Tuesday, February 17, 2015


SHANKS (1974; William Castle)
There are certain movies where you wonder how they ever made it to the screen. With some it's meant in a way along the lines of "how did this horrible event occur?", but with others it's more of a curiousity in an intriguing way. I first heard if SHANKS when it popped up on TCM Underground's schedule and I recorded it but somehow never got around to watching it. I read a little but about it and it did indeed seen like the kind of thjng that was a good fit for some of the strange films that have played TCM Underground. I have been interested in William Castle for some time. I may not be the die hard fan that say Joe Dante is, but Castle is a filmmaker that has captured my fancy. I was especially hooked after I read his amazing book STEP RIGHT UP - which I highly recommend to everyone. After reading host I started to dig deeper into his filmography, but have always left holes. Kind of intentionally so that I can savor his movies a bit. Not to say that they are revelatory cinema or anything, but I like to take my time with his stuff. So when SHANKS arrived on Blu-ray, I knew that I would collide with it sooner or later. Now when I mentioned all that stuff about watching something and wondering how it ever got made in the first place it was only meant to lay the groundwork for a certain mindset. That mindset can often result in declarations of some films being thought of as the worst stuff in the history of cinema. It's unfortunate when folks see movies that way, but I do understand their plight. Certain material could easily be argued to be terrible as opposed to challenging if one doesn't have the patience or can't fall into some sort of groove with the film. SHANKS could really be a slog for some, but I found it kind of mesmerizing myself. Part of that has to do with the fact that Marcel Marceau's character is a dead mute abd doesn't speak. This makes things feel more like a silent film. William Castle has also included intertitle cards a la the old Silents here too so it really makes it harlrm back. The movie is pretty weird though. Weirder than most anything you could ever have caught during the silent era. To try to explain it is one oc those things where I can't really do the movie justice in my attempt. Marceau plays a puppeteer who gets involved with a scientist who is experimenting with electricity and it's ability to animate dead creatures. Through happenstancd there develops something of an extension of Marceau's character's puppeteering based on the scientists applications. That's all I say, but it gets odd quick and goes dark towards the end. The thing that's neat about it is that it still feels very William Castle through and through. He opens the film with a card that reads, "William Castle Presents: A Grimm Fairy Tale". The movie really succeeds in being that. So odd and so macabre. It also feels like a bit of an experimental Twilight Zone episode extended to feature length. It's really special and though many will absolutely hate it, there are a few that will be absolutely transfixed by it. It is very much a movie that is truly meant to be viewed late at night when one could possibly wake up the next morning wondering if they dreamed the whole thing. Not ERASERHEAD level trippy, but in a nearby zip code.

THE WILD ANGELS (1966; Roger Corman)
Though not the debut film for Peter Fonda or Bruce Dern, THE WILD ANGELS seems to have been something of a breakout movie for both actors. It was the start of seeing Fonda on a motorcycle this way and certainly led in no small part to EASY RIDER  three years later. The film was not a bad thing for Roger Corman either as it made close to $6 million on a $360,000 budget. Just pondering the EASY RIDER connection for a second makes me realize something though. The "Golden Age" of American cinema we came to see in the 1970s certainly owes a big debt to Corman. Not only was he a mentor of sorts to a lot of the Movie Brat filmmakers, but he also opened the door for EASY RIDER (which in turn opened doors for those directors to make some of their best movies).  As much a I am a fan of Corman and his legacy, I hadn't ever made that particular connection. THE WILD ANGELS is successful because of the cast, the script (by Corman stalwart Charles B. Griffith) and a certain authenticity that the movie has. Part of that authenticity comes from having real members of the Hell's Angels as part of the ensemble. As I mentioned, both Fonda and Dern made an impression here and they are both quite dynamic indeed. But at its core, THE WILD ANGELS  is a story about loyalty, friendship, sacrifice and doing right by one another. All these themes play out in the context of a biker movie of course, but they are definitely there and that is interesting. There's much more sympathy generated for a bunch of borderline criminals than you'd expect from a movie like this. I have to give Corman a little credit for that. Also, casting Nancy Sintra to play opposite Peter Fonda was a lovely choice. Her performance is pretty low-key for the most part (even a tiny bit flat in parts). And having Dern's significant other (Diane Ladd) play his girlfriend was a good call too. 
I also love the names on this film. Fonda plays "Heavenly Blues", whilst Dern is known as "The Loser". I kinda love that.

Check out Corman himself discussing THE WILD ANGELS via Trailers From Hell:

BEACH BLANKET BINGO (1965; William Asher)
I am ever fascinated by the films of decades gone by that connected with the youth culture at the time of their release in a big way for one reason or another. I find it an interesting exercise to try to equate these movies with their modern day counterparts when I possible and this can prove to be quite tricky. Is BEACH BLANKET BINGO the equivalent of one of the TWILIGHT movies of recent years? That doesn't seen to line up, but I guess it's one sort of comparison you could make (though the BEACH PARTY films were low-budget and not Hollywood made). Of course tastes have changed quite a bit since the 1960s and the distribution model that allowed stuff like BBB to thrive is long dead. Would the movie do well at any other time? It's so intriguing to realize how much of the success that a movie can end up finding is due in no small part to luck and timing. It's probably also due to the studios underestimating the amount that young people can play into a movie's success. In 1964, a couple of the highest grossing movies were MARY POPPINS and MY FAIR LADY. THE SOUND OF MUSIC was one of the biggest hits of 1965. All of these are of course perfectly serviceable musicals, but they must have seemed pretty stuffy to a lot of the youngsters who were coming of age around that time. These youngsters must have enjoyed seeing movies at the plethora of drive-in theaters that were around at the time (and let's be honest, who doesn't love to see movies at the drive-in). The drive-ins were where companies like AIP had a solid foothold and had done well with Samuel Z. Arkoff's tried and true "Arkoff Formula" of making successful low-budget movies. This mostly had to do with putting action, violence, sex and a few other elements into their movies. AIP had established their beach movie series in a big way with BEACH PARTY in 1963 and ended up making something like seven films in the series. AIP is really kind of credited with "inventing" this genre and it was a case where the major studios imitated them as opposed to the other way around for once. BEACH BLANKET BINGO was actually the fifth film in their series, though I think some folks (myself included) think of it as coming earlier. It's perhaps why Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello look older than I remembered when I saw this last. Frankie was 25 and Annette was 23 at the time. Not crazy older than the characters they were playing were supposed to be I guess, but it made me want to go back and watch the original BEACH PARTY again to compare how they looked and how their energy was. I came to the BEACH PARTY series via BACK TO THE BEACH myself, so it's all archaeological as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, it's not too hard to see how the young kids of the mid 60s who had been inundated with musical films for years would appreciate seeing some of them with fun-loving kids on the beach at the center. While the comedy is a bit flat and the pacing a little wonky, I cannot deny the infectiousness of some of the musical numbers in this movie. I mean, we're not talking Busby Berkeley here or anything, but the tunes and the dancing (that crazy 60s-style dancing) are pretty catchy.

CAVEMAN (1981; Carl Gottlieb)
Though it's a bit of a dopey film when viewed with a contemporary lens, it saddens me to think that a film like this would not be made these days. Sure, we'll get animated fare like THE CROODS (and its upcoming sequel) as well as crappy comedies like the generously overlooked YEAR ONE, but nothing quite like CAVEMAN. First off, there's little to no actual dialogue spoken in the film. There are lots of grunts and gesturing and certain bits of makeshift "caveman talk", but really it often plays more like a silent film (see Buster Keaton in THREE AGES for point of reference here). There are also lots of practical effects and stop motion animation in the film. Considering when it was made, it certainly feels like an homage to the wonderful films of Ray Harryhausen by way of low-brow comedy. CAVEMAN may have a decent amount of notoriety due in part to it being one of only a handful of non-Beatles related movies that Ringo Starr headlined. I do love that Ringo took this role by the way. And he allowed himself pretty schmucky too. Even though this movie was directed and co-written by Carl Gottlieb (who also famously wrote JAWS as well as THE JERK), it feels a little bit like if Woody Allen did a version of QUEST FOR FIRE. This would be the BANANAS "earlier funnier" Woody and not the one who was busy making STARDUST MEMORIES around this time. But this is probably a bit broader of a comedy than even Woody might have made. He may have left out the dinosaur nut shots. And the fire farts.

Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach on Good Morning American in 1981:

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969; Joseph McGrath)
Like CAVEMAN, this film features Ringo Starr. It also has a humdinger of an ensemble present including Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Roman Polanski and Raquel Welch!
Based on Terry Southern's novel and adapted by Southern, Peter Sellers and Joseph McGrath. Actually the adaptation is credited as being done by Southern and McGrath with "Additional material" by Peter Sellers, John Cleese and Graham Chapman. I always associate Terry Southern with THE LOVED ONE and DR. STRANGLOVE, so it's tricky not to come in with higher expectations. The premise here is that a rich businessman (Sellers) adopts a homeless hippie-type (Starr) and proceeds to attempt to educate him through various odd experiences and escapades. There are a great many things that I don't miss too much about 1960s films in general, but absurdist comedy isn't one of them and THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN is packed with the stuff. The film goes from one unblinkingly ludicrous scenario to another with oodles of random nonsensical asides throughout. This kind of surrealist humor has all but disappeared from cinema these days it seems. While much of it doesn't succeed as being straight-up laugh-out-loud funny, it is still outlandish enough to be quite entertaining.  You can kind of see the Monty Python leanings throughout.The movie comes from a lineage of irreverent, anti-establishment 60s comedies the likes of HOW I WON THE WAR (which features another Beatle in John Lennon) and perhaps LORD LOVE A DUCK, which are both fascinating and unique. The way that THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN goes after snobbery and hypocrisy (and how money plays into both) in stuffy British society (& society at large) is endlessly amusing. While it may seem deathly dated to some, it is truly a time capsule and a film that it's safe to say isn't likely to be remade anytime soon.

PSYCH-OUT (1968; Richard Rush)
PSCYH-OUT was an AIP production and also was produced by Dick Clark's production company. Clark's company did a lot of television of course, but also produced Richard Rush's next film - SAVAGE SEVEN which was ostensibly a biker movie remake of Kurosawa. Rush would go on to make his masterpiece, THE STUNT MAN, some years later. In PSYCH-OUT, one of the first dialogue scenes in the movie feature Jack Nicholson, Adam Rourke and Max Julien. That's a heckuva cool group of would-be cult actors. You can feel their budding talents at work here though. This first scene big scene (in a coffee shop) has good energy and is bursting with the crystal clear charisma of these gentlemen. They're just dynamic dudes. Even something as simple as them hanging up posters (to the tune of The Strawberry Alarm Clock's "Incense and Peppermints") is fun to watch. Part of this has to do with Richard Rush's style as a filmmaker though. Especially his editing style and the use of photographic effects here. It all works well in this kind of counter culture hippie story. Back to the actors though. Those unfamiliar with Adam Roarke are in for a nice discovery. He is one of those hidden gems that cinephiles come across when they've seen a certain pocket of films. I hadn't really heard of him until I started reading that Tarantino was a fan. During the years when he was doing his film festivals in Austin Texas, he ran at least a couple Adam Rourke movies. I recall reading how he loved him in DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY so that was the first movie I ever saw him in. He's absolutely great. There's just something about the way he behaves on camera that is quite memorable. He holds his own effortlessly with the likes of Nicholson or Peter Fonda without any trouble at all. He's got movie star energy and stuff but he never really evolved beyond supporting roles. It's a little sad, but he's a joy to watch in even in those smaller roles. Oh and Dean Stockwell is in this too! And watch for an early appearance by Gary Marshall as a plain clothes cop as it is very entertaining.
Here's a great piece of an interview Richard Rush did with the A.V. Club a while back wherein he talked about PSYCH-OUT:
"Suddenly there was a new kind of non-aggressive male, a new kind of hero. I wanted very much to make that picture. American International said, “Okay, we’ll let you make it if you give us a sequel to Hells Angels.” And so we made the deal, and I had to do The Savage Seven first. That was a motorcycle picture, so it counted as a sequel to Hells Angels On Wheels. I actually had a lot of fun doing that one. It was an interesting film, because it was cowboys and Indians except in this case it was motorcyclists and Indians. The bike against the horse. That was also the first time I use my new blocking system, critical focus, which is where “rack focus” came from. Not bad for a 13-day exploitation film shoot. [Laughs.]

Then I got to do the one I really wanted to do, which was Psych-Out. It wasn’t named Psych-Out when I did it; that was the American International name for it. Unfortunately, that was the summer it got cold in Haight-Ashbury. The movement became cold. The kids had been on the street for a couple of years, and it was all wearing thin. It was getting harder to stay alive and healthy in that environment. The dope culture had flourished to a point where it had become troublesome. So I had to deal with some of that, as well as the glory of the movement."

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