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)

Monday, July 3, 2023



Pontypool Poster

(2008) Directed by Bruce McDonald; Written by Tony Burgess; Based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess; Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly and Hrant Alianak; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** 

Grant Mazzy

“I think that you want to start from a ridiculous place… You start from an enormous set of restrictions that are just impossible to deal with, and if you can make that succeed, then it’s only a matter of how big do you want to make it for that experience to be satisfying… The challenge is, we have to make everything work, a siege, the end of the world, enormous countries involved, and levels of media, all work in a six-by-six-inch space. If you can do that, from a writing perspective, and make it sort of have all these rhythms and paces and action… How much bigger do you have to go before an audience buys it – and don’t go bigger, because you’re gonna lose the tight knots of the original principle.” – Bruce McDonald (from DVD commentary)

Can words be weaponized? In elementary school we’re all taught that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Carrying that mindset to the fractious world of internet discourse, some individuals claim words only have power if we give them power (which seems a convenient excuse for oppressors to continue their verbal onslaught, while eschewing any semblance of accountability). But what if words could kill? Such is the premise of Pontypool, a zombie film like no other.

Grant Mazzy in Radio Studio

It’s a particularly miserable, blustery winter morning in the normally quiet rural community of Pontypool, Ontario. As talk radio DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) prepares for his shift at CLSY, something is awry during his morning drive. He stops to exchange words with a woman wandering in the snow, behaving erratically and gibbering, but she disappears almost as soon as she appears. It soon dawns on Mazzy that her behavior isn’t as anomalous as he suspected, but a symptom of a much larger problem. He begins the morning show amidst news reports of strange occurrences around town. While Mazzy and his co-workers try to make sense out of the senselessness, the situation outside the confines of their radio station becomes explosive, with reports of people turning into zombies compelled to kill. Their worst fears are confirmed when impromptu guest Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak), at once fascinated and terrified by the sudden progression of events, describes the epidemic as a disease.

Mazzy, Briar, and Dr. Mendez

Screenwriter Tony Burgess (who adapted his own novel) thought of the film’s title after driving through the unincorporated area of Pontypool. Intrigued with semiotics (how words symbolized abstractions and objects), Burgess latched onto the concept that the name “Pontypool” lent itself to distortion, with the word “typo” in the middle. The film’s disease is transmitted through specific words (or a specific combination), which carry a virus of sorts.* The infected brain sends the afflicted individual into endless loops, “seeking” the solace of others, in a misguided effort to purge the semantic demons inside. Unlike the mindless, half-dead, brain-eating sort of monsters depicted in most zombie movies, Pontypool’s zombies are emotional creatures – their distorted speech is a desperate cry for help. 

* Fun Fact #1: Director Bruce McDonald described three components of distorted communication, as it relates to a character in the film: 1) The thing she meant to say, 2) What she actually said, followed by 3) How she reacted to the things she said.

Sydney Briar and Grant Mazzy

McHattie is perfectly cast as shock jock Mazzy,* who, with his grizzled appearance, looks like he just crawled out of a honkytonk bar. He’s been around the block a few too many times, bumped around from several stations in the process (we get a clue to his past, as he prepares for the morning ahead with a shot of booze in his morning coffee). His current stint could be the end of the road for his career, but he’s still something of a diva, accustomed to big city audiences (He bristles at hosting a low-rent musical comedy act, chock-full of unfortunate Middle-Eastern stereotypes). Mazzy employs his self-professed “take no prisoners” approach, which involves inciting his listeners into debate, much to the irritation of station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle).** Briar, who’s not amused by his antics, acts more like a zoo keeper than his boss, attempting to rein in his bad behavior, before he alienates the rural community where everyone knows everyone else. They become unlikely allies when their co-worker, technical assistant/gulf war veteran Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly), succumbs to the disease. 

* Fun Fact #2: McDonald’s original vision was to make Mazzy’s face the center of the film, with all other characters off-screen. 

** Fun Fact #3: In real life, Houle is married to McHattie.


Laurel-Ann Drummond

McDonald described Pontypool as an “action film in a six-inch space.” Because of the small cast, largely confined to the radio studio, Pontypool is much more intimate than most other films in this genre, exploiting its low-budget trappings to its advantage. We don’t have the big picture, or the luxury of wide-angle vistas, with hordes of the infected storming the snowy landscape and overwhelming unsuspecting victims. Instead, we’re right there with a few frightened individuals as the event rapidly unfolds. Pontypool takes the tired zombie genre and sets it askew, bringing something almost miraculous to the well-worn subgenre, an ingeniously original concept. It’s a uniquely unsettling experience that might leave you unconsciously watching your words.