1978)

Pretty young runaways and sex work are an evergreen in exploitation film, but 1978’s French Quarter certainly deserves notice for the the winding path it takes to connect those familiar dots. Shot on location in New Orleans, the film takes the scenic route through a grab bag of trash cinema tropes to create a singularly strange film that truly couldn’t have been made in any other era. Mainly, because no sober human being in recent memory would ever green light it.

Christine Delaplane (Alisha Fontaine, Teenage Tramp ) is in heavy debt after the death of her father. With no other surviving family and no real options in her tiny Louisiana town, she hitches her way to New Orleans in the hopes of a fresh start. Rejected by every other job she applied for, Christine ends up dancing in a topless bar. The sleazy owner suitcase pimps a bunch of mysterious “expenses” from her pay, and a week’s worth of work only nets her $25. Considering the incredibly awkward striptease we see, its a minor miracle she kept the job that long.

She gets into an argument with the club’s owner over the obvious grift, and finds herself homeless and out of a job on a Saturday afternoon, unable to even cash her check for bus fare back home. Kindly house mom/club bartender Ida (1940s Hollywood star Virginia Mayo) takes pity on poor country Christine, and sends her to the apothecary owned by a local voodoo practitioner. The woman owes Ida a favor and can cash Christine’s check. Instead of helping out, Florinda Beaudine (Anna Filameno) drugs our naive heroine and makes arrangements to sell her into a white slavery ring.

Christine comes to, but she’s no longer Christine. She wakes up in 19th century New Orleans, as indicated by a costume change and an annoying soft focus effect. Apparently, in those early days of cinema, there was a mandate the camera lens be coated in Vaseline.

Instead, she’s Miss Trudy Dix, the crown jewel of the brothel of Countess Willie Piazza (Virginia Mayo, again). Trudy has been ill with fever, but now that she is well again, her virginity will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to bring even greater prestige and profit to the luxury whore house. Without much questioning of what the hell just happened, Christine/Trudy begins to fall in love with a fresh off the bus piano player, Kid Ross (Bruce Davidson). This angers a local crime boss and his voodoo queen mistress, Madame Papaloos (Anna Filameno, also once more with feeling). They want to profit off of Christine/Trudy themselves, and too heavy a love affair will destroy her principle market value.

Nearly every actor in the film has a dual role, appearing in both the 19th and 20th century timeline. As the bulk of the film’s runtime is spent in the past, the trickiest bit is figuring out where the blink and you’ll miss it cameos are in the modern beginnings of the movie.

The wide scope, double timeline structure is pretty ambitious for the drive in, and French Quarter isn’t content to just fix itself on Christine/Trudy. The sub two hour runtime includes subplots for each of Trudy’s fellow hookers, riffs on several historical figures, voodoo rituals, and the unlikely friendship between the literal new Kid on the block and jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton (Vernel Bagneris) amongst the racial politics of 1910 New Orleans. The setting of a brothel also leaves ample room for all sorts of the incidental salaciousness one would expect, from idle nudity to vintage style stripteases, and an all too brief lesbian affair.

Alisha Fontaine had a pretty short film career, and perhaps isn’t the most dynamic lead for all of this swooning melodrama. That said, everyone else seems to be having a blast raiding the wardrobe closet and playing period piece dress up. What Fontaine lacks in personality is easily smoothed over by the rest of the ensemble being rather unafraid of turning up the camp. Virginia Mayo is well cast as the classic kindly madam, and looks fantastic for a woman pushing 60 at the time of filming. Ann Michelle (Virgin Witch, The Death Wheelers) goes for broke with bug eyed abandon as the aptly named “Coke-Eyed Laura”, a fellow hooker with a habit that could easily launch poppies into extinction. Lindsay Bloom (H.O.T.S.) also adds some wisecracking comic relief as “Big Butt Annie”, who has the expected penchant for Greek delicacies and entry via the back door of the mansion the girls call home.

The movie does go several turns too far in regard to the tower of subplots, and has bitten off a bit more than this price point could ever hope to chew. The shoehorned in white voodoo queen angle, Christine/Trudy’s courtship with Kid, and a random confrontation with a gangster at a juke joint should have probably been trimmed for length and pacing’s sake. French Quarter hits its stride in the slice of life scenes inside the brothel, with a tone that reminds me of 1985’s Angel. While not quite as charming as that particular movie, both films utilize colorful supporting characters and their above average roster of on camera talent to make a lighter, sweeter confection than you would otherwise expect from such a sleaze filled premise.

For those with a bit of patience, French Quarter is as frothy and fun as exploitation films get without crossing over into the well trod territory of goofy sex comedy. Besides, how many other movies can you name that include both survival sex work and white slavery hysteria as major plot points that somehow manage to twist themselves into a happy ending?

Bite Size: Violated (1953)

While the title and promo materials suggest an early roughie, 1953’s Violated is a bit of an exquisite corpse, making gestures toward both the arthouse and the grindhouse in its barely feature length run time.

Jan C. Verbig (William Holland, also the film’s producer) is a seemingly mild mannered glamour photographer. With a vague accent and name like a bad Scrabble hand, his courtly manner and sharp eye make him a fairly popular promo shot producer for the local actresses, models and dancers. Yet, when night falls, he finds himself stalking those same beauties.

Verbig’s particular brand of the death of 1000 (off screen) cuts involves not just slashing the women’s faces, but fetishistically shearing off the hair of his victims. Rejected by mercenary burlesque star Lili Demar (real life burlesque queen Lili Dawn), his urges to kill become even more difficult to control. As the cops close in on cracking the case, he sets his obsessive sights on Susan Grant (Vicki Howard), an innocent young ingenue, as his next target.

The Greenwich Village of the early 50s was both beatnik and beat down, simultaneously trendily transgressive and seedy enough for artistic types to still be able to afford the rent. The location certainly helps make a virtue out of Violated‘s various visual concessions to budgetary necessity. The best big bankroll studio pros couldn’t have classed up any of the joints used as filming locations, so the odd jerky editing and the run down quality of the sets aren’t nearly as jarring as they might otherwise be. A sordid little story like this feels like it belongs in a visual world full of threadbare couches and cracked pipes.

The film’s best moments are when it fully leans into the gutter noir beats of its plot, with a suggestive, somewhat sexually charged edge. The first victim discovers she’s doomed when her manicured nails play sensually over the fabric of a sport coat, only to discover a sharp pair of scissors in the pocket that will seal her fate. There are some character filled close ups of the exhausted, deeply lined faces of the cops and the bored usual suspects they round up. As Tony Mottola’s minimalist jazzy score drifts over the soundtrack, Verbig wanders the New York night, and Violated almost hits on the particular brand of loneliness you can only feel when in the middle of a crowd.

These quieter moments don’t last, and mixed into the proceedings are the sort of classical exploitation tropes that are as loud as a carny lemonade barker on a particularly hot day in July. There’s an expositional psychologist that does little more than provide the usual veneer of educational respectability for taboo discussion of mental illness and sexual perversion. The burlesque subplot allows for both some scandalous (for the era) flashes of skin and a random catfight backstage. Lili Dawn delivers her lines like a cut rate Diamond Lil. By the time sodium pentothal gets involved, the slight promise of the film’s first third is wasted, and not even a comparatively well done ambiguous ending can quite put all of the tonal shifts back together again.

For the majority of both cast and crew, Violated was both the first and the last film they ever worked on. Thankfully, writer/producer William Mishkin realized that the film’s utter flop at the box office was a strong indicator that cinematic nuance was not his particular strong suit.

Leaning into the lurid, Mishkin became a producer and distributor of both sexploitation and horror fare over the next two decades. In addition to successful recuts/retitles of European sex films, he produced the Lee Frost exploitation oddity The Man With Two Heads, and the best known work of misanthropic microbudget madman Andy Milligan.









Bite Size: Drive-In Massacre (1976)

Drive-In Massacre is one of those regional obscurities that boutique Blu Ray labels occasionally dredge up with mild fanfare as a lost bit of classic sleaze. Drive-In Massacre also happens to be one of those times when whoever is tasked with writing the promotional copy for the release is unabashedly full of shit.

While the title and the bang for the buck opening kills would suggest at least a bit of bloody proto slasher fun, the 76 minute runtime feels painfully overlong. Drive-In Massacre parcels out a bunch of potentially delightful trashy elements, only to end up petering out into an unsatisfying attempt at an old bit of William Castle gimmickry.

There’s the standard issue police procedural folderal in between the sparse spate of sword slashings. Our red herrings take the form of an angry theater manager whose volume setting is just as loud as his assortment of eyestrain inducing sport coats, a peeping trucker, and a carny sword swallower turned custodian a few sharps short of a knife block.

Given that we never actually see the film that’s onscreen, and our police officers’ best investigative tool is a brief foray into drag, the rest of the film is just people sitting around. The cops bicker in their cramped offices, the soon to be victims perennially parked in the dusty drive-in lot.

The vague implication of a Western is dropped into the sound mix at complete odds with the score of atonal pencil can shaking and baby’s first Casio keysmash electro warbles. Considering that pretty much every plot element introduced is a non sequitur, the burial of the actual dialogue in the sound mix doesn’t make much difference.

There is something seedily refreshing in seeing a cinematic representation of a drive in so utterly devoid of charm or romanticism. As far as this movie is concerned, it’s basically just a backdrop for the same semi anonymous hormonal rummaging that characterized your standard sticky seat indoor theater. Given the utter botch of just about everything else you can think of, that slight historical angle is not nearly a good enough reason to actually sit through this movie.

For those looking for a technically inept, yet scuzzily accurate, time capsule that is actually fun, I’d recommend 1973’s Massage Parlor Murders! (which I’ve previously written about for the fabulous Drive-In Asylum) as a much better investment of the hour or so of your lifetime.

Bite Size: Ginger (1971)

Unexplained disappearances and kidnappings are on the rise in an upscale community on the New Jersey shore. Private detective Jason Varone (William Grannel) has been retained by some of the residents to crack the case. Unfortunately, his last two operatives have died trying. With the disaffected air of someone who has nothing of importance to lose, he hires a society girl named Ginger (Cheri Caffaro) to attempt to infiltrate the gang from the outside.

Despite the fact that she has zero relevant experience other than being just as idly wealthy, overly tan and casually racist as her targets, Ginger is provided a suitcase of spy tools, and official secret operative status. Armed with a kit that came straight out of the back of a midcentury comic book, she’s quickly dispatched to break up the gang’s business in both drug smuggling and prostitution, before she can change her mind.

This softcore sexploitation romp was the brainchild of a New Jersey theater chain owner, Don Schain. Having taken on writing and directing duties himself, he kept the casting close to home and put his (then) wife in the starring role. Cheri Caffaro had primarily worked as a model up to that point, other than a bit part in 1971 comedy Up Your Alley.

Don Schain had a keen eye what would get asses in the seats, and Ginger is structured to have some trailer ready moments for just about every flavor of sexploitation sleaze. In the course of busting boss Rex Halsey (a neckerchief wearing Duane Tucker) and his gang of assorted racist stereotypes, dumb pretty boys and prostitutes, Ginger’s investigative techniques seem to come straight out of an adolescent fantasy round of Truth Or Dare.

She earns her way into the gang’s inner circle by giving a member named Rodney (gay porn star Casey Donovan) a pole dance at a bar. A conflict with the gang’s angry girlfriends becomes a beach bikini catfight where the loser is stripped naked and bound with her own bikini. Her attempt to convince one of the prostitutes to go states’ evidence leads to a brief lesbian affair.

Of course honey trap isn’t always going to be the best tact to take when dealing with hardened criminals who have already committed multiple homicides, so Ginger spends a good portion of the runtime in bondage or handcuffs as she plots her escapes, culminating in a wince inducing assault straight out of the 60s roughie playbook.

Despite the copious amounts of nudity (including a relatively rare male full frontal in addition to the female), the softcore scenes are lifeless. It’s mostly just poorly lit people lying on top of one another. The actual plot doesn’t fare much better. Ginger’s action scenes and nominal fight choreography are unconvincing, and the movie’s biggest bit of violent vengeance (a piano wire castration) happens off screen.

The story beats move in a muddied motivation slog, with characters shifting in and out at random to better allow for the next salacious set piece to have its moment in the sun. While the highlight reel approach was enough to make Ginger a hit that spawned two progressively more competent sequels, it doesn’t make for much of a viewing experience over 90 minutes.

Ginger is a historical curiosity of note, in that it marks a notable sea change in the history of exploitation film. The Ginger series was one of the last gasps of the hard R/soft X style of softcore film that the arrival of hardcore essentially obliterated. It is also a transitional point between two distinct grindhouse modes,combining the fetishistic elements of the fading late 60s roughie trend with a more assertive female fronted action and revenge angle that would become more prominent as the 70s progressed.

Yet, for a film so utterly packed with sex, violence and general what the fuckery, Ginger desperately lacks any sense of energy or fun. What slight pleasures the movie has can be attributed to Cheri Caffaro. There’s a certain daffy delight in her obvious confidence that she is the most spectacular creature in the room, even when she delivers her lines like Bridgette Bardot on Quaaludes or is furiously dancing like a slightly misprogrammed sex bot (the clip I included above, as I could not locate a theatrical trailer).

That said, there are better showcases for her wacky camp charm in her filmography (1977’s Too Hot to Handle being my personal favorite), and the few moments of Ginger that manage to transcend their status as a good idea poorly executed are easily found on Youtube without having to subject yourself to the entire thing.

Bite Size: Keep My Grave Open (1977)

S.F. Brownrigg managed a well rounded slate of exploitation offerings in his short film career, using a down home Dreamlanders style cast of stock actors to put out everything from hicksploitation hellfests (1974’s Scum Of The Earth, which has an upcoming restoration from Grindhouse Releasing), to the obligatory 80s teen sex comedy (Thinkin’ Big).

1977’s Keep My Grave Open was the last of his three horror efforts, and the only one not to get slapped with the ever so popular cautionary “Don’t” title. Not that it really helps, since the end result film doesn’t have much to do with graves, open or otherwise. Lesley Fontaine (Camilla Carr) is a well to do young woman who lives on a remote ranch with her reclusive brother, Frank, who never seems to leave his bedroom. At least, she assumes he doesn’t. When a series of murders plagues the property, an increasingly fragile Lesley is left to clean up the mess.

The plot is pretty slight, and the more slasher style elements are rather goofy, given the weapon of choice is the sort of replica sword a neckbeard would buy after a cruise of the local mall’s Spencer Gifts. Keep My Grave Open hits its languid stride as Lesley’s mental state begins to deteriorate. She wanders around her depressingly empty house giving us a variety of impending nervous breakdown tableau, including a bizarre scene that plays out like a distant, downmarket ancestor of that uncanny valley POV virtual reality porn. If Frank even exists at all, their relationship is the stuff of V.C. Andrews novels.

This sort of rural route Polanski psychological weirdness better suits Brownrigg’s microbudget milieu, and Camilla Carr’s surprisingly capable performance keeps this odd little mood piece drifting pleasantly afloat. There’s a few nice stylistic touches here too, from the classic “sliced victim to butcher shop chop” transition shot to some loving close ups of Carr’s face that recall the style of the achingly glamorous promo photos parceled out to 40s starlets.

By the time the pace picks up in the final stretch, the seemingly shy Lesley aggressively propositioning her doctor and the life (and death) of a local prostitute named Twinkle seem a natural part of the film’s disjointed universe. This all culminates in a supposed twist of an ending that launches this isolated and icy little movie into a tiny bit of Messiah Of Evil‘s territory of borderline brilliant incoherence. While not terribly effective as a traditional horror film, fans of idiosyncratic local labors of love will likely dig this one for its ambitious attempt to swing above its DIY in the Texas dust pay grade.





Bite Size: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Like most films that bear a “based on a true story” title card, 1970’s The Honeymoon Killers takes a loose approach to the facts of the real life crimes that inspired it, a 1940s multi-state theft and murder spree that earned its culprits the snappy newspaper sobriquet the “Lonely Hearts Killers“.

Nursing supervisor Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) lives with her aging mother in a modest apartment in Alabama. When her well meaning best friend, Bunny (an early role for TV regular Doris Roberts) signs her up for a correspondence club for singles, she is far from thrilled. However, a letter from the suave, Spanish born Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) soon sees Martha in the throes of a whirlwind romance.

After a visit to his home in New York City, Martha learns what sort of frog lies behind her supposed prince. Ray is a gigolo, using the personals to find older rich women to marry and subsequently rob blind. Rather than run, Martha decides to assist him in his schemes. She travels alongside Ray to meet his procession of “wives”, pretending to be his spinster sister. Soon Ray’s dishonesty and Martha’s furious jealousy escalate what had been simple grift into cold blooded murder.


Despite the primarily handheld, documentary style camerawork, The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t try to hide any of its carefully curated artifice. This isn’t “reality” any more than a carefully staged real estate showing is a “home”. There’s no attempt to disguise the era swap to the then present day, the technical gaffes typical of low budget productions or the film’s replacement of Martha’s real life circumstances to that of a single, childless woman to better suit the narrative.

What lends the film a heft it wouldn’t otherwise have is the fact that it commits to its fictions wholeheartedly in a manner that feels authentic without being bogged down by the need for period perfect details or the minutiae of the protagonists’ real life counterparts. Writer/director Leonard Kastle (who famously subbed in for the quickly fired Martin Scorsese) doesn’t so much truck in realism as he does the utter lack of romanticism.

This was likely quite the shock for audiences at the time of the film’s release. The majority of the vocabulary in cinematic crime films up to that point was dominated by cartoonishly lurid low budget potboilers, noir-ish morality tales and glossy big studio efforts deeply invested in the stylish pathos of tragic outlaws.

Stoler and Lo Bianco both give expertly calibrated performances of the lived in banality that accompanies an uncertain life on the fringes, bickering and boasting in equal turns depending on where their ill gotten fortunes stand on any given day. The film parcels its violence sparingly, and when the constant paranoia and mistrust between the pair brings the couple’s bright burning passion to ash, it happens with a sighing whimper and a telephone call, rather than the fireworks pop of bullets and artfully tousled defiance.

The clinical tone of the film has subsequently been used to great effect in a variety of genre fare (Henry:Portrait Of A Serial Killer), but The Honeymoon Killers retains a subversive, transgressive charge in Shirley Stoler’s snarlingly surly and confidently sexual portrayal of Martha. It’s rare to see a female character allowed to exist this far outside of the notions of conventional desirability and mandatory feminine agreeableness. It’s even rarer to see that character treated seriously as both a love interest and an object of desire.

It would be easy to dismiss the hysterical, mocking focus on Stoler’s physicality as an an unfortunate relic of an earlier era had it been confined to the original promo and press materials. Yet, modern reviews of the film point to Stoler’s passionate affair with a man who makes his living as a lover with the same air of prurient incredulousness rampant in those of 50 years ago, which definitely speaks to how little the baseline of gendered expectations have changed.

Much like Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter or Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, The Honeymoon Killers is one of genre fare’s finest one off directorial efforts. In a realm that famously sold the sizzle rather than the actual steak, The Honeymoon Killers takes the opposite tact. Sold as a sensationalist bit of ripped from the headlines exploitation, the film refuses to serve the meat of what the promo materials promise. Instead, it dispassionately allows a glimpse into the sort day to day drudgery that the promised butchery entails.






Bite Size: She Demons (1958)

Irish McCalla was a popular pin up model whose brief acting career is probably best remembered for her titular turn on mid 50s television series Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle, a role for which she was cast when Anita Ekberg turned it down. While far from a dynamic actress, her statuesque 5’10” frame and nominal ability to deliver her lines gave her a modest edge over some of her fellow beauties looking to jump from the pages of men’s magazines to the silver screen.

1958’s She Demons is the only film appearance in her slim filmography where Irish was given top billing. Given the time frame and the jungle island setting, this was likely a bit of a calculated career move for all parties concerned. She wanted out of television, the film’s producers wanted a still somewhat recognizable name on which to hinge an otherwise unremarkable bit of budget genre fare.

Spoiled socialite Jerrie Turner (Irish McCalla) is sent off on a vacation cruise so her father can get his bratty daughter out of his hair (and his checkbook) for a bit. Unfortunately, the ship gets caught up in a hurricane, and crash lands on an uncharted island. Thankfully, square jawed tour guide Fred (Tod Griffin), sassy sidekick Sammy (Victor Sen Yung, whose list of credits is historical proof of just what kind of roles non Caucasian actors were unfortunately limited to in this era), and ship’s captain Kris (Charles Opunui, ditto) have all survived the wreck along with her.

Typical of someone used to hired help, Jerrie is less concerned with her crew or essential items like food or a radio than she is with the location of her powder blue cashmere shortie or a particular pair of toreador pants. The group’s troubles quickly move out of Gilligan’s Island territory, and into something more pressing. The seemingly empty island is actually filled with, you guessed it, “she-demons”. The creatures look like scantily clad human women from the neck down, but have horribly mutated faces, sharp fangs and a tendency towards random violence. To make matters worse, the one partial radio broadcast the group is able to receive indicates the US military is scheduled to use the island as a bomb testing site in less than 48 hours.

This sort of schlock was an even bigger barnacle than juvenile delinquency melodramas for hanging onto the bottom of a double bill for ungodly amounts of time. What distinguishes She Demons is just how many tropes it manages to pack into 76 minutes.

Baseline plot stolen from Bela Lugosi’s work in both 30s sci fi serials and 40s horror cinema?

Check to both of those, simultaneously.

Rampant exoticism and ethnic stereotyping used primarily in service of giving some blandly attractive white extras an excuse to shake it in sarongs?

Check, and it’s a fully choreographed number set to Les Baxter’s “Calypso”.

Mad scientist in attendance?

Absolutely, check. The villain isn’t just a mad scientist, he’s a Nazi mad scientist, Karl “The Butcher” Ostler (Rudolph Anders). He’s been holed up on the island with his foot soldiers since before the war ended, using the suspiciously pale “natives” as guinea pigs in a crazy scheme to restore the beauty to his burn scarred wife’s face. There’s also a henchman named Igor (Gene Roth) who pops up to add some early Nazisploitation style sadism to this whole affair, whipping an escapee and tossing the girls into bamboo cages when its not their turn on the operating table.

Had writer/director Richard E. Cunha managed to shoehorn in some half baked voodoo angle, this film could have filled the Bingo card. That said, the final act is a nice surprise as it’s Jerrie, not unseasoned potato salad Fred, who saves the day. She manages to grow both a spine and a sense of resourceful priority quickly enough to save herself and her staff before the stock footage of US Air Force bombers is scheduled to show up.

This being the 50s, Jerrie ends up doing so in an evening gown, and Fred still gets the romantic hero treatment in the last 5 minutes despite being basically useless. It’s still a notably refreshing change for a film of this ilk to give its leading lady a bit of character arc. Even if that character arc is “self involved spoiled brat” to “self involved spoiled brat that manages to appropriately wield a champagne bottle and a set of keys to spring the men….. because there is absolutely no way in hell she’s voluntarily paddling 300 miles to the mainland in a rowboat”.