Wednesday, September 27, 2023

American Splendor

American Splendor Poster

(2003) Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; Written by Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Shari Springer Berman; Starring: Paul Giamatti, Shari Springer Berman, Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis, Joyce Brabner, Shari Springer Berman, Judah Friedlander, Toby Radloff, Earl Billings and James Urbaniak; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ****½  

“Okay, this guy here, he’s our man. All grown up and going nowhere. Always a pretty scholarly cat. He never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and is now knee-deep in a disastrous second marriage. So, if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what? You got the wrong movie.” – Harvey Pekar

The Real Harvey Pekar

Life is messy. It can’t be contained in the panels of a comic book page, depicted in two dimensions, or condensed into thought bubbles. Between its many ups and downs, there’s a bunch of monotonous stuff in the middle. There’s no swift resolution to our conflicts like a 30-minute sitcom episode, nor is there a superhero descending from the skies to set things right. Underground comic writer Harvey Pekar instinctively understood this when he set out to write American Splendor, chronicling his everyday exploits as an ordinary file clerk, working in a Cleveland veterans’ hospital. Sure, it didn’t have quite the pizzazz of Batman, Fantastic Four, or some other fantasy-oriented comic, but it possessed something that none of those comics had – relatability. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini set out to show us the story behind the story about Pekar’s life. The result is part fiction, part fact, narrated by Mr. Pekar himself (who also appears with many of the real-life people who became the subject of his comics).

Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar

Paul Giamatti, in the unexpected role of a lifetime, plays Harvey Pekar, full-time file clerk at Cleveland Veterans Hospital, part-time comic book writer and jazz critic. While Pekar appeared to be a misanthropic curmudgeon to most of the world, Giamatti’s insightful, sympathetic performance proves his character to be much more. Beneath Pekar’s gruff exterior is an intelligent, multi-faceted individual – angry yet sensitive, caustic yet vulnerable. His holistic approach captures Pekar’s specific gait, mannerisms, and facial expressions, conveying a perennial mixture of disgust and resigned world-weariness. Giamatti brings a surprising amount of pathos to the role, especially when the film delves into Pekar’s struggle with illness (which was chronicled in Pekar and Brabner’s graphic novel, Our Cancer Year).

Harvey, Joyce and Toby

American Splendor introduces us to the colorful people in Pekar’s life (some of whom are co-workers) who became characters in his stories. In the early ‘60s, he meets the cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was just getting starting off with his underground comics. As portrayed by James Urbaniak, Crumb (who later illustrated some of Pekar’s stories) is a socially awkward, straw-hat-wearing eccentric, who connects with Pekar over a shared love of obscure vintage jazz records. Pekar meets his match with his soulmate and third wife, Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis), who shares his gloomy outlook (“I find most American cities to be depressing in the same way.”) yet somehow manages to be his ray of sunshine. With a fondness for pop psychology, she diagnoses everyone in her husband’s life, starting with Pekar’s co-worker and self-professed nerd, Toby Radloff.* Judah Friedlander’s spot-on impersonation of Radloff is at once hilarious and poignant, as an optimistic counterpoint to Pekar’s cynicism. Earl Billings is also excellent, in a small but substantive role as another co-worker, the literate and paranoid Mr. Boats. Pekar’s wife and co-workers could be played exclusively for laughs, but that would be far too reductive. Instead, they come across as real people, not caricatures, who in their own unique ways make Pekar’s wife worth living. 

* Fun Fact #1: Besides his appearances on MTV, some die-hard horror fans might remember him as the titular character from Troma’s direct-to-video wonders, Killer Nerd (1991) and Bride of Killer Nerd (1992).

Harvey's Monologue

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s inventive storytelling continually blurs the line between the real and comic worlds. Pekar becomes immersed in a live-action comic book as he delivers a monologue about finding, much to his surprise, that there were three other men who shared his name in Cleveland alone. In contrast to the filmed autobiographical sequences,* the segments with the real-life Pekar and company were shot on video, creating a reality that somehow seems less real than the dramatized footage.   

* Fun Fact #2: According to co-director Robert Pulcini, the film stock was flashed (a process which reduces the contrast and color saturation) to produce a grainy, washed-out appearance. Later in the movie, when Pekar is given a clean bill of health, Pulcini stopped flashing the film stock, imparting more clarity and color to the image.

American Splendor Comic

Pekar’s excessively low tolerance for nonsense seemed to be at odds with his brief dalliance as an unlikely TV mini-celebrity in the 1980s, with his multiple appearances on Late Night with David Letterman.* His grumpy, cantankerous nature quickly becomes comic gold for Letterman, as the perfect foil for the talk show host’s barbs. Although Pekar knows he’s being exploited (much to the chagrin of Brabner), he considers it an equitable trade for getting publicity for his comic. His new-found fame reaches a pinnacle when he and Brabner fly to Los Angeles to watch a play about their life in Cleveland,** but exploitation proves to have its limits for Pekar. During his final guest appearance with Letterman, he strays from his usual subject matter, ranting about NBC and its connection to parent company, General Electric. 

* Fun Fact #3: The animal handler waiting in the wings in NBC’s Green Room was played by the then-current (2003) director of the Columbus Zoo, a position formerly held by frequent Letterman guest, Jack Hanna. The filmmakers also considered Tony Randall and John Waters for the role. 

** Fun Fact #4: In the play within a movie, SNL alumnus Molly Shannon plays Brabner.

Comic Panel - "Now there's a reliable disappointment."

Harvey Pekar’s underground success demonstrated how the seemingly mundane goings-on of an ordinary working-class schmoe could still captivate. Anyone who’s had to work to earn a living could understand the appeal of American Splendor. For those who have a burning passion but can’t afford to quit their day jobs, this movie is for you. Pekar is a superhero for the rest of us, extolling the virtues of getting through the day, no matter how soul-crushing or tedious it might be.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Viva Mexico Month Quick Picks and Pans


Bajo la Sal Poster

Bajo la Sal (aka: Under the Salt) (2008) This melancholic, noir-flavored crime thriller from director Mario Muñoz is based on the story "La Venganza del Valle de las Muñecas" (aka: “The Revenge of the Valley of the Dolls”). Comandante Trujillo (Humberto Zurita), a disgraced police detective, is called to a small town to help investigate a series of murders of young women in and around a vast salt harvesting facility. The common link is the victims were all expelled from the local high school. Signs point to Victor (Ricardo Polanco), a troubled young student who works at his father’s funeral parlor. In his spare time, he makes stop-motion horror films and obsesses over Isabel (Irene Azuela), a former student who’s looking for a way out. Serguei Saldívar Tanaka’s exceptional cinematography exploits the town’s unforgiving landscape, exemplified by a vast sea of salt. It’s a fascinating, unrelentingly grim movie that melds style with substance. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD



Darker than Night Poster

Darker than Night (1975) In writer/director Carlos Enrique Taboada’s supernatural gothic thriller, Ofelia Escudero (Claudia Islas) inherits her reclusive aunt’s estate. There’s only one request: she must care for her aunt’s beloved cat. Under the watchful eye of disapproving housekeeper Sofia (Alicia Palacios), Ofelia and her pals move in to the spooky old mansion. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur, with deadly consequences. It’s an atmospheric, unsettling slow burn, relying more on an overwhelming sense of dread, rather than gore and jump scares. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (included in Vinegar Syndrome’s box set, “Mexican Gothic: The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada) and Tubi

Sombra Verde

Sombra Verde (aka: Untouched) (1954) Ricardo Montalban stars as Federico Gascón, a young professional sent by a big-city pharmaceutical company to the Mexican jungle to search for source of cortisone. When his guide is killed by a snake, Federico loses direction, eventually stumbling upon a sanctuary owned by the reclusive Don Ignacio Santos (Víctor Parra). Santos is as fiercely protective of his privacy as he is of his young daughter, Yáscara (Ariadne Welter). Sparks fly when the unhappily married Federico falls in love with free-spirited Yáscara. Featuring good performances by Parra, Welter and a young Montalban, Sombra Verde is well worth a look. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD


The Untamed

The Untamed (2016) In this fascinating, unnerving horror film from director/co-writer Amat Escalante, a middle-aged couple in rural Mexico harbor a bizarre secret in their cottage: a multi-tentacled alien creature, which arrived in a meteorite. Escalante focuses on young mother Alejandra’s (Ruth Ramos) unhappy marriage. When her path crosses with Verónica (Simone Bucio), they find solace in the creature, but there’s a terrible price. The ambiguous extraterrestrial, which could serve as a metaphor for toxic relationship, fosters a kind of drug-like dependency among everyone that comes into contact with it, providing pleasure and pain in equal measures. The Untamed wears its influences on its sleeve (especially Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film, Possession and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin), but it has an identity all its own. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy


Cemetery of Terror Poster

Cemetery of Terror (1985) Some horny guys try to spice up their party by stealing a body from a morgue (because nothing turns women on more than a pilfered cadaver), and raising the dead through demonic incantations in an ancient book. Before you know it, zombies are running amok in a graveyard scene (with multicolored backlighting) that looks like it’s straight out of the Thriller music video (there’s even a kid with a Michael Jackson jacket). Cemetery of Terror borrows heavily from Halloween with its protagonist, Hugo Stiglitz as Dr. Cardan (a Dr. Loomis type), relentlessly pursuing an unstoppable killer. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Cemetery of Terror Poster

Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy (1971) In one of the weaker Santo movies, our titular hero travels to the jungles of Mexico on a research trek* to explore the remnants of an ancient civilization. The local townspeople aren’t thrilled with the appearance of meddling outsiders, who are killed off one by one by a reanimated mummy (a surprisingly large number of people die under Santo’s watch, makings me wonder if they were better off on their own). The movie is surprisingly short on action and more talky than many other Santo movies, and the “Scooby-Doo” climax doesn’t help matters. 

* Fake Fact: From 1958 to 1974, all Mexican archaeological expeditions were legally required to include El Santo, for their own protection. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray (included in the “Santo: El Enmascarado De Plata” box set, DVD and Midnight Pulp

Santo vs. Infernal Men Poster

Santo vs. Infernal Men (1961) Santo’s second cinematic adventure (following Santo vs. Evil Brain) is a bit of a letdown, with the silver-masked wrestler as a supporting character in his own movie. The central plot deals with an undercover police detective, Joaquín (Joaquín Cordero), infiltrating a crime ring, with the help of Santo. In 1959, Joselito Rodríguez and Enrique Zambrano shot two movies back-to-back in Cuba, and compared to its predecessor, Infernal Men seems incomplete, almost as if the filmmakers only had enough footage for one entire film. Santo appears in a few scenes to flesh out the action, but it’s clearly Cordero’s movie. Santo vs. Infernal Men affords an interesting glimpse of pre-Castro Cuba, but the rest of the movie is a bore. While Santo’s first movie is far from perfect, you’re better off seeing that instead. 

Rating **½. Available on Blu-ray (available individually, or included in Indicator’s “Enter Santo” boxed set)


Monday, August 28, 2023

Poison for the Fairies


Poison for the Fairies Poster

(1986) Written and directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada; Starring: Ana Patricia Rojo, Elsa María Gutiérrez, Leonor Llausás, Carmen Stein, María Santander, Ernesto Schwartz, Rocío Lazcano and Blanca Lidia Muñoz; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ****½ 

“Fairies don’t get along with witches. They’re afraid of them. The witches are their enemies and they kill them. Have you seen the boiling pots that witches have? They throw in lizard tails, cemetery dirt, ashes from crosses, snakes, and lots of rubbish. You know what they make? Poison. Poison for the fairies.” – Nana (Carmen Stein)

Witch Silhouette

Childhood friendships impact us at a particularly vulnerable, formative period in our lives, creating experiences that often serve as a template for future relationships. If we’re lucky, it’s a bond that lasts a lifetime, but even if that friendship only spans a short period, the memories endure. On the flipside, our early childhood bonds frequently teach us hard lessons about the sort of people we’re better off steering away from. Writer/director Carlos Enrique Taboada (hardly a household name in the States, but remembered fondly in his native Mexico)* captures the latter sentiment in his gothic thriller, Poison for the Fairies (aka: Veneno para las Hadas). Taboada’s 14th and final film** (completed in 1984 but not released until 1986), focuses on the dysfunctional relationship between two school-age girls and its awful consequences. 

* Fun Fact #1: In 1957, hoping to witness a ghost, Taboada had himself chained to a tombstone in a graveyard. Whether or not he witnessed any supernatural occurrences is anyone’s guess. 

** Not-So-Fun Fun Fact: Taboada shot another movie (on video), Jirón de Niebla (aka: Shred of Mist), but due to lack of financing was unable to edit or release the film. The footage was reportedly lost.

Flavia and Verónica

Flavia (Elsa María Gutiérrez, in her only film role) arrives at an exclusive Mexican private school, where she quickly befriends Verónica (Ana Patricia Rojo), a strange girl the other classmates appear to shun. It doesn’t take Flavia long to learn why most of Verónica’s peers keep her at arms’ length, with her claims about being a practicing witch. Flavia initially meets her new friend’s proclamations with skepticism, which eventually gives way to an uneasy acceptance. When Flavia laments having to take her piano lessons, Verónica offers to cast a spell (with a blood oath) to make Flavia’s instructor, Madame Rickard (Blanca Lidia Muñoz), go away. Shortly afterwards, during a practice session, her teacher suffers a fatal stroke. Instead of regarding it as an unfortunate coincidence (it’s revealed, in her parents’ conversation, that her teacher had a history of illness), Flavia believes it was Verónica’s doing. Whether there was some connection, or terrible luck, it’s all the leverage Verónica requires to take control of Flavia’s life.

Flavia's Dream

Over the course of the film, the power dynamic between the two girls shifts, which Verónica exploits to embed herself in Flavia’s life. Flavia comes from an upper-class family with loving, if somewhat detached parents. Verónica, whose parents are dead, lives with her grandmother and housekeeper, Nana (Carmen Stein). Nana, who seems to be Verónica’s primary parental figure, is fond of telling stories about witches and casting spells. In turn, Verónica takes the stories to heart, professing to Flavia that she’s not really a 10-year-old girl, but an ancient witch. The film takes an ambiguous stance about whether Verónica truly believes she’s a witch, or Nana’s supernatural tales are simply co-opted to deceive and control her impressionable friend. Verónica, envious of what she perceives to be Flavia’s idyllic existence (and using the piano teacher’s death as leverage), covets her possessions and connives to accompany her on a family vacation to their country estate. Flavia, fearing some sort of retaliation, submits to her friend’s increasingly unreasonable demands, culminating in collecting the raw materials to create a witch’s potion. Verónica’s unyielding behavior, coupled with Flavia’s belief in her friend’s powers, becomes a volatile combination, leading to a horrific conclusion.

Verónica and Flavia in Trouble

The exceptional cinematography by veteran cinematographer Lupe García contributes immensely to the film’s perspective, told from the children’s point of view. García expertly captures a child’s eye view of the world, inhabited by authority figures who dwell in the periphery. While Flavia, Verónica, and their schoolmates remain in full view, adults are often shot in silhouette, from behind, or from a low angle. We’re never in doubt that this is the kids’ story. Being a witch and yielding black magic (or at least the prospect of said magic) becomes a potent drug for Verónica, as a means of exerting power at an age when children often think of themselves as powerless.


Poison for the Fairies is a gothic thriller that leans into horror, subverting some of the latter genre’s tropes (such as Flavia’s visions of witches) for the narrative. Carlos Enrique Taboada depicts the darker side of childhood friendship and the loss of innocence. Flavia becomes embroiled in a toxic relationship because the alternative, being alone, is unbearable. Under the guise of friendship, Verónica manipulates her to do things she otherwise wouldn’t do on her own. Flavia’s belief in her friend’s supernatural powers overshadows her sense of reason, until fiction becomes fact. With its timeless themes, intense performance by Ana Patricia Rojo (channeling The Bad Seed), and thread of ambiguity (leaving the film open to almost as many interpretations as there are filmgoers), Poison for the Fairies deserves to be experienced and appreciated by a whole new generation of filmgoers. 

* Fun Fact #2: Although the film was not a box-office success, it won the hearts of critics, earning five Ariel Awards (the Mexican equivalent of the Academy Awards) in 1986, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Source for this article: “Behold the Duke of Mexican Horror Cinema,” by Abraham Castillo Flores (essay in Vinegar Syndrome set, “Mexican Gothic: The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada)

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Short Take – Alucarda


Alucarda Poster

(1977) Directed by Juan López Moctezuma; Written by Juan López Moctezuma and Alexis Arroyo; Starring: Claudio Brook, David Silva, Tina Romero, Susana Kamini, Lili Garza and Tina French; Available on DVD 

Rating: ***

Alucarda and Justine

“…the film draws on the vampire tradition, and in a way the protagonist is a female vampire… but not in the sense of a blood drinker. In fact, she has all the powers and attributes of the classic vampire. Except that she doesn’t have to drink blood. I’ve given Alucarda all the vampiric powers Bram Stoker mentions that never get shown in films, as well as the ones you’d expect.” –  Juan López Moctezuma (excerpted from 1977 interview)

The Convent

Juan López Moctezuma was a filmmaker who followed his passions, which didn’t translate to making movies that were commercially popular. While Alucarda* was not a critical or box office hit at the time, Moctezuma’s film has won over many fans, including Guillermo del Toro. Alucarda owes as much to Dracula and Carmilla as it does to the glut of demonic possession movies that proliferated throughout the 1970s, and experimental European horror films. As a nod to his mentor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Moctezuma employed many surreal touches, including imaginative set design, costumes, and characters depicted in broad strokes. The film’s centerpiece, a convent/orphanage, doesn’t resemble anything based in reality, with its primeval appearance, seemingly carved out of rock. Likewise, the nuns that populate the convent are clad from head to toe in blood-stained bandages, rather than the expected habits.   

* Fun Fact #1: Moctezuma planned a sequel called Alucarda Rises from the Tomb, but sadly it never materialized.

Dr. Oszek and Alucarda

Orphaned teenager Justine (Susana Kamini) arrives at a convent, where she meets fellow orphan Alucarda (Tina Romero, who also plays her own mother, Lucy Westenra – a direct reference to Dracula)*, who’s obviously not on the same wavelength as the other residents (Hmm, could it be… Satan?). As Justine becomes corrupted by her charms, they make a blood pact, sealing their fates. Father Lázaro (David Silva) and nuns, however, aren’t about to let demonic forces run wild during their watch. They are joined by the initially skeptical Dr. Oszek (Claudio Brook) to combat the evil scourge threatening their convent. 

* Fun Fact #2: Although Alucarda was supposedly 15, Romero was 28 at the time of shooting. Although Kamini’s age has not been officially published, it’s obvious she was well out of her teens.


Tina Romero shines in the title role of Alucarda, embodying equal doses of mischief, menace, and seductive charisma. With her intense gaze and impish smile, it’s easy to see why Justine and the doctor’s daughter, Daniela (Lili Garza) fall under her spell. Claudio Brook stands out as the self-righteous, hypocritical Dr. Oszek, who openly criticizes the convent and their barbaric practices. Perhaps it only fitting that he also plays a satyr-like hunchback,* who tempts Alucarda and Justine into shunning their religious baggage and embracing more hedonistic pursuits. 

* Forgive the momentary digression, but it’s interesting to note that the well-worn hunchbacked assistant trope (a staple of many genre films from the silent age to the 1970s) thrived for decades before fizzling out by the ‘80s. Then again, it was arguably a trope that had long outstayed its welcome.

Justine Possessed

Alucarda’s depiction of demonic possession represents a post-modern take on the material, with the film’s purposefully ambiguous sympathies. While the world of the orphanage seems hellish and oppressive, the alternative, represented by Alucarda, seems favorable. Being bad has never seemed so good, and being good has never seemed so awful. Alucarda succeeds visually with its imaginative set design, lighting, and themes that blur the delineation between good and evil. The characters are never quite fleshed out (Justine, outside of her relationship with Alucarda, doesn’t have much of a personality) and the incessant screaming that proliferates throughout the soundtrack becomes tiresome (you might want to lower the volume on your TV). Although Alucarda might not quite live up to the weight of its lofty ambitions, it’s an important addition to the horror genre.

Monday, July 31, 2023

July Quick Picks and Pans


Sea Fever Poster

Sea Fever (2019) The crew of an Irish fishing vessel encounter a new species lurking in the depths. With the help of a socially awkward doctoral student, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), they attempt to combat the new threat before everyone becomes infected. The massive creature resembles a cross between an enormous bioluminescent jellyfish and the “Graboids” from Tremors. Writer/director Neasa Hardiman’s claustrophobic film is tense and bleak, with excellent performances all around. While it was completed pre-COVID, Sea Fever works as an apt parable for the pandemic, pondering the ramifications of infecting the greater population. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Exotica Poster

Exotica (1994) Writer/director Atom Egoyan’s brooding character study follows the lives of several individuals around an exotic dance club. The film is anchored by Bruce Greenwood’s captivating performance as Francis, one of the club’s frequent patrons, who harbors a terrible secret. It’s a somber portrait of several intermingling individuals, whose lives are hanging by a slender thread. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Satanis - The Devil's Mass Poster

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1970) This amusing documentary provides a little-seen glimpse into the Church of Satan (situated in a San Francisco neighborhood) and its charismatic founder, Anton LaVey, who preaches indulgence in worldly pleasures, universal acceptance, and rejection of what he considers religious hypocrisy. We also take a peek at some of the church’s rituals, which normally occur behind closed doors. In addition to LaVey, we hear from some of his ardent followers, puzzled neighbors, and detractors. It's an intriguing, if overlong (the scenes with the rituals could have been significantly trimmed) profile of a group of frequently maligned, albeit harmless eccentrics.   

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD (both out of print)

The Deadly Spawn Poster

The Deadly Spawn (1983) Director/co-writer Douglas McKeown’s low-budget wonder is a fun throwback to ‘50s monster movies. Extraterrestrial creatures arrive on earth via meteorite, leaving death and mayhem in their wake. One of the malevolent beasts settles in the basement of a house, which serves as a breeding ground for the rapidly multiplying, sluglike larvae. The only person who seems equipped to fight the otherworldly menace is a kid influenced by classic horror movies. Considering how little the filmmakers likely had to work with, the creature effects aren’t half bad. Give it a try. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (out of print), DVD and Shudder



War-Gods of the Deep Poster

War-Gods of the Deep (1965) More like "Bore-Gods of the Deep." Vincent Price plays Sir Hugh, the de facto ruler of an ancient underwater city. With Price, direction by Jacques Tourneur, and Edgar Allan Poe source material (based on his poem “The City in the Sea”), how can you lose? Well, the cavernous “city” is confined to a couple of sets, the civilization’s original amphibious denizens represented by a few guys in barely disguised rubber wet suits, and not much really happens for most of the film’s running time. Co-stars Tab Hunter, David Tomlinson (who carries a pet chicken), and Susan Hart have little to do but run in circles until the film’s underwhelming climax. Great poster, though. If you’re dead set on watching a movie about a lost underwater civilization, might I suggest Atragon (1963), instead? 

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime



Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Orgy of the Dead


Orgy of the Dead Poster

(1965) Directed by Stephen C. Apostolof (as A.C. Stephen); Screenplay by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Based on the novel by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Starring: Criswell, Fawn Silver, Pat Barrington, William Bates and John Andrews; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **½


“I am Criswell. For years, I have told the almost unbelievable, related the unreal and showed it to be more than a fact. Now I tell a tale of the threshold people, so astounding that some of you may faint. This is a story of those in the twilight time. Once human, now monsters, in a void between the living and the dead. Monsters to be pitied, monsters to be despised. A night with the ghouls, the ghouls reborn from the innermost depths of the world.” – Criswell (as the Head Ghoul)

The Mummy and the Wolfman

 "Hey, are we even in the right movie?"

We live in a wondrous age when so many cinematic obscurities are available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray through so-called “boutique” labels (Indicator, Severin, etc…). Suddenly, movies that were lost, forgotten, or simply hard to find are miraculously available to clutch in our grubby little paws. As with everything, however, it’s a blessing and a curse, which is a good way to describe Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Orgy of the Dead. While Mr. Wood didn’t direct (those chores went to Stephen C. Apostolof, aka: A.C. Stephen), he wrote the script, based on his novel with the same title, and was a fixture on the film set (providing casting assistance and as a production manager). Apostolof’s first (and best known) collaboration with Wood took many of the themes we’ve come to expect from Wood, transplanting them to the “nudie cutie” genre (or should I say, “nudie ghoulie”?). The movie was barely a blip on the radar when it was released, with a tagline, “Are you heterosexual?” that seemed more like a taunt to its potential audience (assuming they knew what “heterosexual” meant) rather than an invitation to see it in the theater.

The Black Ghoul and The Emperor of the Dead

The inimitable Criswell*/** rises out of his coffin to greet the audience as our guide to the hoary netherworld, the Emperor of the Dead. Meanwhile, our slack-jawed “protagonists,” Shirley and Bob (Pat Barrington and William Bates) are out for an evening drive (okay, day-for-night drive) on a treacherously twisty road, when Bob loses control and crashes. The shaken but not visibly injured couple stumble into a graveyard, and thus begins their night of terror, as they witness the damned receiving their just desserts. The Emperor and his mistress, The Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver), preside over the night’s festivities, judging each condemned participant like a beauty pageant. Only Ed Wood would think to tell what basically amounts to a series of morality tales told through striptease acts. 

* Fun Fact #1: According to Ed Wood biographer, Rudolph Grey, Criswell’s cape in the film was previously worn by Bela Lugosi in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). 

** Fun Fact #2: Criswell was a constant source of irritation for director Stephen C. Apostolof, as he didn’t memorize his lines. During filming, Criswell read from cue cards, held by Ed Wood.

Bob and Shirley

 Our "Heroes"

The Emperor metes out the ultimate judgment awaiting several women in the afterlife, but first they must dance for him. Unfortunately for the poor audience, it gets redundant after a while (lather, rinse, repeat), with one bump and grind act (performed by professional exotic dancers) blending into another, albeit with a horror veneer (Throw in a fog machine, scatter a few skulls around, and voilà, instant horror!). One of the more imaginative acts, inspired by Goldfinger, features Pat Barrington (in a second role and a blonde wig) as a woman who was obsessed with gold so much, she’s dipped in a bubbling cauldron of the shiny ore. In another sequence, an “indigenous” woman (Bunny Glaser) is consumed by flames. Whoever said cultural appropriation couldn’t be sexy? Well… everyone, but that didn’t stop Apostolof and Wood from presenting their vision of hell. The preponderance of women in various states of undress begs the question, however, what happens to men who committed some sort of wrong during their lives? Are they also condemned to shake their moneymaker in the afterlife, or do they somehow get a free pass? Or is that what’s going on in an adjacent crypt? So many burning questions, so few answers. But I digress… 


Dancer and Skeleton

The Emperor and Black Ghoul’s captive audience, Shirley and Bob watch on in what could be construed as horror and disgust. Perhaps Barrington and Bates, were aiming for conflicted, but instead they look merely confused. I suppose you can’t place all the blame on the actors’ apparent lack of talent (What’s their motivation? You got me). This is where Apostolof needed to step in as the director, providing the necessary input to adjust their performances. Then again, you can only do so much with the hand that’s dealt to you. One performer who needed little provocation to get in character was Criswell being (ahem) Criswell.* Expect multiple shots of Criswell and his ghoul friend reacting to the various acts (“This pleases me…”), yet they’re rarely in the same shot as the dancers, leading me to suspect they filmed their scenes on different days from the dancers. The Black Ghoul,** who resembles the missing link between Vampira and Elvira, doesn’t have much dialogue, but has a presence, nonetheless, as the Emperor’s mostly silent partner. She has the hots for Shirley, but vanishes in a puff of smoke before she can act on her presumably libidinous impulses. 

* Fun Fact #3: Before he started his psychic schtick, he would appear on TV commercials in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, shilling Criswell Family Vitamins. Soon, his media presence would morph into a more lucrative job as a psychic with the show, Criswell Predicts. 

** Fun Fact #4: Fawn Silver (married to showbiz attorney Ron Silver), insisted on having no nude scenes, and brought her own hairdresser and makeup person on the set.


The Black Ghoul Terrorizes Bob and Shirley

According to filmmaker Frank Henenlotter (who provided the commentary, along with Rudolph Grey), Orgy of the Dead was something of an anomaly when it was released in 1965, since the age of the nudie cutie had already passed. On the other hand, the fact that it was somewhat out of touch with the trends of the time (when other independent genre filmmakers had moved on to the “roughies”) scarcely seems to matter now – it exists as an almost quaint curio from a bygone era. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Orgy of the Dead is how good it looks, thanks to camerawork by Robert Caramico, and the gorgeous transfer from the twisted folks at Vinegar Syndrome. Although Ed Wood didn’t direct the film, it has his indelible mark on everything, including the choice dialogue you’ve come to expect, with the added bonus of Criswell in color. Admittedly, it’s also a bit of a slog to sit through, with the repetitive strip acts, but depending on your tolerance for kitsch, it might be worth a peek. If you’re an Ed Wood completist, it’s essential viewing. For all others, proceed cautiously.


Sources for this article: Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray commentary by Rudolph Grey and Frank Henenlotter; Nightmare in Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey; 


Monday, July 17, 2023

Short Take – The Green Slime


The Green Slime

(1968) Directed by Kinji Fukasaku; Written by Charles Sinclair, Bill Finger and Tom Rowe; Story by Ivan Reiner; Starring: Robert Horton, Luciana Paluzzi, Richard Jaeckel, Bud Widom and Ted Gunther; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **½ 

The Green Slime Creatures

“…But it proves out. The animal feeds on energy. And discharges energy. That would explain its ability to electrocute Michaels. One cell, one microscopic speck left on a spacesuit, and it would absorb all the energy it could get.” – Dr. Hans Halvorsen (Ted Gunther) 

Space Station Gamma 3

What would a first encounter with an alien life form look like? Would they descend in flying saucers and ask to meet our leader? Or would they arrive in mechanized tripods guns a-blazing? A third (more likely) option involves simpler extraterrestrial life – Will they be harmful or benign? More often than not, if filmmakers are to be believed, you can count on the former. The Green Slime,* was co-produced by MGM and Toei, with prolific director Kinji Fukasaku** at the reins. Surprisingly, unlike other joint Japanese-U.S. productions from the period (e.g., The Manster, Latitude Zero), the film didn’t feature any Japanese actors. Instead, Toei’s contributions were behind the scenes. 

* Fun Fact #1: During the film’s 1969 New York City premiere, moviegoers were treated to a parade featuring the “Green Slime Girls,” and a giveaway with plastic replicas of the extraterrestrial menace.  

** Fun Fact #2: The prolific Fukasaku had more than 100 directing credits to his name, including the notorious Battle Royale (2000).


Vince Elliott, Lisa Benson, and Jack Rankin

Sometime in the 21st century (which looks remarkably like the 1960s), humanity is threatened by the wayward asteroid Flora (which resembles a giant spicy meatball), hurtling on a collision course with Earth. Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is tasked with leading a team to destroy the errant celestial body. He arrives on Space Station Gamma 3 to a less-than-warm welcome by his archrival, Commander Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel). Speaking of celestial bodies, Rankin’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi, of Thunderball fame), now Elliott’s fiancée, is also stationed on Gamma 3. Now, they’re forced to put their differences aside, if they’re going to save the day. Rankin’s team successfully destroys the asteroid, but when they initially planted the charges, one of the astronauts inadvertently brings back a hitchhiker – a funky green substance. The space station’s decontamination process activates the slime, which rapidly grows into walking, tentacled creatures. Soon, Gamma 3 is overrun by the deadly, rapidly multiplying beasties, and Rankin and Elliott are faced with some hard decisions.

Battling the Green Slime

The Green Slime has a lot going for it, including an absolute banger of an opening theme song,* cool (if somewhat goofy) rubber monsters, and a fun retro-future aesthetic. Unfortunately, the pluses are outweighed by characters as insubstantial as the plastic models and cardboard sets, tedious action scenes, and dialogue that’s mostly of the expository variety (designed to move the plot along, and not much else). Our hero, Commander Rankin, who could be the poster child for toxic masculinity, is so smug and unlikeable that he left me rooting for the creatures instead. Sure, he makes the tough decisions that others won’t, and he’s right most of the time, but it doesn’t make him more likeable, compared to his petulant rival, Commander Elliott. Elliott likes doing things his way, which is usually the wrong way. Instead of handling his relationship with Dr. Benson like a mature adult, he resorts to empty male posturing and sulking when he believes Rankin has won her over again. For her part, Dr. Benson is stuck in a love triangle with two alpha males. Neither seems worthy of her affection, but we all know about affairs of the heart. Then again, do we really care about who ends up with whom in the end? Nah. The Green Slime knows its matinee crowd audience doesn’t give a hoot about that sort of mushy stuff. They’re here to munch popcorn and see space monsters, and by that metric, the movie delivers. There are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes. 

* Fun Fact #3: This catchy little earworm was written by Charles Fox and performed by Richard Delvy. Fox was responsible for penning many well-known (and similarly infectious) theme songs for movies and TV, including Barbarella, Love American Style, and Wonder Woman.


Source for this article: “Big New York Promotion Launches Green Slime,” Boxoffice (June 9, 1969)