December 12th, 2008

THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961) *

In the annals of bad filmdom, Ed Wood usually gets singled out as the BEST worst director of all time.  I agree with that because Wood made very personal movies that just happened to be very ineptly shot, directed and acted.  If we’re talking about the WORST worst director of all time though; that honor would have to go to Coleman Francis.  Although Francis was primarily an actor (who worked with everyone from Ray Dennis Steckler to Russ Meyer), the three films he directed; Red Zone Cuba, The Skydivers, and this flick, are some of the worst movies ever made.  The Beast of Yucca Flats is probably Francis’ Plan 9 from Outer Space and while it still sucks hardcore, it’s made watchable by the presence of Swedish wrestler (and frequent Ed Wood star) Tor Johnson.

 

Johnson stars as a Russian scientist who wanders out into the middle of Yucca Flats during some atomic testing and gets blasted by the A-Bomb.  He becomes a hulking, blank-eyed, crusty faced monster who has a penchant for strangling young women.  In the end, he gets gunned down while a bunny gives his dead corpse some kisses.

 

Technically speaking, a blind person could have made a better movie. 

 

There’s the inane narration (provided by Francis himself) that features such hilarious non-sequiturs like “Flag on the moon... how did it get there?”, countless scenes where the actors’ mouths are obscured while they say dialogue (it saves money on sound, plus it’s probably better that way when Tor Johnson is doing the talking), a highly erratic musical score that totally does not fit the action on screen (the orchestra will swell whenever someone just happens to drive down the highway), confusing editing, and some truly awful performances.  This movie straight up reeks.  And don’t even get me started on the ending where Tor kisses a bunny either. 

 

On the plus side, it’s less than an hour long and the opening scene (which was shot after the fact to spice things up) has some brief nudity if you are eagle-eyed enough.  Also, I’m an unabashed Tor Johnson fan, so any movie he’s in deserves at least one star for his presence alone.

 

Suggested Drinking Game:  Take a shot every time the narrator says “Joseph Javorsky”.

 

AKA:  Girl Madness.  AKA:  The Atomic Monster:  The Beast of Yucca Flats.  AKA:  The Violent Sun.

THE TERROR (1963) ** ½

Since The Terror is public domain and always turns up on television, budget DVD’s and 50 Movie Packs, I’ve probably seen it more times than any other Roger Corman movie.  It isn’t that bad of a flick, although the behind the scenes story of the film is a lot more interesting than the movie itself.  Star Boris Karloff was available to director Corman for two days only so he quickly shot a lot of scenes of him running around sets from The Raven.  He then got his assistants Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and star Jack Nicholson to film linking scenes of what Corman shot and then pieced together the movie in the editing room.  The result is a predictably choppy film, though considering the piecemeal production; it could’ve been a lot worse.

 

Nicholson stars as a French soldier who while walking along the beach sees the ghost/spirit/something of a beautiful woman (Sandra Knight, his real life wife at the time) and follows her to the castle of Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff).  Turns out the chick has an uncanny resemblance to the Baron’s late wife and she, along with the help of a haggard old witch, is trying to drive him to suicide.

 

Nicholson is bland as all get out and is absolutely unconvincing as a soldier.  While the young Nicholson can’t really command the screen like he would later go on to do, he at least steps up his game while acting alongside Karloff.  Old Boris is quite good and his performance is easily the best thing about the movie.  I also got a kick out of seeing Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze turning up in small roles.

 

The script is confusing and the movie is patchy, but Corman does make the castle seem spooky and the constant shots of and waves crashing against the rocky shore during a storm are effective.  (They’d later turn up in many a Corman picture.)  The foggy crypt is also pretty cool looking too.

 

There’s more gore than you’d probably expect from something like this.  There is a juicy scene where a guy gets his eyes pecked out by a falcon, a decent set piece where a body set on fire after it’s struck by lightning and an excellent face melting scene that totally rocks.  It should also be noted that whereas most of Corman’s movies (especially the Poe pictures) ends with a fire, this one ends with a flood.  The Terror is way too uneven to be called a “good” film but if you’re a Corman, Karloff, or Nicholson fan, it will have its own rewards.

 

AKA:  The Lady of the Shadows.  AKA:  The Castle of Terror.  AKA:  The Haunting.

THE FATAL HOUR (1940) **

Boris Karloff returns for his fourth Mr. Wong adventure.  This time out, Mr. Wong, “The Chinese Copper” is looking for a cop killer at the behest of the lantern jawed Captain Street (series regular Bill Withers).  The killer uses remote control to manufacture his alibis, but Mr. Wong is smart and stuff and he figures it all out.

 

I know that Caucasians playing Orientals in “yellow face” isn’t exactly considered “PC” in our overly sensitive times, but folks when you watch as many movies in The Video Vacuum as I have, you learn to appreciate seeing great horror movie stars parading around in second rate Charlie Chan knockoffs pretending to be Asian.  I don’t think that this movie could piss Asian-Americans off anyway because Karloff doesn’t LOOK remotely Asian and he doesn’t even ATTEMPT to sound Asian either.  At all times, he looks, sounds, and acts like Boris Karloff. 

 

The problem with The Fatal Hour is that Mr. Wong is more or less a side character in his own movie as the main thrust of the story has Captain Street doing most of the snooping.  All of the actors in the film that don’t have “Boris” and “Karloff” in their name are all pretty weak and unmemorable.  The plot is also thoroughly ho-hum, making this one of Mr. Wong’s lesser outings.  While I do enjoy most of these old hour long detective flicks from the 30’s and 40’s, even I have to admit that The Fatal Hour is mediocre in just about every respect.  Die hard Karloff fans will still want to give it a look though.

 

AKA:  Mr. Wong at Headquarters.

MANIAC (1934) ****

Dwain Esper, the man who brought us the immortal Reefer Madness, directed this hilarious cult classic that plays like a Frankenstein movie cross pollinated with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”.

 

A psychotic physician blackmails an out of work actor (“Once a ham, always a ham!”) into assisting him in his experiments in which he tries to bring the dead back to life.  After the assistant murders the doctor, he hides his corpse behind the basement wall and uses his acting talents to impersonate the doctor.  The dude gets so crazy that he plucks the eyeball out of a cat and eats it.  (“It’s not unlike an oyster or a grape!”)  He also experiments on a drug that turns a patient into a wild screeching maniac who rips the clothes off of a woman and rapes her.  Eventually the cops come and discover the doctor’s body and lock the assistant’s nutty ass up.

 

To get away with the lurid subject matter, Esper tacked on a written prologue warning the audience of the dangers of mental illness, as well as title cards in between scenes giving us a lot of medical terminology.  You see because the title cards were “informative”, the nudity and murder was OK.  (Esper did the same thing with Reefer Madness.)  Esper’s directorial style is a little flat and stagy, but the constant close-ups of the mad doctor’s face superimposed over shots of devils (stolen footage from Haxan) are really effective.

 

While it may seem a little tame by today’s standards, Maniac is one of the earliest exploitation movies ever made and therefore it comes highly recommended.  There’s murder, nudity, catfights (one between two women and another involving actual cats) and a little bit of gore.  Filmmakers would later take these elements and run with them, but the groundwork was first laid here with Maniac. 

 

Maniac sits atop of the Video Vacuum Top Ten of the Year for 1934 at the Number One spot.

 

AKA:  Sex Maniac.

METROPOLIS (1927) ***

Directed by Fritz (M) Lang and photographed by Karl (The Mummy) Freund, Metropolis is a milestone in science fiction film history.  It’s not exactly a perfect movie, but its themes are timeless enough.  It’s been ripped off countless times and still holds up pretty well even eighty years after its initial release.

 

In the oppressive future, the rich live in luxurious high rise buildings while the poor workers dwell on the dirty streets below.  Maria (Brigitte Helm) is the optimistic leader of the workers who gets kidnapped by a corrupt industrialist who puts his evil robot into Maria’s body.  He then sends the bad Maria out to stir up the workers and makes them revolt and destroy the machines, which causes the city to flood and the workers to lose their homes.  In the end, the workers resent Maria and burn her up a la Joan of Arc.

 

Metropolis runs on too long and the movie’s message is a little muddy if you really think about it (it’s hard to tell whether it’s pro-worker or anti-worker).  Even though the meat to the story is awfully thin, the special effects and art direction are so stunning that you probably won’t mind.  The robot Maria is truly one of the greatest creations of sci-fi cinema and it still looks impressive after all these years.  The gigantic sets, the huge machinery and the enormous cityscapes are all visually stunning and the scene where the mad scientist creates the robot version of Maria in his lab is some of the best stuff ever committed to celluloid.

 

While most of the cast isn’t very impressive, Helm is simply fantastic.  She’s awesome playing the “evil” version of Maria and is equally sexy while in the robot suit.  That’s one robot I wouldn’t mind banging that’s for sure.

THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) ***

Fay Wray starred in ELEVEN movies during the great year of 1933.  Among them were the classics King Kong, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and this flick.  It’s not quite up to par with those films, but it’s still kinda fun.

 

A bunch of townsfolk are found completely drained of their blood with two little puncture wounds on their necks.  The bat obsessed village idiot is the main suspect, but after he winds up dead, suspicion falls on a seemingly kindly doctor who’s doing bizarre experiments with human blood.

 

Unlike most horror flicks, the characters come to realize that they are dealing with a vampire early in the movie.  One of the surprises of the flick though is that they end up being wrong!  I won’t give away exactly how it all turns out, but I will say that people looking for an honest to goodness vampire movie may be more than a tad disappointed by this one.

 

The cast is excellent.  We've got Lionel (Son of Frankenstein) Atwill as the mad doctor, Dwight (Dracula) Frye as the village idiot, Melvyn (Ghost Story) Douglas as the snooping detective, and of course, the original scream queen herself; Fay Wray.  These old pros elevate what easily could’ve been a forgettable Poverty Row programmer and makes The Vampire Bat worth a look for any fan of old school horror flicks.

 

The Vampire Bat ranks a solid Number Seven on the Video Vacuum Top Ten for the Year 1933, just below the Bela Lugosi thriller The Death Kiss and right above the Halperin Brothers’ Supernatural.

 

AKA:  Blood Sucker.  AKA:  Forced to Sin.