Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '66 - Ira Brooker ""

Monday, October 3, 2016

Underrated '66 - Ira Brooker

Ira Brooker is a writer, editor and trash cinema enthusiast living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His Letterboxd account is a document of a life poorly spent. You can find his writing all over the place, and especially at atalentforidleness.blogspot.com, irabrooker.com and @irabrooker.
Check out his Underrated '96, '86 & '76 lists too:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/04/underrated-96-ira-brooker.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/05/underrated-ira-brooker.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/08/underrated-76-ira-brooker.html
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Picture Mommy Dead (Directed by Bert I. Gordon)
Bert I. Gordon’s legacy is always going to be wrapped up in giant animals, amazing colossal men and puppet people, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. It’s delightful that a filmmaker could carve out a niche as “the guy who makes movies about little things getting big, or vice versa.” On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that Gordon’s more straightforward thrillers* tend to get short shrift, because they’re pretty keen in their own right.

“Picture Mommy Dead” might be the best of the bunch, a vintage ‘60s whodunnit packed with awful people being awful to each other. Any movie that opens with Zsa Zsa Gabor’s corpse being engulfed in flames is off to a heck of a start, and this one follows it up with 80 minutes of hateful adults gaslighting a mentally scarred preteen girl (Gordon’s daughter Susan in a nicely vacant performance). You get Don Ameche smarming it up, Martha Hyer playing to the rafters, Maxwell Reed petting falcons and spewing bile, and a possibly plastered Wendell Corey stealing the show as a viciously condescending attorney. It’s all drenched in that particular brand of WASPy spite that seems to have peaked in the mid-’60s, and it’s never less than fun. Plus there’s a haunted painting with a vendetta. I LOVE movies with haunted paintings with vendettas.

*Did you know Bert I. Gordon directed a 2015 serial killer movie co-starring Kari Wuhrer? It’s true! It’s called “Secrets of a Psychopath” and it isn’t great, but it’s still very much a Bert I. Gordon movie and still plenty impressive for a B-movie director well into his 90s.

An Angel for Satan (Directed by Camillo Mastrocinque)
Rock-jawed artist Anthony Steffen gets a gig restoring a supposedly cursed statue dredged from a lake in a remote village. Meanwhile, soft-spoken heiress Barbara Steele returns from abroad and gets the townsfolk buzzing about her witchy ancestry. Soon enough, Barbara sets to seducing and humiliating every able-bodied man and woman in eyesight, and the locals begin tearing each other apart both physically and mentally.

This is soapy, sleazy, and Gothic as heck, filmed in gorgeous black-and-white and boasting a bravura Barbara Steele performance. She’s effortlessly sexy and scary as she slides from wide-eyed innocence to wide-eyed malevolence. Veteran director Mastrocinque buoys her nicely with a dreamy, moody atmosphere framing a story that doesn’t pull its punches. Even a semi-dubious twist ending can’t break a spell this strong.

The One-Eyed Soldiers (Directed by John Ainsworth)
What a strange little movie this is. Beefy American reporter Dale Robertson investigates the death of a dignitary who plunged from the parapet of an Eastern European cathedral. He quickly finds himself scampering around scenic Yugoslavian vistas, dodging the cops, partnering with the deceased’s gorgeous daughter, sparring with a sadistic little-person crime boss, and pursued by an earless assassin and his bloviating employer.

This was the second and final feature from character actor Robertson’s short-lived United Screen Arts production company (the first being the also very strange animated Western The Man from Button Willow). I’ll always go to bat for a little guy trying to make good, and “The One-Eyed Soldiers” does a lot with its limited resources. There’s a definite Bond influence here, but writer/director John Ainsworth does his most shameless cribbing from “The Maltese Falcon,” right down to Guy Deghy doing a full-on Sydney Greenstreet impression as Robertson’s rival/benefactor. Hey, if you’re gonna steal, there aren’t many better-stocked larders than “The Maltese Falcon.” On the whole this is inessential, inconsistent adventure fluff, but it’s also an endearing spot of oddball fun.

Cyborg 2087 (Directed by Franklin Adreon)
Cyborg Michael Rennie and his high-waisted jumpsuit drop in from the late 21st Century in an effort to stop a prominent ‘60s scientist from discovering the technology that will allow the creation of cyborgs like Michael Rennie. There are some pretty hefty concepts at play here, including a few ideas that clearly struck a chord with a young James Cameron. While “Cyborg 2087” sometimes lacks confidence in its premise - the run-time is padded out with unnecessary comic relief from a gang of jive-talking teens and Wendell Corey’s Mayberryan police squad - it’s a thoughtful, occasionally even elegant nugget of existential sci-fi anchored by Rennie’s signature brand of haunted stoicism.

Massacre Time (Directed by Lucio Fulci)
Much as I’m glad that Lucio Fulci had the bloody, viscera-strewn career he did, I do wish that he’d dipped into the Western well a few more times. His “Four of the Apocalypse” is one of my favorite late-period Euro joints, and “Massacre Time” is a strong standout from the beginning of the spaghetti boom.

Stoic gunslinger Franco Nero returns to his boyhood home to keep his brother George Hilton from drinking himself to death and finds the town under the thumb of the usual wealthy land baron and his sadistic son. While Euro-Western plots don’t come much more standard than that, this one rises above via some swell performances and brutal action sequences, the latter including a human fox-hunt, a homemade crucifixion, and an intense man-vs-bullwhip duel. Nero is as solid a lead as ever, but this one belongs to George Hilton’s soused charisma and Nino Castelnuevo’s catatonic cruelty. My only major complaint is that at no point does someone burst into a room and yell, “Massacre time!”

Ride Beyond Vengeance (Directed by Bernard McEveety)
A scruffy Chuck Connors heads home to his wife’s snobby family after making his fortune in the buffalo fields, only to be waylaid by a trio of shady cattlemen who beat him up and literally brand him as a rustler.

By 1966 the classic macho American Western was well on the way to being muscled out by the raw brutality of its European progeny, and “Ride Beyond Vengeance” falls somewhere between the two. As it drifts uneasily between bland melodrama and strikingly violent set pieces, it’s repeatedly salvaged by its crackerjack casting. Every time the movie starts to drag, it’s snapped back to life by a sadistic Bill Bixby sniveling in fancy-lad attire, or a shell-shocked Frank Gorshin regaling the saloon with the tale of a gory suicide, or a swaggering Claude Akins trying to impale a dude on a set of antlers. Mix in Michael Rennie, Joan Blondell, Gloria Grahame, Arthur O’Connell and Jamie Farr and you’ve got yourself enough character-actor currency to power half-a-dozen Chuck Connors vehicles.

The She Beast (Directed by Michael Reeves)
Snide British tourists Barbara Steele and Ian Oglivy roll into a podunk Transylvanian town, befriend a dotty historian who claims to be a Van Helsing descendant, and bicker with a sleazy innkeeper. Before you know it Barbara’s disappeared and the village is beset by a supremely grotesque witch who was drowned by their ancestors centuries earlier.

Future “Witchfinder General” director Michael Reeves gets up to some really odd business here, melding surprisingly gruesome horror with surprisingly sophisticated comedy (a Keystone Kop-ish chase sequence notwithstanding). It’s uneven, over-the-top and doesn’t feature nearly enough Barbara Steele, but the former two gripes only enhance the offbeat fun and the latter is true of virtually every movie ever made. Even though this is only the second-best 1966 movie about Barbara Steele’s arrival in a tiny European village causing the resurrection of a malevolent, centuries-old lake witch, it’s well worth a watch.

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