In an era littered with unscrupulous producers and distributors who hijacked both finished products and profits from filmmakers, Ganja & Hess is the rare inverse case. Director Bill Gunn received financing to make a budget conscious cash in on the success of Blacula. Instead, Gunn used the funds to turn out a film that has more in common with the “New Hollywood” arthouse inflected movement than Blaxploitation tropes.
Wealthy anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones) is attacked by his suicidal research assistant, George Meda (director Bill Gunn) with an ancient African ceremonial dagger. The dagger carries a disease that gives the infected near eternal life, and an unceasing thirst for human blood. When George’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark), comes to the estate looking for her deceased husband, she instead joins Hess in both marriage and his cursed state (though not his personal ideologies).
It’s a slight plot, but the pretext of vampirism allows for a dizzying array of allegory and subtextual commentary on the nature of addiction, Black assimilation in America, and the hypocrisy of Christianity. It’s a shimmering shape shifter of a film to begin with, doubly so for those prone to analysis, and I’ve done a previous deep dive of the movie’s thematic elements right here.
The visuals and sound further the fever dream, with title cards and tilted angles joining lushly shot runs through sun dappled fields, and queasy, almost POV style kills. Sam Waymon’s score burbles both underneath and on top of the dialog, African chants, church hymns and a narrative soul croon given equal weight to the words being spoken by the characters. The cut and paste, collaged aesthetic is both disorienting and deliberate.
The disappointed producers of the film quickly pulled it from distribution for a hatchet job of a recut/retitling(Blood Couple), despite it winning a prestigious prize at that year’s Cannes film festival. Ganja & Hess has very little to do with the easy to sell Blaxploitation conventions that they were hoping for. There are no oversized heroes or easy villains, no action sequences, no clever catchphrases or catchy theme tunes.
Instead, just a slow, purposeful introspection. For all of the larger questions Ganja & Hess raises, there’s no easy catharsis to any of them, no through line of linear narrative, right and wrong. Just two characters, and how they individually navigate their status as othered outsiders, even before you factor in the newly found bloodlust.
*Note from your Midnight Movie Monster: There’s a bit of a break from my usual tone from this post, which marks the end of my break from regular updates(which will continue on their usual schedule from here on out). With the pandemic and the protests against racism and police brutality still ongoing, I took some time off and focused on being useful to the larger issues at hand, rather than cracking wise about B cinema.
Usually, I reserve bite size pieces for films of lesser merits, but this film is actually one of my absolute favorites of the grindhouse golden age, and an excellent piece of arthouse horror. I just wrote it up as a bite size piece being that I had previously covered it for an outside venue.
What do you get when you mix a television journeyman, a frustrated soap opera pretty boy, an aging rock star, and a former Prince protege?
Never Too Young To Die, a Gil Bettman directed action comedy to update spies for the rad kids of the Reagan era, penned by the same twisted mind that would later produce the truly execrable Baby Geniuses.
While the film received a limited theatrical run and a home video release, both flopped. The movie held on briefly in syndication before vanishing for several decades into the recess of VHS only curios. Content to let sleeping dogs lie, no one bothered to exhume Never Too Young To Die for DVD/Blu Ray release until 2017.
Let’s get this totally tubular tale of the teenage spy who loved Vanity over with:
The cold open of this 1986 misfire is a herd of lost extras from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, chanting in support of their glorious leader, gender bending Ragnar (Gene Simmons). For the record, that name is not a keysmash or a typo. Clearly, production was aiming for a glam rock and roll nightmare, but the practical result is a puffy mess who clearly ate the whole pack of Frank N. Futers. As Ragnar struts and shrieks some nonsense about “little turdballs”, and poisoning the city water supply, even the fan club down below looks confused.
A critical disk of information needed for this overly elaborate poisoning plan is missing. One of the female crustpunks is a traitor. As she is bound to a prop cross, we get a truly disturbing scene where the crowd chants for Ragnar to give the double agent “the finger”. As Gene Simmons licks glossed lips and raises a dirty acrylic coke nail, we mercifully cut to credits. NO ONE needed to see exactly where that was going.
Enter Lance Stargrove (John Stamos), a teen gymnastics champ at a weird high school that apparently has dorms. He’s got a cheery theme song, big hair, and a stereotype of a best friend named Cliff, who only exists to spit computer jargon and build literal plot devices. Well, plot devices other than those that were already stolen from The Goonies and Gymkata.
It isn’t all sunshine and sweatbands for Lance. His mom is dead, and his dad is going to miss the big gymnastics meet, AGAIN. Best to photogenically brood about it. Stupid dad having a stupid mysterious job.
While he sulks, we cut to Lance’s father James Bond, Drew Stargrove. Stargrove the elder is played by George Lazenby. Lazenby is best known for being the guy who keeps Timothy Dalton from being the least popular Bond actor.
Mr. Stargrove is doing top level espionage for Roto Rooter, but the job goes badly sideways due to a defector in the ranks and some “C4” that looks and adheres like kneaded eraser. Ragnar makes short work of an injured Mr. Stargrove after some boring squabbling over the missing disc for the water poisoning plot. In a psychic link between father and estranged son, Lance bungles the big tumble tournament and lands with a thud at the same moment his dad dies of his own ineptitude. Kismet.
At the funeral, a bundle of dear old dad’s not at all secret agent “associates” show up, including Danja Deering (Vanity), wearing one of the leftover costumes from the Vanity 6 album tour. Lance being Lance, he has a tantrum about his dad ever having known a good looking woman in even the most mysterious of capacities. He sulks his way through a pile of dry as kindling exposition with the one scene wonder family lawyer.
Lance is now independently wealthy, and the owner of his father’s farm/ personal retreat, which he didn’t realize had ever existed. Again, best to sit in the backseat of the limo and photogenically brood about it.
Speaking of the farm, Lance decides to visit, just as Ragnar’s club wielding henchman interrupt Danja’s horseback riding with demands for the missing disc. The barn doubles as an armory, and is blown up in the scuffle despite Ragnar’s goons not having a single modern weapon. Vanity loses the gun she brought to a blunt instrument fight, and the grenade box thoughtfully stored beneath the saddles lights the whole structure up like kindling when the side of beef above struggles to keep control of a semi automatic.
Danja sustains a small wound on the arm, which inexplicably requires her to take off the frilly blouse she nicked from Prince’s closet. Lance is unharmed, but….you guessed it…..proceeds to photogenically brood about it. Vanity’s expression in the still up there pretty much sums up my feelings toward this entire sequence. Whatever secret agency these characters are from is the bottom of the can of dollar store alphabet soup.
Okay, so we’re going to pause a moment here. Another mystery man comes to retrieve Vanity from the farm, and they have a debrief about the obvious misunderstanding regarding the meaning of the phrase “barn raising”. When she mentions the culprit being Ragnar’s henchmen, our ersatz G man replies “The hermaphrodite?” in an incredulous tone.
1. It is a third of the way through the movie, and this bizarre plot point was felt to be of enough merit to be shoehorned in, apropos of absolutely fuck all. 2. That terminology was not a good look even in 1986. 3. The mid 80’s were an unfortunate boom time for casual homophobia in films. 4. Why is Ragnar’s gender identity or physiology more important that the fact that her crew is planning to poison an entire city’s water supply, and has already committed murder? It’s not. But the entire rest of the movie will repeatedly harp on it because of point #3. 5. Velvet Von Ragnar refers to herself as she in the scene that follows this one, and so will I.
Danja heads off to catch Velvet Von Ragnar’s nightclub act. Lance follows along like a puppy, because he wants to prove he can do big kid stuff aside from brood and sulk.
As far as the actual performance? Gene Simmons had a career as a professional musician for over a decade at this stage, and manages not to sing, dance, speak or walk in anything resembling the same time signature as the beat.
The costume is borrowed from the 1980 Linda Carter ENCORE! TV special, and Gene mainly just wobbles around the stage shrieking like Dr. Rockso’s grandparent. Should you be a masochist, but not so much of one as to watch this entire movie, some of the vocals from this sequence were recycled for the 1992 KISS song “Spit”.
Another homophobic conversation is had. Danja leaves, slapping Lance for implying she’s a star(grove) fucker. Lance attempts to go undercover as a fan of Velvet’s to place one of his BFF’s handy bubble gum trackers in her dressing room.
Surprising no one, Lance fails miserably. Velvet flushes the tracker down the toilet. Lance gets his ass kicked outside of the bar, and manages to nearly get blown up when his motorcycle explodes.
This doesn’t stop him from borrowing poor Cliff’s motorbike to go chase Danja, as he adhered the other bubble gum tracker to her car. As usual, he gets in the way of Danja’s escape from more of Velvet’s post apocalyptic errand bitches, nearly gets himself shot, and does absolutely nothing to prevent the goons from capturing her in their fishing net of doom.
Meanwhile, the henchmen drag Lance back to his father’s farmhouse, and whip him until he cries. At roughly an hour into this film, our supposed hero has done little more than pout, sulk and get beaten up by shitty roller derby characters looking for dated computer technology.
But by the power of the cheap badge that the set dresser dredged up from a local plaque and trophy shop, Lance finally finds his footing. The gnashing of teeth for “intensity” and a theme song reprise…..THAT’S his ninja way. Defenestration fu saves the day, and Lance’s reputation as a completely ineffectual idiot. Now he’s just a mostly ineffectual idiot.
Turns out that stupid tchochke is a quest item, as when Lance fumbles putting it back onto his necklace, it rolls into a glowing groove in the floor. Once activated, there’s a little super spy Narnia underneath the bed. Like an onion, this farm. So many layers.
Seeing his dad’s trophy room of awards and accomplishments gives Lance the confidence to pick up a handgun as he sees a figure in motocross gear entering the house. Lance still being a moron, he almost shoots poor Cliff. Cliff came by with both a brand new motorbike and a custom designed flamethrower, because plot device. He also mentions that the disc Lance’s dad had sent before all this started just happened to be inside a specially built compartment inside of Cliff’s new bike. Funny that Lance almost killed the person that has the one thing everyone in the film wants, and that Cliff didn’t mention having it until just now.
Fuck it, whatever, lets see how the homemade flamethrower plays into Danja’s rescue.
Blah, blah, blah overly elaborate villain plot.
How in the hell did Robert Englund end up in this only semi polished turd? He’s wonderful as always, in a bit role as a tech dork named Riley.
Velvet kills the previous two henchman as punishment for their failure to retrieve the disc. At least they call the dirty coke nail “the spike” rather than “the finger” this time. 50% less nightmare inducing.
Move along, nothing else to see in this scene.
Lance and Cliff make like a bad album cover as they fight fire…..with fire. Danja is rescued from yet another overly elaborate crematorium of doom type villain mechanism, and everyone debriefs in what looks like a church basement or a shipping container. The entire water poisoning plot everyone has been talking about the entire film has to be rehashed again for the secret agent bigwigs, who decide Lance and Danja……should sit at the farmhouse and wait.
Hear that sound? It’s the plot grinding to a near standstill in the final stretch.
At the house, Lance and Danja have a weird combination of flirtation and argument, with semi love confessions and suspicions of double crossers in their own ranks mixed with the insufferably pouty Lance brooding over the fact that a beautiful woman has decided she wants to sleep with him. I was going to complain about how long this scene drags on, but for time killing filler, you could do far worse than circa 1986 Vanity stepping in and out of a bikini.
The editing of the actual sex scene is bizarre with moody sax sprinkled throughout the oddly jumpy visual cuts. Apparently, I’m the only one who remembers that this is a mission, with a full crew of spies chilling at the top of the hill with high powered binoculars. Whatever, I won’t yuck someone else’s yum.
Lance and Ganja get airlifted out of the house while lookalikes take their place. Maybe because the lookalikes will get actual spy stuff done rather than having kinky sex. However, the helicopter pilot isn’t Agent Carruthers, but instead is a disguised Ragnar. This transition is one step above Scooby and those meddling kids pulling the rubber mask off the villain at the end of the episode, proving once again that Danja and company are the worst spies ever.
Ragnar drags them back to his dust bowl hide out, which is pretty much run like a nuclear winter Medieval Times. Ragnar demands a toast from her throne, Danja and Lance are pelted with rotted food as they are dragged out in a cage, and John Stamos gets into some awkward territory challenging the big side of bacon main henchman to a duel to see who is a “real man”.
The real spies show up in rescue helicopters, and Ragnar runs with Riley the tech nerd, the disc she had her henchman steal from Cliff’s bike, and a nuclear football like suitcase. Lots of filler shots of the good guys mowing down extras ensue as Ragnar makes her break for it.
With the poisoning device armed and a 3 minute countdown, Lance manages to catch up to Ragnar for what is (thankfully) their last standoff on a municipal aqueduct. Some is this precious time is wasted with yet another inane homophobic conversation about who is a “real man” or “real woman” and other such tripe. Because John Stamos and his 45 minute blow dried and moussed coif is the height of butch masculinity. It’s the femme person in the corset that’s bad. Some dumb shit like that. I stopped listening for the sake of the 14 brains cells I had not yet killed with booze while watching this film.
Lance is such a cocky little shit, its oddly satisfying to see Ragnar take a hearty swing at his head with a tire iron as she calls him a pathetic little boy. In fact, she’s well on her way to kicking his ass until he goes for the cheap shot of biting her boob. Some super tough super spy he is. As one cheap turn deserves another, Ragnar gets in a slash with her infamous coke nail.
They continue their chicken fight on the ground, and the detonator says that only about 30 seconds have elapsed, despite this eating up several minutes of screentime. Vanity catches up in the chopper, Cliff’s homemade flamethrower at the ready rather than the plethora of real weapons her employers supplied.
It’s that time again….Monster Munch is all of the bits and pieces of horror news and reviews I’ve written for other sites around the web. Have a recommendation? Find my taste questionable? So do I! Find me on Twitter or in the comments, and tell me all about it below the fold.
Retro VHS Rewind: Alice, Sweet Alice: A look back at this 1976 cult classic tale of slashers and sibling rivalry, that has one of the creepiest masks in all of horror, and an appearance from a very young Brooke Shields.
Book Review: The Flock Of Ba-Hui And Other Stories What happens when you take cosmic horror out of the hands of a chronically ill racist, and put it in the hands of genre writers from the burgeoning Chinese underground? As it turns out, a surprisingly fast paced collection of lovingly created pastiche.
In 1977, Tom DeSimone’s (Hell Night, The Concrete Jungle) main claim to fame was directing a string of successful gay porn features under the pseudonym Lancer Brooks. This makes AIP’s choice to place him at the helm of a silly softcore sex comedy about a girl with a talking vagina either a complete lapse in any discernible logic or a calculated exercise in economics. Porn directors were highly unlikely to be union talent.
Also, you absolutely read the middle of that paragraph correctly. Hairdresser Penelope (Candice Rialson) discovers her vagina can spout sassy wisecracks when it insults her boyfriend Ted’s (Perry Bullington) sexual performance. Even worse, Penelope’s lady parts also have a propensity for singing showtunes.
Fresh out of a break up, and at her wits end on what to do, she goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Pearl (Larry Gelman). Instead of helping, Dr. Pearl uses an AMA conference to launch Penelope and the newly christened “Virginia The Talking Vagina” into show business. As the pair’s fame grows and people increasingly forget the girl that surrounds the genitals, Penelope needs to learn how to live with her particular brand of female trouble.
All of this stress is because poor Penelope has a chatter….box. Get it? GETIT?Good, because that’s as sophisticated as the humor in this movie gets. At all times, Chatterbox! would like to remind you how WHIMSICAL! and NAUGHTY! it is, when in reality the content and the jokes land somewhere between the fantasies of a 12 year old boy who has no clue how sex works and a nudity dotted episode of The Love Boat.
Comedy castoffs Rip Taylor and Professor Irwin Corey both have bit parts to mug it up in, and there’s plenty of slide whistle music cues to maintain the air of forced cheerfulness. Even at a scant 73 minute runtime, the box puns and double entendres wear awfully thin. By the time Penelope ends up on a fictionalized version of The Dating Game to win a date with Dick, it feels like a step up in terms of one liners. Until the disco production numbers of “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Cock A Doodle Doo” show up. Then we take that half step right back down to a shitty issue of Mad magazine.
In between, we get a bunch of “wacky” hijinks that feel forced even by the standard of other silly sex comedies of the period. Virginia just can’t keep quiet, and soon Penelope is fending off aggressive lesbian clients at the hair salon, and being nearly cornered to play ball with an entire sports team. The lead actress spends a good portion of the runtime either topless or holding her crotch like a small child who really has to go pee. We get a lot of closeups of Virginia in the production numbers, or at least her bedazzled g-strings.
Candice Rialson was one of the most appealing starlets of the exploitation golden age, and likely could have had a mainstream career had the cards played just a few pair differently. A doe eyed blonde beauty with a light comedic touch and a knack for making the raciest of material look more nudie cutie than sticky floor sleazy, she lit up the screen in any film in which she appeared. It is only because of Candice’s charisma that all of this failed gaiety is even remotely watchable and only occasionally cringe inducing.
All things considered, she certainly deserved better than a movie where the happy ending is a suicide averted by the sudden appearance of a singing schlong. No wonder Candice retired from acting at the beginning of the 1980’s. The challenge of starting a family and raising a child must have seemed like a breeze by comparison to trying to make something entertaining out of material like this.
The cannibal vomitorium (a name coined by Bill Landis in his now sadly out of print book Sleazoid Express) is definitely the deeper end of the sleaze cinema pool. Taking all of the cynical and condescending faux documentary/ethnography ideas of the mondo trend, and pushing them past Italian Grand Guignol gore into reprehensible animal cruelty and often unsafe working conditions for the crew, this is rough stuff by any reasonable metric.
Mainly a decade long tit for tat between directors Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato (with some lesser entries from other genre stalwarts), cannibal vomitoriums tend to follow the same basic outline:
1. Some woefully underprepared white person heads to a remote region for a reason that is stupid, rather colonialist, or some combo of both. 2. Due to all of the reasons noted in point 1, white person royally pisses off natives, which inevitably involves at least one cannibal tribe. 3. Murder and mayhem ensues, and long pig is on the menu. Finger foods for everyone. 4. Bonus points for making some heavy handed “Who is REALLY civilized?” allegory as a grace note/excuse for every extreme thing the audience just saw.
A relatively minor entry into the gut muncher canon, Eaten Alive is notable for both deviating from formula by adding in a Jonestown massacre facsimile to shake up the plot and the fact that director Umberto Lenzi went fully meta, cannibalizing other cannibal movies to finish this one. Interspersed with the main plot are scenes hijacked from older films (both his own and those of other people), and various stock footage bits, easily identifiable by the stark changes in lighting and film stock. Let’s get to it and guess who is coming to dinner:
Pre credits, we get a trip from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to New York City, watching this guy rather comically blow gun some random strangers to death at extremely close range. He stops, puffs his cheeks, gives his victims time to make a face of exaggerated horror, and out pops the death Q tip and a bit of prop blood as it hits. Our lo fi assassin then gets hit by a bus while running away from the scene of the crime, roll titles and a funky disco theme.
Meet sweet little Sheila Morris from Alabama, who is talking to FBI agents in what looks like a barely set dressed church basement. As we know, there’s been some funky blowgun murders, and the killer just happened to have a color film reel with the name and address of her estranged sister on it when he got hit by that bus.
The whole scene is basically an info dump, to establish that Sheila and her sister Diana haven’t spoken in six months or so, that there’s a hippie street preacher named Jonas (subtle) mixed up in this somehow, and that the whole cult disappeared off into the wild somewhere. While less awful than she was in Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, Janet Agren’s principle attributes as Sheila are a comically corn pone country accent and some flawless eyeliner.
The agents let Sheila take the film with her, and she enlists the help of a professor to try to figure out where the footage was shot. Together they marvel at fakirs and the strangeness of people who keep time with the beat while dancing. He takes a wild guess at New Guinea (which a junkie former student of his confirms), Sheila books a flight instead of informing authorities, and the filmmakers can brag that celebrity skin Mel Ferrer was in this movie for all of 5 minutes. He does get to deliver the home truth that “Americans will believe in anything as long as it’s tax deductible.”
Enter soldier of fortune, Vietnam deserter and knife fight/arm wrestling mixologist Mark. As portrayed by porn star Robert Kerman, he looks more like the accountant for the forefathers of the Cobra Kai, but sex stardom was very different in porn’s golden age.
He agrees to help guide Sheila to the village shown in the film, but considering he only works for cash, you’d think the fact that she doesn’t have any on her to cover his $80,000 fee would be concerning. Also, you’d think a woman who could find the one adventurer for hire in all of either Pakistan or Sri Lanka judging by the Pakistan International Airlines flight New Guinea would know how to hire her own helicopter to a remote village. No one in this situation is firing on all cylinders.
Proving my point, our “heroes” manage to get strong armed by a senior citizen about 30 seconds after exiting the helicopter. They get locked in a room with some cobras, Mark finally makes himself useful and obtains a guide and supplies by force, and there’s 3 repugnant animal scenes. One of said scenes is stolen from 1972’s Sacrifice. It’s no less awful the second time, and this entire sequence is just a long winded way to say that your cultists are in another (cannibal filled) castle. Soon our gang is rolling down the river to the most softcore porn music cue you can think of.
The canoe wrecks, one of the guides is eaten by a crocodile, and the one surviving guide steals all of the supplies. He gets all of 30 feet away before being eaten by cannibals, but it’s the thought that counts. Speaking of, it’s a third of the way through the film, and we finally see a cannibal…..in some more spliced in footage from another movie. I like the still above, which clearly captures a man recalculating his life choices as he holds his rubber limb.
If it feels like I’m zooming through large sections of this movie, that’s because I am. Given that this film is roughly 1/3 post consumer recycled material, there’s a lot of padded reaction shots to spliced in footage of snakes and mongoose or whatever. For the sake of brevity, I’m condensing down to things that have some relevance to the actual plot.
Shaken up by the carnage they have seen, Mark and Shiela run all of six hundred feet away to camp for the night. After receiving the classic cartoon “Snap out of it!” slap, Sheila decides to have sex with Mark, and makes him promise to kill her if they are caught by cannibals.
Morning comes, and a chase ensues, with assailants stalking the pair through the jungle lobbing oddly pool noodle-esque spears. Separated and cornered, Sheila faints……
……only to come to with Jonas’ followers giving her some medicine and reuniting her with Mark. More convenient than a whole county’s worth of 7-11s, if you ask me. They take our gang to “Purification Village” and provide us the vision that is Ivan Rassimov as Jonas swanning about in a Delta Burke Collection caftan.
In a refreshing change, we waste some runtime with some footage actually shot for this movie, yay! A native woman named Mowara (Me Me Lai) was widowed, and the community is having her husband’s funeral ceremony that evening. The funeral sequence is mainly an excuse to get a bunch of Jonas’ followers topless (including Paola Senatore as Sheila’s sister Diana), and to get Me Me Lai naked in some ashes for some sex based uncoupling ritual. Never has a woman looked more like she’d rather be washing her hair.
Me Me Lai was a constant in the cannibal sub genre, and her presence here as Mowara pretty much guarantees that she’ll be the sympathetic native who helps our protagonists escape, spends most of the runtime topless, and dies gruesomely for her trouble.
Diana regrets following a junkie J. Jill frequent shopper into jungle hell, Professor Celebrity Cameo FINALLY informs the authorities where Sheila is, and Jonas makes everyone do a test run on the whole drinking the Kool Aid thing. Mark refuses when he smells it is drugged, and is beaten and tied to a pole for his astute observation. Having spent maybe 6 minutes setting up the third act, we get another random kill of a native by Jonas’ enforcer that has fuck all to do with anything we have just seen.
Jungle roofies work FAST, as the very next shot is Sheila being ritualistically prepared for Jonas to assault her with a cobra blood covered hand carved sex toy. Not only is this poor man’s prophet a scam artist and rapist, he’s a scam artist and rapist who chooses to leave fucking splinters, which is next level monstrous.
In color me not surprised news, Mowara and another sympathetic native (told you so) cut Mark loose, and he bolts into the jungle. He gets to react to a bloody castration scene between tribesmen from 1978’s Slave Of The Cannibal God. Got to pad that runtime until the hips match the shoulders.
Mark manages to last the night amongst the cannibals, but comes back to the village and supplicates himself at Jonas’ feet. With 30 minutes left in the runtime, do you think it just might be a trap? Jonas managed to convince several hundred people to join him in the outer reaches of fucking nowhere, but is egotistical/gullible enough to accept this conversion at face value.
Diana is far less dumb than she appears, and meets with Mark in secret regarding his plans, and enlists Mowara to help them all escape.
Having passed out the day’s drug rations to the flock (Mark included), Jonas skips off to perform the solid gold edition of sexual assault on a doped up Sheila. Diana manages to interrupt by attacking Jonas with a knife, but gets whipped for her trouble. What actually saves Sheila is that a follower was caught imbibing the demon drink, and must be cast out into the jungle with a Bible and not a snowball’s chance in hell of survival. Again, more convenient than a TV dinner.
The plan is in place to leave by nightfall, and Mark warns Sheila not to drink anything Jonas may give her before then, as its definitely drugged…..which you think she would have noticed by now, all things considered.
Jonas has a babbling Bible study about the story of Jehu (say that 5 times fast), and once night falls, our crew of the most recognizable actors left in the film is off to the races. Too bad Sheila starts screaming for Jonas the second the team comes to fetch her….what the hell is in those drugs? The effects morph from roofie to hard Ecstasy from dose to dose. She must have forgotten to skip the last dose of Mighty Morphing MDMA.
Mark gives her another come to your senses slap, but it finally takes a gag to stop her from getting them all killed, and she’s fighting all the way as they run for the river, Jonas’ errand bitches not too far behind.
Diana and Mark make the mistake of thinking Sheila is sober, and untie her. She immediately bolts back towards the village, screaming for Jonas. Mark races after her, leaving Mowara and Diana to their own devices.
Jonas men quickly catch up to the two women, and main heavy Karan decides to rape Diana. In a lightning fast case of instant karma, this gives the cannibals time to catch up to them, and eat everyone alive. Sadly, this includes Diana and Mowara.
Even sadder, only Diana gets a proper death scene, and Me Me Lai is sent off with a retread of her death scene from 1977’s Jungle Holocaust.
Mark saves a suddenly sober Sheila, and they both run toward the sound of screams, but it is too late. Mark uses his third (for those keeping score at home) get it together slap to knock Sheila out before she notices this way too cheerful cannibal nibbling on her sister’s severed leg.
It kind of works, but not quite, as Sheila saw some of the bloodshed before passing out. They both agree that they won’t be able to get out of this alive, and invoke their earlier pact to kill themselves before the cannibals did.
Safely back in the USA, the authorities give Mark and Sheila the usual speech about not telling of what they have seen for political and economic reasons, and Sheila makes the obligatory comparisons between the Stone Age and the Space Age, checking off all of the standard boxes we discussed earlier.
Meanwhile….Mark is in the other room, discovering Sheila’s big fat check was also a big fat rubber ball, and bounced for insufficient funds. Diana had given all the sisters’ money to Jonas before she left New York.
We have a mercenary for hire character played by a real life porn star and he didn’t master the basic idea of get the money up front. When I said “woefully unprepared” I absolutely meant it. That’s about the textbook definition of the term. Cut to bits of ripped up check fluttering through the air as the credits rolls and the funk bass kicks in.
Welcome back to Monster Munch, collecting my terrifying thoughts on horror subjects from other genre sites around the web. Check out this week’s roundup below, and come chat with me in the comments or on Twitter:
The late 70s and early 80’s were a boom time for exploitation films for both the US and our genteel neighbors to the north, for very similar reasons. Grindhouses and other theaters with extended showtimes needed more content that the mainstream was producing. Hefty credits for film productions made them ideal tax shelters for the well off, or for those wanting a bit of reflected lemonlight from being a “movie producer”.
With all of that extra cash flowing around, a whole host of first time and indie film makers stepped up to fill their noses with cocaine the programming gap.
Over 300 films were made in Canada between 1975 and 1982, most of them low budget genre fare. One of the last films of that tax evasion fueled boom was this forgotten bit of Canuxploitation, originally titled Bells. When it was released in the US, the film was sliced down from 95 minutes to a scant 80 minute runtime. It was also christened with the tabloid title Murder By Phone. Proving that even 38 years ago, the average American viewer had still not mastered the obvious.
College professor and environmentalist Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlin) takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious death of his favorite student. With the help of his teaching mentor Stanley Markowitz(John Houseman) and mural artist Lisa (Sara Botsford), he discovers the deadly weapon was a high pitched frequency sent over the phone line.
As Nat tries to find the culprit before they can kill again, it looks more and more likely that the calls are coming from inside the house…..or at least the phone company.
It’s the sort of one turn too complicated plotting that is half as clever as it thinks it is. This basic template glutted TV movies of the week and the better episodes of police procedurals of the period. There’s a double cross, and a love affair and the usual slight shimmies masquerading as twists you find in scripts of this ilk.
A far classier than average cast uses their talent to make sure the formulaic medicine goes down. How often are an Oscar winner (Houseman) and a Golden Globe winner (Chamberlin) heading up a formerly timely, now carbon dated older than dinosaurs fear of technology cheapie? If you guessed “Neveruary 32nd”, you win the Kewpie doll. Gary Reineke is also amusingly gruff as Lieutenant Meara, the stereotypical cop sick of all of these God damn meddling hippie kids.
The true joy of MurderBy Phone is its gleeful commitment to its titular concept, rather than any real concerns of acting or plot. Truer to advertising than many exercises in exploitation, the films’ kills are indeed all accomplished with the goofy telephone conceit.
The victim picks up the phone, and we get a brief shot of blinking lights, levers and sliders straight out of 50’s sci fi spaceship. A high pitched whirr and some beep boop beeping grow loud on the soundtrack. The victims’ heads shake, their eyes bleed, and then they shoot off into the distance like a champagne cork, accompanied by fireworks from a municipal parade or a third tier metal show. To add indignity to illogic, victims fly across train stations, out of windows and into bookcases, all accented with doubly goofy thunder and lightning sound effects and unceremonious thuds. It’s absolutely delightful in its essential silliness.
Most of the high propulsion victims, and all of the the eye candy in this movie has been condensed into a tight 1:35 trailer. Here’s a gif of one of the few death scenes not present. Tag yourselves, I’m the French doors:
Let the sunshine that is the cheerful ridiculousness of that GIF play for a little while, and try not to giggle. Feel free to then skip over what is essentially a very special guest star filled episode of Mannix. For an R rated horror thriller about murderous plastic, it’s all very tame and tasteful. The only real fun to be had is when Murder By Phone lets go a little bit in the campy death scenes. Even in their cheapie exploitation movies, Canadians live up to their reputation for politeness.
Shot in roughly 2 weeks in 1974, Death Game’s production was doomed from the start. The original director was fired at the last second, and producer Peter S. Traynor took over. His complete lack of anything resembling a clue caused the entire cast to basically stop speaking to him. Colleen Camp and (post Oscar nomination, pre Clint Eastwood) Sondra Locke only bothered to inform him that they preferred he stay the fuck out of the way of day to day filming. Male lead Seymour Cassel quit the shoot after nearly decking his ersatz “director”. While all of Cassel’s scenes were completed before he left, he refused to come in to rerecord some lines, causing his entire performance to have to be dubbed over in post.
Production was then halted by a federal investigation into Peter Traynor’s financing sources, delaying the release of the film by over two years. When Death Game finally saw the light of day in 1977, it promptly flopped in a six month theatrical run. Retitled as The Seducers, the movie had some modest success on the home video market before becoming a common add on to those $5 50 movie box sets that sit by the checkout line at big box retailers.
In honor of the upcoming Grindhouse Releasing restoration, let’s take a look at what will soon be (incorrectly) hailed as a lost grindhouse classic, and you too can be one of the cool kids who liked this movie better when it sucked:
All you need to know about the credits sequence is that this print was ripped from VHS (hence the title) and that it is a full 4:45 of a woman with a faux fishwife accent singing about “dear old dad” who “taught both table manners and the birds and bees”. I wondered what in the fuck those two things had to do with each other, made a mildly off color eating reference, then began praying for my own death or the end of the song, whichever occurred first.
This porn ‘stache having gent is George, our somewhat hairy hero. The film’s events take place on his birthday, which he spent playing cinema’s first ever game of strip croquet with his wife, before she traveled out of town to get his son some needed surgery. He has a nice chat with his son on the phone, telling him how great he thinks it is that he wants to bring his newly removed appendix to school.
Just as he is about to settle in by the fire with a drink, these two bits of ridden hard and put away wet come knocking, and ask to use his phone. Because he’s the sort of guy who thinks a human organ is great for show and tell, he lets the women in.
The brunette is Donna, and the blonde introduces herself as Jackson. George agrees to let them stay until a friend comes to pick them up, and offers them hot cocoa and fresh towels to dry off, warm up, and allow more subtle peeks of skin for him to low key leer at. While Jackson nips off to use what she inexplicably refers to as the “catbox”, George acts like a first class out of touch doofus around Donna, trying to impress her with some elevator music he claims his kids gave him.
When the girls become transfixed by such amazing amenities as running water, they decide to have a skinny dip in the hot tub. When George discovers them cavorting about, he puts up some token resistance before joining them for a threesome. I’m sure his strip croquet partner will be less than thrilled with George’s sudden fondness for water polo. In the meantime, we get a 5 minute montage of head, shoulders, knees, and man ass. The music is so utterly redolent of 70’s porn, I had my speakers tested for syphilis. We also get a lot of weird B roll landscape and sunrise shots mixed in, for those cheap weed and consciousness raising vibes.
Morning comes, and so does the regret, but the girls are all smiles and offers of breakfast. They refuse to leave and are clearly both less cute and more crazy by daylight. However, it is their messy eating habits rather than the several obvious screws loose that causes George to scream at Donna and Jackson to get dressed and GTFO. The chords of the “Dear Old Dad” theme start up again. I wear a matching hangdog expression to the still above. Instead of anything relevant to the plot, we get a 30 second close up of ketchup slowly dribbling from the bottle, while discordant noise stacks up on the soundtrack. I am not kidding about this.
In a rare moment of clarity, someone in the editing bay realized that was ungodly boring, and we get this instead:
Disco strings swell in the background as Jackson deep throats a banana. Donna smashes out random notes on the piano, and the pair inform George they won’t be leaving, after all. Jackson claims to be 17, and Donna only 15. They have no qualms at all letting George be shuttled off as a sex offender if he tries to make them go.
Sondra Locke was 30 years old, and Colleen Camp was 21 years old in 1974. It’s obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot that both of these ladies are clearly of legal age. However, George has proven to be exactly that, and panics at the threat. His response is to offer them a ride anywhere they want, and soon we are on another boring b roll filled field trip. The threat of another refrain of “Dear Old Dad” is cueing up on the soundtrack.
Thinking he’s left his bad life decisions behind in San Francisco, George has another cozy telephone chat with his wife, which is of no consequence other than the fact that his family is coming home the next afternoon.
Back at home after a long day of lowering the bar, George gets knocked out and bound to his own bed by Jackson and Donna, who while rather poor at basic life skills like bathing and using forks, can at least plan a successful fake out. Now that they’ve got him where they want him, the girls….jump on the bed. They put on make up, and play dress up in George’s wife’s clothing, showing some likely to be distributor mandated nudity. They cackle. A lot. “Dear Old Dad” plays yet AGAIN on the soundtrack.
They beat George up a bit for not looking particularly terrified, and Donna makes a sad speech about being molested, and that George is her new daddy now because he was so nice to her. We are now halfway through the movie and it’s the first legitimately disturbing thing either of the pair have managed.
Because all less stupid things must come to an end, the girls drag George down the hall and coat him with all of the food in the house. They cackle. Boy do they ever cackle. They cackle so much I feel like I’m back in primary school conjugating verbs. I cackle. She cackles. They cackle. We cackle. I will cackle. She will cackle. We will cackle. They will cackle. Assume cackling happens anytime the female leads are on screen for more than 3 seconds.
Realizing they have no more stolen food to actually eat, Donna orders groceries, and George makes his first non moronic decision of the film. The second the delivery man rings the doorbell, he starts screaming for help.
To keep him from snitching, Jackson and Donna drown the poor delivery guy in the oversized fishtank. We are now over an hour into a movie originally titled Death Game, and the first (and thus far only) death is barely visible behind a green gel filter. This game sucks.
There’s a long, sleep inducing sequence of a mock “trial” the girls subject George to. All it really is the same threats of rape allegations, breaking stuff and cackling as the previous hour of the movie, but with a green gel filter to make the lighting spooky this time. For real(ly dumb), I’m serious(ly amazed this movie is still going).
The “verdict” is guilty. Shocking, really. Sentence is death at dawn. George tries to escape a second time, and gets another blow to the head for his trouble. Whimsical music plays as the girls booze and eat, making weird pseudo sex faces at each other while they munch on apples and bagels.
George is left to his concussed daydreams of the simpler times of family life and strip croquet. “Dreams” might be a bit strong of a word. It’s basically his wife’s weird sex noises from the beginning of the film on the soundtrack while the camera stays focused on ceiling eaves. Saves the $50 it would cost to bring back the actress.
After even more shriek, smash and cackle (which was totally what was lacking in this film), dawn finally arrives. Jackson picks up a cleaver, but brings it down on the pillow behind George rather than his actual neck.
As a broken George sobs, the girls finally leave, satisfied with the life ruining results of their not quite death game. They skip down the street for yet another full 4:45 minute reprise of “Dear Old Dad”, and I once again start praying for death, before recalling I’m a lifelong atheist.
An “SPCA” truck comes barreling around the corner……
….and kills old Cackle and Squeak so violently, they become photo negatives. Apparently, the Deus ex machina does answer prayers. Roll credits.
Retro VHS Rewind: The Stuff (1985) Deadly desserts and sharp satire make a surprisingly tasty confection in this Larry Cohen cult classic tale of corporate espionage and murderous marshmallow fluff. Take a retrospective review look with me at one of my favorite films of the video era.
While not exactly a trend, the 70’s saw several scattered attempts at an adults only fairy tale musical. If Fairy Tales had been a one off, I could have easily shrugged my shoulders and blamed it on the era’s love of Quaaludes and poor life decisions. However, this movie is the last in a line of filmic lemmings freefalling off the same cliff. The Adult Brothers Grimm hit theaters in 1970, Alice In Wonderland in1976, Cinderella in 1977, and finally Fairy Tales in 1978.
“Softcore musical sex comedy featuring storybook characters” is an oddly specific hill for multiple crews to box office bomb on, so let’s take a bite size look at a once upon a time turkey in a kingdom far, far away from anything that should have ever existed.
What plot there is concerns a Prince who is set to inherit his kingdom on his 21st birthday. The catch is that he must produce an heir by the following Thursday, because even stupid sex spoofs need some kind of stakes. A bouncing blonde birthday present fails to excite him, and he goes on a meandering hero’s journey to find a woman who can solve his fading flagpole issues in a pre Viagra era.
Despite the title, the characters are pretty much a mixed muddle of whatever could be found in a prefab bag at the local costume shop. The Prince is a dork in a bowl cut, last night’s make up and the outfit of a Shakespearean era extra in a middling high school musical.
In his travels, he meets a daffy Little Bo Peep in sheer panties, Mother Hubbard as the blowzy madam of a brothel in a shoe, a belly dancing Scheherazade and a Frog Prince that’s basically a confused dance student in a green velvet drape. While it is a thick drape, it fails to hide the actor’s obvious shame at the booming frog sound effects echoing from his crotch.
In between bumbling rejected Borscht Belt jokes about Venus and Uranus, we get musical numbers from a cast that performs with all of the acumen of a narcoleptic sufferer of St Vitus’ Dance. Snow White gets a pop tune about the joys of all 7 dwarves, 4 random nude women with floggers and gimp masks lip sync an Andrews Sisters style ditty about S&M, and the Prince gets a sad love theme. In all of this, there’s less skin showing than an average nudie cutie movie would have displayed almost 2 decades earlier.
By the time this movie introduces a bizarre subplot about a codpiece wearing Blaxploitation caricature of a pimp, and his love potion making Auntie Leveau, I barely had the energy to wonder how the legendary Motown singer Martha Reeves got mixed up in this mess. I was just thrilled to see a professional performer swing into a spooky fog filled disco number that actually would make a great addition to a Halloween novelty playlist. You can see for yourself in the video above.
Apparently, Martha was never told that the film was an adult movie, as her scene was shot outside of the main plot. Only after Fairy Tales was released, did she learn she was conned into making the only watchable sequence in this utterly juvenile “adult” film.
Despite all of its flaws, Fairy Tales does have a happy ending. Not for any of its characters per se, but for scream queen Linnea Quigley. Featured in a partially nude bit part at the end of the film (as the Princess the Prince has been searching for), she managed to springboard this small early role into starring in the much better movies we know and love her for today.