1979 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE RETURN OF THE BIONIC BOY

The final year of exploitation cinema’s greatest decade begins with Alien, the film that made the careers of director Ridley Scott and star Sigourney Weaver. Ian Holm stands out in a top-notch ensemble, which includes the late John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright. Seven years later, James Cameron took a very different route with the belated, high octane sequel, which, unlike its predecessor, was an immediate hit. Apart from the performances of Weaver and Bill Paxton, however, Cameron’s sequel doesn’t stand up, lacking the tension, freshness, and sense of wonder of Scott’s original, which took its time earning its cult status.

Likewise, The Brood cemented David Cronenberg’s reputation as a startlingly original and provocative filmmaker. Status quo critics, such as Roger Ebert, were mightily offended. Thank God.

Staying consistent, Ebert missed the boat again with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. It spawned a lot of imitations, including Coscarelli’s inferior sequels, which have curiously imitated the imitators.

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre is a homage to F.W. Murnaru’s original. Although some will undoubtedly scream blasphemy, Herzog’s effort, starring Klaus Kinski  in the role made famous by Max Schreck, is the equal of the 1922 classic.

Dracula (directed by John Balham) was an unnecessary big budget remake with  a feathered-hair Count (Frank Langella). Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance co-starred.

With the success of Carrie, it was inevitable that Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, would be adapted too. Surprisingly, it was made into a mini-series. Even more surprisingly, it’s directed by Tobe Hooper, although like Poltergeist, it feels more like the work of its producers. David Soul, riding high on his “Starsky and Hutch” popularity, stars, but James Mason, as usual, steals the show.

Cleopatra Wong (Marrie Lee) showed up in 1979 for a couple of ass-whuppin features: first in Bobby A. Suarez’ The Devil’s Three (AKA Mean Business). As usual with Suarez, oddity is in his DNA. In order to save the day, Cleopatra has to dine with the devil (Johnny Wilson), who’s not literally the devil—he’s just a gang lord who goes by that name. Along the way she picks up a flaming bunny in drag (Chito Guerrero) and a four hundred pound psychic (Florence Carvajel) as sidekicks. It’s low budget, badly dubbed, G-rated (well, perhaps PG-rated) lunacy at its most inspired. It probably played at every drive-in theater in the country, for which it was tailor-made.

The Return of the Bionic Boy features a returning Wong, teaming up with the Bionic Boy (Johnson Yap) who is not only bionic, but also an eight-year-old Tae Kwon Do master. Suarez and company jump on the bionic bandwagon, pitting our heroes against Nazis, laser thingamajigs, the campiest gay villain in all of cinema history, and a fire-breathing pseudo-Godzilla as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Being expired cheese, this comes with a manager’s special discount, including a fee pack of antacids for afterwards. Enjoy.

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CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

Check out http://driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.

Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”

As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kickingnachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.

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WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) is reaping critical praise, and opened with an astounding one hundred million dollar weekend box office. It’s being hailed as the best movie in the DCEU—i.e., D.C. comics extended universe—although I’m not sure how exactly that’s different than the DC movies that preexisted that label.

Regardless, this is the first big screen standalone treatment of the character, which originally debuted during the Second World War, created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter. Wonder Woman was always a kind of female variation on Superman. Paradoxically, she was both a symbol of female empowerment and a pinup bondage fantasy. Initially, under the original artists, she was more feminist than titillating. Predictably, it was the pinup quality that drove the bulk of her fan base and informed most of her subsequent incarnations, the notable exception being the series helmed by George Perez’ silvery pencils. Even then, “Wonder Woman” comics never equaled the sales of her male counterparts. When it was announced that Israeli actress Gal Gadot was being cast as the big screen Wonder Woman, a lot of fanboys harped, comparing her unfavorably to 1970s TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter—because, frankly, Carter has more robust cleavage. In 2011, an updated TV movie was planned, but once publicity stills were released of actress Adrianne Palicki wearing a long pants version of the red, yellow, and blue suit, the DC fundamentalists were up in arms. They wanted legs, dammit, and went the politically correct route of whining about political correctness. The movie, which apparently was a pilot for a series, was purportedly wretched anyway, and seems to have vanished from memory. Five years later, when Gadot’s cameo proved the only bright spot in the execrable Batman vs. Superman, the fanatics were finally appeased, and thankfully silenced.

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ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

Forty years after his superb 1977 début with The Duelists,  Ridley Scott has proven, more often than not, to be an engaging filmmaker. At nearly 80 years of age, he remains a provocative dinosaur from the school of ambitious science fiction, a genre he excels in, but has only worked in sporadically. Along with the late Stanley Kubrick, Scott does it better than anyone—arguably, even better than Kubrick. It’s often forgotten today, but upon its première, Alien (1979) was criticized by some as a jazzed-up variation of the gorilla in a haunted house. Those trappings were deceptive. If Alien were only that, it would hardly have come to be considered a science fiction/horror yardstick. The same could be said for 1982’s Blade Runner, which was initially a critical and box office flop, but became a cult phenomenon. When Scott belatedly returned to the Alien franchise, he produced the sublime and startling Prometheus. It proved to have too many unresolved mysteries, was too aesthetic, too peculiar, too cerebral, and too resourceful to be the fix that the formula craving audience desired. With Alien: Covenant, he delivers a hybrid: a sequel of sorts to Prometheus, and a vague segue into Alien. It’s a summer blockbuster that, coming from Scott, is something more. As can already be seen by its modest American opening and outraged reactions spewed by those who prefer their sci-fi unchallenging, Covenant is not going to please face-hugger followers. And unless it does well overseas, the likelihood of another Scott-helmed Alien seems a stretch. Although that is almost predictable, it’s also unfortunate.

Paradoxically, Covenant contains some of Scott’s most assured filmmaking along with his roughest. Beautifully filmed, filled to the brim with surprises, drawn out, disheveled in sections, and sporting what, on the surface, appear to be derivative fan-appeasing choices, it, along with the 1979 original and Prometheus, make up Scott’s standout Alien trilogy. These are far superior to any of the sequels made by others, including the action-oriented Alien-Rambo crowd-pleaser from James Cameron. Although Aliens is a memorably punchy film with etched-in-stone performances by Sigourney Weaver, the shiny beast (courtesy H.R. Geiger), and Bill Paxton, Cameron unwittingly gifted it to a fanbase who then pedestaled it. The eventual consequences of that dumbing-down was the trailer park science fiction franchise, Alien vs. Predator.

The consensus seems to be that Covenant is better than Prometheus but falls short of the original Alien. Undeniably, that spook house gorilla has its distinctive, addictive history, having been inspired by It, The Terror from Beyond Space, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, and John Carpenter’s Dark Star. As is well known, Scott upped the ante of anxiety by not allowing the cast to read the entire Alien script ahead of time. That tension spilled over, making a celluloid model so formidable that it merely inspired imitations.

With Prometheus, Scott escaped the doldrums of vapid ritual and crafted a film so original, so divisive, it became almost a standalone that no one would dare emulate. Although the rampaging rapist xenomorph was nowhere to be seen, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw still manages to be impregnated with something, making for a nail-biting race against birth. Behind it all is Michael Fassbender’s bewitchingly enigmatic David, the most compelling cinematic android since Rutger Hauer’s Roy in Blade Runner and Jude Law’s “Gigolo Joe” in A.I.. Finally, Alien was exciting and fresh again.

The absence of Rapace is keenly felt in Covenant, but Fassbender’s David returns—twofold—and it’s his relationship with himself that propels Covenant and cements Scott as a late-in-life virtuoso filmmaker. He’s that rarity of rarities: an artist that started strong and, far from becoming derivative, has revisited and reflected on his body of work and ongoing themes, managing to say something epic about his oeuvre and himself. Comparatively, late in their careers, filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Chaplin, Disney, and even Picasso were producing what amounted to rudimentary, even fatigued sketches of previous wonders. The Scott of Covenant is like John Coltrane at Newport in the Sixties, expansively recomposing “My Favorite Things” into something so epic that it eradicates its former incarnations into faint skeletons. A small minority have accused Scott of compromise here, but that’s as deceptive as the criticisms thirty-eight years prior.

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1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MARTIN

The Mountain of the Cannibal God (directed by prolific trash guru Sergio Martino), is possibly the most well-known film of the Italian cannibal genre, primarily because it has name stars in Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress. Being Martino, it naturally revels in its nastiness, which runs the gamut from castration to decapitations, shots of human entrails, and actual footage of a monkey being devoured by a python. A nude Andress certainly helped its box office. It was yet another video nasty staple in the heyday of mom and pop video stores.

Starcrash (directed by Luigi Cozzi) stars cult fave Caroline Munro in a blatant Star Wars ripoff. There’s other people in it as well, like David Hasselhoff (in his film debut) and Christopher Plummer, but it’s Munro that audiences went to see, and it’s a hoot to boot.

Starhops is a sort of Star Wars parody, but it’s essentially juvenile sexploitation, surprisingly directed by a woman: Barbara Peeters. It’s obscure, for obvious reasons.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (directed by Leo Penn) is a Gothic horror TV mini-series starring grand dame Bette Davis, still riding high post-Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1960). Adapted from the Thomas Tryon novel, it’s winningly offbeat with a high camp performance from Davis as the town matriarch. For unknown reasons, it’s home video distribution has been spotty, only briefly becoming available on VHS in a badly mutilated version.

Jean Rollin goes zombie with Grapes of Death. Being Rollin, it naturally is going to have a twist—amusingly, zombifying wine. Opulently bloodied, the film has a reputation as being weaker Rollin. Actually, his virtues here outweigh his usual flaws.

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (directed by Bobby A. Suarez) stars Marrie Lee as an Asian 007 kickin’ ass of a buncha baddie henchman disguised as nuns. Naturally, it was an epic influence on Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget explosions, scantily clad femme fatales, kung fu galore, and wretched dubbing. Sorry, but you can’t call yourself cool ’til you’ve seen it.

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1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation genre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity quota, but it’s derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

 Behind Convent Walls (directed by Walerian Borowczyk) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (part 2). Zack Snyder remade DOTD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

John Carpenter’s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis ( Donald Pleasance) warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a William Shatner mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars Cameron Mitchell and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright,  Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by Abel Ferrara) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre (Nazisploitation) and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as Gregory Peck playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. As was discovered in the mid 1980s, Mengele was actually hiding on a farm in Brazil, an unrepentant but pathetic figure, jumping at his shadow daily until his 1979 drowning.

Here, Mengele spearheads an underground Forth Reich that is cloning an army of Hitlers. It could just as easily have been titled They Saved Hitler’s DNA. Peck’s performance veers from typical woodenness to bizarre cartoonishness, shorn of authentic menace, which at least suits a movie that feels like bad sci-fi Nazi pulp put out by DC Comics. There’s no frightening banality to it, which is what Fascism is all about (in his last starring role in 2003, Charlton Heston almost unwittingly nailed that quality as Mengele in the little seen, but still not very good My Father, Rua Alguem 5555). The Boys from Brazil is further burdened by comical German accents, including that of Laurence Olivier, who co-stars as a Nazi hunter and seems to be the only one who relishes the script’s pulp. The over-the-top finale literally goes to the dogs. James Mason, Michael Gough, Denholm Elliott, and Steve Guttenberg make up the rest of the big cast. Hollywood congratulated itself and gave the movie a couple of Academy Award nominations.

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1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: RABID

If anyone from the future opens a 1977 time capsule stuffed with DVDs, the first impression they may reap is that everyone was having lotza sex this year. Sylvia Kristal (the most famous actress to essay the role) opens the year with Emmanuel 3. Laura Gemser (our Black Emanuel from ’75) takes over with Emanuel in America. Apparently native boys can’t get it up enough for her, so Laura branches out in Emanuel Around the World. She then plies her trade in the nunspolitation genre in Sister Emanuel, and finally takes on the cannibal movement with Emanuel and the Last Cannibals.  After that, Laura gets some much needed R &R, and won’t return until 1980’s Emanuel: Queen Bitch.The 70s were definitely not political correct, as Chai Lee proves with Yellow Emanuel. It’s more of the same with a different skin hue. Lee shrugs off the racist title and slut shaming, declaring that her vagina is merely a muscle that needs exercising. Actually, it’s a tame affair.

Joey Heatherton took over the role of Xaviera Hollander for The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington. She’s a bitter fit than Lynn Redgrave was in 1975’s The Happy Hooker, and director William  A. Levey was more at home with the trashy tales of the madame’s purportedly true exploits than Nicholas Sgarro had been two years earlier. Still, it’s dated soft-core titillation.

Adult film star Uschi Digard shows up for the “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” sexploitation segment of John Landis’ anthology,  Kentucky Fried Movie. Despite his one time commercial standing and the cults around a few of his films (1978’s Animal House, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, 1981’s An American Werewolf In London), Landis never made a good film and proved what a lousy filmmaker he was going to be in this, his second film. At the very least, we have to give the hack his due because he got through this without crippling or killing anyone.

Tan, buxom blonde Cheri Caffaro was a minor 70s exploitation sex symbol. She began her path to “fame” after winning a Brigitte Bardot lookalike contest and is best known for her Ginger McAllister trilogy: Ginger, The Abductors, and Girls Are For Loving, made between 1971 and 1973 and written and directed by her then husband Don Schain. Ginger was a softcore female James Bond for the drive-in circuit.  All of these were trashy and fun (we hope to cover the entire trilogy at a later date). Caffaro had branched out(sort of) playing different characters in Schain’s A Place Called Today (social commentary exploitation, AKA dull sleaze) and Savage Sisters (1974, directed by Eddie Romero), which is a somewhat tame but fun women-in-prison exploitation. Caffaro’s last film role (before divorcing Schain and becoming a beekeeper!) is Too Hot to Handle, which reunited her with husband/Ginger director. Her character name has changed here to Samantha Fox, but it’s essentially a darker variation of Ginger McAllister with a bit of Ilsa thrown in. Caffaro has fun playing a lethal lady, and it’s contagious. It’s kinky and inventive, but hampered by trying to do more than the budget allowed.

Death Game (directed by Peter Traynor) is purportedly based on a true story and opens like an old dark house thriller with two women (Sondra Locke—best known as Clint Eastwood’s ex, and Coleen Camp—best known for her 70s cleavage) seeking refuge from the rain. Unfortunately, Seymour Cassel lets them in, and before you can say menage-a-trois, he discovers himself tormented by lesbian psychos from the pit.  Despite all the destruction and mayhem, Seymour doesn’t solicit our sympathies. Low budget, rude, crude, and with some of the most amateurish editing ever committed to celluloid, this was almost universally panned at the time, but it is exploitation at its deranged purest, with waaaaaaay over-the-top performances. Overdosing on ham, you’ll think its a holiday of sorts.

Fight for Your Life (the only film directed by Robert Endelson) is ultra-violent blaxploitation, and one of the best in that sub-genre. With all the racial slurs being bandied about, this Straw Weisman script would be an almost impossible to produce today. It’s a variation of Last House on the Left and, to a lesser degree, 1955’s The Desperate Hours, with a gang of thugs breaking into the house of black minister and his family. A lot of torment follows, until the tables are turned. It’s been described as vile and repulsive and that’s absolutely spot on.  It’s actually superior to Wes Craven’s  groundbreaking film, but inexplicably less well known. If you prefer white racism swept under the rug, avoid this like the plague.

We come down several notches for The Uncanny (directed by Denis Héroux). Produced by Amicus veteran Milton Subotsky, it’s another stab at the anthology genre, and a tepid one at that. Peter Cushing is the author/host who tries to convince his skeptical publisher (Ray Milland) that cats are evil spirits intent on taking over the world, which segues into a trio of tales. The first (and-sort-of- best) vignette stars Joan Greenwood as a wealthy socialite who has revised her will, leaving everything to her cats. The maid (Susan Penhaligon) tries to steal the will and the felines get pissed, making for a gory comeuppance. The two remaining tales are forgettable, with Donald Pleasance giving one of his worst performances as faded actor Valentine Death, whom everyone calls V.D. Get it? Fortunately, the cat literally gets his tongue. Cushing and Milland are quite good and the direction is competent, but its failure is in the scripting by Michel Parry.

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THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB (at The House Of Shadows, Gresham Oregon)

“Brother Cobweb: A White Trash Opera,” 8 ft x 4ft house paint on wood panel ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Jonestown Massacre” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Rehearsing Brother Cobweb with Rev. Harry (Garman Gibson)

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Gotterdammerung (detail)” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Gotterdammerung” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB The Whore Of Babylon (Holly Day) ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion detail” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB (house paint on 8 ft x 16 ft wood panel) “Brother Cobweb’s Last Supper” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb : Get Behind Me, Satan!” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb preparing the sacrifice.” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb & Rev. Harry preparing the sacrifice” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB Brother Cobweb’s A GOOD FIGHT ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “TheChurch Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB . Old Nick (Kevin Klansnic). ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB Harlot for Christ ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

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1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

Star Wars, Annie Halland Elvis becoming a corpse were the entertainment events of 1977; but exploitation/horror cinema hardly noticed, driving ahead full-throttle with Third Reich obsessions in this banner year for Nazisploitation. Naturally, queen Dyanne Thorne was still cracking the whip. Unfortunately, Ilsa the Wicked Warden was directed by Jess Franco, and he is no Don Edmonds. Franco’s direction is, as usual, languid. Still, Thorne, now a redhead, has undeniable charisma. Originally, this was not an official Ilsa title—the wicked warden was originally Wanda—but was christened with her name somewhere along the way.

Thorne was extraordinarily promiscuous in 1977, appearing in a second Ilsa: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (directed by Jean Lafleur). More flesh and blood along with multifarious locales makes this a far better entry than Franco’s effort, while still not at the level of Edmonds’. This was the last of the Ilsa films, which undeniably make up the most notorious of exploitation franchises.

Blatant Ilsa ripoff Elsa: Frauline Devil (directed by Patrice Rhomm) features German hookers being sent to the camps to service the poor overworked Nazis. It has a lot of wretched accents and amateur costume design, with Nazi uniforms looking like they just came off the racks. Worst of all, though, it’s a big tease in both the sex and whip-cracking departments. Needless to say, Thorne does it better.

The same can’t be said for Last Orgy of the Third Reich (directed by Cesare Canevari), which features cannibalism and death by German Shepherds and rats, but this one’s different. It has a brunette warden (Maristella Greco).

A pubic-hair eating rapist dwarf actually outdoes the lesbian concentration camp warden in SS Hell Camp (AKA The Beast in Heat, directed by Luigi Batzella). Macha Magali is the Aryan camp dominatrix filling in for Dyane Thorne. It tries to outdo the competition, and succeeds (with multiple brutal rapes, pulling out fingernails, castrations, rats, etc), but even with all that going on, it still manages to be a dull affair. It’s still banned in the U.K.

Italy continued its love affair with Nazis (at least on screen). Nazi Love Camp 27 (directed by Mario Caiano) has a decent budget, wretched dubbing, notorious hardcore sex, and a good, central performance by the tragically short-lived Sirpa Lane (from The Beast) as a Jewess out for revenge.

The Red Nights of the Gestapo is another Italian entry in the genre. Directed by Fabio De Agostini, it is clearly influenced by Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976) and features a Third Reich orgy and farting torture. Brass was more adept at this kind of thing, for what that’s worth.

SS Girls (directed by Bruno Mattei) also influenced by Brass’ Nazi opus, has its tongue firmly-in-cheek and feels like its been lifted out of the pages of a comic book. As strange as it may sound, it’s one of the most entertaining Nazisploitation films of the decade. It’s chock-full of Mattei’s trademark montages, close ups, stock footage, and a jazzy score. It also has bestiality, orgies, and endless parades of flesh.

Mattei’s second Nazisploitation feature (of the year) is Women’s Camp 119, which is more of the same, with the additional bonus of poisoned bullets for nude prisoners. The result is two hours of writhing in pain and bleeding out of every orifice. This one is also like a comic book, but more of a Chick tract. It makes you feel dirty for having seen it. It even has a lot of Chick targets, like a Catholic priest who gets popsiclized and a two-for-one with gay Jews. Of course, the Nazis-for-Christ attempt to cure the gays in this tailor-made-for-Mike-Pence flick.

Shock Waves (directed by Ken Wiederhorn) takes a different route with Nazi zombies, literally bred to survive underwater. Brooke Adams is among a small group of passengers taking a tour on a cruiser with cantankerous captain John Carradine. It’s a watery variation on Old Dark House thrillers, with the group crashing into a wrecked ghost vessel. The captain is killed and the survivors are forced to take refuge on an island (filling in for the Old Dark House) where they discover what they believe to be an abandoned hotel. Its sole occupant is former Nazi commandant  Peter Cushing (with a convincing accent). Unknowingly, the group has awakened the commandant’s genetically altered “Toten Korps”—AKA death corps—AKA Nazi zombies. They’re a creepy, disease-ridden albino lot, adorned in aviator goggles and SS uniforms, emerging from the water in slow-mo to kill anyone within their path. Since this was marketed as exploitation, Adams is required to strip down to a yellow bikini and take a swim—until she bumps into something dead.

Cushing’s role is a relatively small one, which leaves the acting to Adams. She’s up to it, but unfortunately, she’s the only one, with her fellow passengers clearly being amateurs. Apart from awakening Third Reich undead and fleeing them, there’s really not much of a plot. The violence is subdued and it’s definitely not paced for the post- Romero zombie audience. Despite its flaws, this is an impressive meager budgeted indie with good acting from Cushing, Carradine, and Adams, along with effective underwater photography (by Reuben Trane) as the death corps wait on the ocean floor to entrap unsuspecting victims. The zombie makeup is equally compelling, and Wiederhorn (who also scripted) adroitly mounts tension. None of his fellow-up films have matched this. It’s easily the best movie ever made about Nazi zombies.

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DARK SHADOWS (2012)

Tim Burton will go down as an artist who peaked early. Dark Shadows (2012) continued the autopilot fatigue that has plagued this director for the past twenty years. Burton’s quasi-religious fan base has a tendency to erroneously dress him up as a “dark” auteur. Rather, his has muted into a one-note style with increasingly few exceptions. The bulk of his post Ed Wood (1994) films are “Disneyfied” and actually jettison the darker, complex nuances in favor of what he imagines to be audience accessibility. Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are lucid examples of this syndrome. Gene Wilder’s Wonka projected far more interior disturbance than Johnny Depp’s silicone interpretation. In Burton’s Alice Lewis Carroll’s twitchy surrealism gave way to a Disney-paced narrative with yet another cartoon pseudo performance by Depp at its center.

Many critics harp on Burton’s narrative shortcomings. Like Mario Bava (an epic Burton influence), Burton has admitted he wouldn’t know a good script if it bit him. However, Bava, never quite making it to the level of  an in-demand filmmaker, retained enough independence to keep his oeuvre fresh. Burton’s aesthetic decline is a sharply dramatic one and the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in scripting. The films of Luis Bunuel refute the lie that three-dimensional characterizations are absolutely wedded to orthodox narratives. Burton’s early films evoked a strikingly fresh milieu with characters who, on the surface, seemed to be flying the freak flag high. Yet, Burton’s initial cannon of freaks really weren’t so different than the rest of us. If Pee Wee Herman, Adam, Barbara, Lydia and Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne & Selina Kyle, Edward Scissorhands, Kim, and Peg, along with Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi were, perhaps, not immediate family, then they were most certainly extended family or close friends with whom we felt affinity, kinship, and admiration.

Then, something happened. Shortly after the backlash of Batman Returns (1992), Burton lost his mojo, and Depp followed suit in an even more pronounced obvious way. At one point, Depp promised to be the new Brando, offering a fresh alternative to the plasticity of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Whoever would have guessed that Cruise would eventually prove to be a smarter, riskier, more clever actor? Nothing in Depp’s later career has the nuanced depth of Brando’s Don, Paul, or Jack Mickler. Cruise’s Bill Harford, Frank Mackey, John Anderton, and Colonel Claus resonate far more intelligence and commitment to craft than anything Depp has committed to celluloid in the last decade. Instead, in his non-Burton films, Johnny Depp has become a parody of Errol Flynn’s late career parody. Doused in increasingly thick make-up and mascara, Depp’s offerings have amounted to flaccid drag (perhaps Ed Wood’s hooks dug too deeply into Depp). If Depp’s lethargic, dumbed-down Flynn-esque caricaturization increasingly amount to a dull train wreck then, in Dark Shadows, we witness the actor’s de-evolving slide into Bela Lugosi drag, which sounds more interesting than it actually is.

Depp’s phlegmatic Barnabas Collins all but evaporates inside a movie that sees Burton imitating Burton, disguised as a Gothic soaper that only worked as a product of its time and place. It would seem obvious, to anyone with an iota of artistic or pop culture instinct, or even to anyone who remembers the original “Dark Shadows,” that the series simply cannot not be duplicated. The short-lived, early 90s remake only served to reiterate how delightfully dated the original series had become.

Burton’s big screen treatment, some fifty years after the fact, is even further removed. Burton attempts to stylize Dark Shadows with his sophisticated, big budget stamp, never once realizing that the rudimentary quality of the original is its sole staying power. But even in his lampoon take, Burton plays it safe, and the film never rises above a ho-hum investment.

A vapid lead character, made strictly of cardboard with a cut-and-paste performance, is the sleepwalking ringmaster in a cookie-cutter ensemble. Even Eva Green, who proved herself a remarkably complex actress in Casino Royale (2006), fails to register. She is given no direction in a flatly written character. Chloe Grace Moretz, another promising talent (who did very good work in last year’s Hugo), is simply placed in front of a lens and told to snarl. Helena Bonham Carter screeches as Dr. Julia Hoffman; she seems like a character lifted out of a second-tier Hanna-Barbara cartoon. Only Michelle Pfeiffer, who can be a stoic actress, briefly manages to generate any living flesh from the printed script.

On the surface, Burton and Depp should have been as interesting a collaboration as Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, but the former team was composed of genuine malcontents coming from an actual freak circuit. Burton and Depp were birthed by Disney and “21 Jump Street.” It shows. Dark Shadows is yet another failure in the Burton/Depp cannon. Burton and Depp’s Dark Shadows comes across like a lecture from two stuffy, aging academics, who might have been genuinely weird at one time, failing to convince us how hilarious the original series now seems. In the last 20 years, the most interesting film Burton has himself directed was 2005’s The Corpse Bride and it would be difficult indeed to convince a millennial that, at one time, both Burton and Depp generated authentic excitement among alternative film lovers.

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