Category Archives: Film History

The Ending of City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead - Ending Shot

I recently published a discussion about Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. In it, I briefly discussed the ending of City of the Living Dead. I’ve given some thought to it, and I now think I understand it.

The Ending

At the end of the film, Mary and Gerry have managed to kill Father Thomas and thus close the gate of hell. They come out of the tomb and see John-John, the young boy they had rescued after all his family was murdered. He runs toward them smiling.

Then they look concerned. We see John-John running toward the camera, still happy. But we overhear the survivors screaming. The shot freezes and then is cracked with black lines that expand to fill the screen. The end.

What Happened

It is widely claimed that the original footage shot was destroyed. That may be true. But it isn’t necessarily. What we do know is that Fulci decided, for whatever reason, that he couldn’t use the ending that was shot.

Clearly, whatever the original ending, it had to include something that Mary and Gerry saw and recast the happy ending it appeared we had reached was not a happy ending after all.

There isn’t a lot to work with here, though. They are in an isolated area. So:

  1. Zombies could have appeared from out of the forest.
  2. The police, who brought John-John to the tomb, could be zombies.
  3. John-John could have been a zombie.

What most people say about the ending as it stands is that we are supposed to understand that John-John is a zombie. But so what?

Ending in Context With “Gates of Hell”

It doesn’t really matter who is a zombie or even how many zombies there are. When Mary and Gerry killed Father Thomas, all the zombies burst into flames. If there are zombies outside the tomb, well… Are they really back in the normal world?

Based on the ending of The Beyond, it would seem that the appearance of zombies means that they are rather in Hell itself. So they saved the world but imprisoned themselves in the process.

The other possibility is that they simply defeated Father Thomas and his minions but the gates of hell are still open. But in that case, what were the characters doing for the previous hour and a half?

Does the Ending Matter?

To be honest, I’d rather the film just end with the death of Father Thomas. As I mentioned before, City of the Living Dead is more of a cinematic nightmare than anything else. Sure, it has a plot and character. But the point is to horrify the viewer.

No one watching the film thinks, “I wonder what happened to John-John”! The scene outside the tomb seems tacked on. And it isn’t as though the world is now safe. There are seven gates of hell. What are the odds that a plucky psychic and harried psychologist will manage to show up to close the other six just in time?

The epilogue deprives the viewer of a satisfying ending. So instead of reflecting on the masterpiece that you just saw, you spend a bunch of time trying to figure out what you were supposed to take away from the ending.

City of the Living Dead is an exceptional film with a third act that kills (literally and figuratively). But I don’t think it’s deep. It isn’t the kind of film that is supposed to make you think. So don’t!

I’m going to pretend this epilogue doesn’t exist and that Mary and Gerry will always be standing in the tomb in front of the ash of Father Thomas.


Image taken from City of the Living Dead under Fair Use.

Is the Drive-in Theater Back?

Milford Drive-in Theater

In January, I went to see a high school basketball game with my cousin and I got a great idea. In the summer, we should drive over to Sacramento, pick up her brother, and go to the West Wind Drive-in Theater!

She didn’t immediately take to the idea because she knows the kind of movies that I like. But I explained that we would see a “normal” film. There would (sadly) be no Blood Feast playing there anyway.

And then the pandemic started and I despaired of getting to do this. But I shouldn’t have. Drive-in theaters may end up being big winners from this crisis.

Childhood Memories

Many people have noticed that drive-in theaters are kind of pre-social-distancing.

A large percentage of my memories from childhood involve movies: on television, in the theater, and at the drive-in. I especially remember my older sister sticking my younger sister and me in the trunk of the car to save money getting into the drive-in. It seems that everyone did that — to the point where theaters started just charging by the car.

One of my earliest memories was going to the drive-in to see The Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes with my friend George and his parents. I must have been 6-years-old. George fell asleep, which still shocks me. He missed the reveal of the people who worship the bomb!

When I first went to grad school, I went to the drive-in a number of times. I remember seeing Dick Tracy and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Technological Changes

By the 1980s, most drive-ins had switched from physical speakers to FM broadcasting. So the sound when I saw these films in 1990 was fine. The visuals, however, were not. They were faded out — a lot like those illegal DVDs people used to sell that had been video-taped during a showing of the film.

I’m happy to hear that the drive-in theater industry eventually addressed this problem. In recent years, theaters have been converting to digital projection. Sadly, this is going along with the consolidation of the industry because this technological change is expensive. So we are seeing a lot of chains, like West Wind that I discussed earlier.

Pandemic Movies

The movie industry has adjusted to the pandemic by releasing films directly to streaming. And that’s great! (I guess it’s great; I almost never see new films.) But people still like to make movie-going an event.

And I suspect soon the theaters will open up. I don’t see a problem if precautions are taken. (It’s interesting that airplanes are filling up but movie theaters aren’t. I’m not saying either should go back to normal but I see a distinct class element here.)

But many people have noticed that drive-in theaters are kind of pre-social-distancing. Sure: there might be some issues at the snack bar and the bathrooms. But these can all be managed. For example, some theaters are offering food service at cars.

And while all the indoor theaters around me are closed, you can still go to the drive-in. At the San Jose drive-in, they are showing a bunch of well-designed double features. For example: ET and Jurassic Park. But they also have new films: The Hunt and The Invisible Man.

Temporary drive-ins are opening up. I just read about two in the Chicago area. Another in Maryland. And Colorado. And these are just some that have been reported on in the last day!

I really don’t know if drive-in theaters will ever again be more than nostalgia for old people like me. But changes in the technology are a good sign. The indoor theater doesn’t offer me much. I’m thrilled that the drive-ins near me are playing double-features. I don’t expect I will ever prefer the drive-in to my home theater. But if they were equally accessible, I’d definitely pick the drive-in over the indoor theater.

And not just for nostalgia.


Milford Drive-in Theater by Laxbot7 under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Shark in Monster From the Ocean Floor

Filmfax Issue 102

I’ve stated before that the most interesting thing in Monster From the Ocean Floor is the scene where the lead character fights off a shark. Well, I got more information on this.

You can see a bit of this sequence in the trailer at the link above. But it’s much more impressive than that. What’s in the trailer looks impressive because they are using a long lens, which compresses distance and so makes it looks like the shark is right on top of her when it isn’t.

Luckily, the actor, Anne Kimbell, talked about this in an interview with Michael Barnum for Filmfax 102 (2004), “Monster (from the Ocean Floor) Hunter.”

I got this off the DVD for the film. In it, Tom Weaver quotes from the article:

On the last day, Roger said, “Now about the scene where you fight the shark…” I said, “Roger, “I’m not fighting a shark.” And he said, “Oh no, Anne. It is a very old shark. So again I said, “Roger, I am not fighting a shark!” He said, “We’re going to put a net around it, Anne. It can’t hurt you. It practically doesn’t have any teeth. Besides, the thing we really have to be careful about is that this is a valuable shark…”

There are things that don’t make sense. There is no net apparent in the film. I suspect what he meant was that there would be a net around the whole area so that the valuable shark didn’t escape.

And old or not, toothless or not, a six-foot (blue?) shark is still dangerous. Just running into her could have caused damage.

It Ain’t Anne Kimbell

But this is the most remarkable part of the interview:

So when you watch the movie, the lady fighting the shark is not me. It is the wife of photographer Al Hanson who lived and worked on Catalina Island. His wife, who was also a deep-sea diver, fought the shark.

That’s Al Hanson who did some underwater cinematography (and probably a lot more than he got credit for).

I’ve watched that sequence over and over. They do a good job of not allowing us to see the diver’s face in the shark scenes. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying to notice body differences and I just don’t see them. It all looks like Anne Kimbell. It is definitely not like that great scene in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.

Also: Roger Corman Was Kind of a Dick

I admire Corman. I think people obsess about him too much. But being a low-budget film producer is hard. And he did it well. But it was all about the money. And he stepped on a lot of toes.

Monster From the Ocean Floor was Corman’s first film as producer. And he already had it down. He got everyone to work for little or nothing in exchange for a cut of the film. Anne Kimbell:

Roger showed the movie briefly in the theaters then he cut it and sold it to TV and made a lot of money to start is own picture career. Unfortunately, those of us that had started on commission never got much money because our commission was going to be on theatrical release, not the television part.

And I’m sure that was a mistake. I’ve gotten used to this. Most of the low-budget producers of the past did so on the backs of the idealism of those around them. And in the end, they get the money and all the credit.

Meanwhile, we don’t even know the name of the woman who did the scenes with the shark.


Filmfax 102 via Amazon under Fair Use.

Anniversary Post: The Conqueror

John Wayne

On this day, 28 March, in 1956, The Conqueror was released to the public. It is a CinemaScope extravaganza about the rise of Genghis Khan. Directed by Dick Powell (The Enemy Below), it does not disappoint in terms of battle scenes and spectacle. At the time of it’s release, John McCarten correctly noted, “You never saw so many horses fall down in your life.”

And if that were all, it’s be a fun old film that was beautifully rendered. But it’s not. For some reason, John Wayne was cast to play Genghis Khan. Even without speaking, he looks silly with the Fu Manchu mustache. And he moves awkwardly, although I guess that’s part of his persona.

It’s when he speaks that Wayne is at his worst. Every character was apparently the same for him — be it Genghis Khan or Cole Thornton or the Ringo Kid.

I don’t like laughing at movies. I think it’s a personal defect. But it’s hard not to chuckle watching The Conqueror. Everyone else in the film can act. And then there’s John Wayne who sticks out like a Make a Wish kid whose dream was to play with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Synopsis

In it, Temujin (who will become Genghis Khan) basically goes to war because he has the hots for Bortai (Susan Hayward). He gets her quickly with a combination of bad tactics and overwhelming force.

Temujin’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) is none too pleased about the “red-headed Jezebel.” (Yes, that’s actual dialog!) But then, no one is pleased. She doesn’t want to be there and is determined to cause trouble. His brother, Jamuga (Pedro Armendáriz), considers setting her free. (Jamuga is far more heroic in the film and believable as the Mongol leader.)

This is a great set-up for a tragedy, but we already know who Genghis Khan is. Add to that John Wayne and we’re talking major happy time by the end. Within 15 minutes after her capture Bortai is passionately kissing Temujin.

Cancer!

Many of the exterior scenes in The Conqueror were shot downwind of the Nevada National Security Site where they tested a lot of nuclear weapons. Many claim that this was the cause of such a large part of the cast and crew getting (and often dying from) cancer.

It’s not clear to me that this is actually the case. When people live long enough, they have a very high chance of getting cancer. It is true, however, that financial backer Howard Hughes thought he had effectively killed a bunch of people. He bought up all prints later and the film was not re-released until after his death.

What I think is most interesting is that so many people put themselves in danger for a film that mostly doesn’t work (at least as intended) because John Wayne never learned, or tried, to act.

Should You See The Conqueror?

The truth is that The Conqueror isn’t even good for people who like to laugh at films. There’s really only one joke. It’s a perfectly fine film. And then there’s John Wayne in the middle of it, messing everything up.

This trailer gives you a good idea what the film is like. But the color is far better on good prints. This doesn’t feature as much embarrassing John Wayne dialog as you’ll find in the film.

Also on 28 March

Also born today: actors Dirk Bogarde (The Night Porter) in 1921, Freddie Bartholomew (Little Lord Fauntleroy) in 1924, and Ken Howard (The White Shadow) in 1944. Vince Vaughn (Old School) is 50, Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz) is 48, and Cho Seung-woo (Tazza: The High Rollers) is 40.

Producer Pandro S Berman (Ivanhoe) was born in 1905. Screenwriter Edward Anhalt (Becket) was born in 1914. And director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) is 78, Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) is 77, and Brett Ratner (Red Dragon) is 51.


John Wayne in Rio Bravo by Liorek in Public Domain.

Strange but True Football Stories

Strange but True Football Stories With Vincent Price

I don’t have much use for the NFL but a lot of people love it. They have the wrong idea about it, though. They think it is a sports organization. It isn’t; it’s a media company. And from early on, it has produced a stream of barely watchable documentary films about the game. One of them was 1987’s Strange but True Football Stories. It is only noteworthy because it features Vincent Price.

I learned about this odd thing from Chris Ameigh at The Full Price Podcast. He tweeted out that he would love to see it. I immediately bought a copy on VHS (the only format it is available in). But it is available online in one form or another — see below.

(By the way, you should check out the podcast. It approaches Vincent Price very differently than I do. I wrote a 10,000-word article about my favorite Price film, The Last Man on Earth — because I’m a freak. The podcast deals with films but also a lot about Price himself like in Ep 6 Price and the Nazis. Check it out!)

What’s in Strange but True Football Stories?

Outside of Vincent Price, this is an entirely standard NFL documentary. Price introduces each section, speaking from a vaguely expressionistic set (really one of those faux-3D CG sets that were so popular on PBS at the time). It is only during the final segment that there is any indication that the narration he is delivering was written before they knew what was going to be in the football segments.

And none of the stories are particularly strange. You know: if you play enough games there are going to be unusual occurrences like a couple of fumbles leading to a touchdown.

Here are the segments that Price does on the VHS:

  • Introduction (1:29)
  • Coaches (0:50)
  • The Double (0:33)
  • Sideshow (0:45)
  • Mirage (1:12)
  • Immaculate Reception (0:34)
  • Conclusion (0:37)

Check out the video I’ve embedded below. It seems to be what was originally broadcast on television. It is distinct from what was released on VHS where all of Price’s narration over the football sequences was replaced by some John Facenda sound-alike.

What Was Price Doing in an NFL Documentary?

Based on my reading about Vincent Price, he had entertainment interests fairly similar to mine. So I don’t see him as much of a football fan. Apparently, his daughter said that he hated the game.

But I grew up watching Price doing similar kinds of gigs. One of my favorites was introducing a horror magician. (I’ve never located this and if anyone can provide information, I’d be most grateful!)

So I’m sure he did it for the money. People tend to forget that stars of Price’s era weren’t rich the way stars are today. Price didn’t make 3 films in Italy in 1961 because he loved the bitter cold in Rome that year! I’m sure he was doing better in 1987, but he also had a bit of an art habit by then. I like to think that he got ten grand for a few hours’ work, but I suspect it wasn’t that much.

A Review?

To me, watching Strange but True Football Stories is bittersweet. He was in his late 70s at this point. He was still very good, but it’s hard to watch our heroes age. And there’s something inauthentic about it too. What made Price so great in films like House on Haunted Hill is that his effortless elegance was itself menacing.

Here, he knows he’s supposed to be The Merchant of Menace. And he plays the role well enough. But he comes off more like a kindly old man.[1] Which I’ll take! This works really well in Edward Scissorhands.

If you are a Vincent Price freak, you’ll certainly want to own this tape. Otherwise, it isn’t worth it. Price only has 6 minutes of screen time. There are far better things he did for television like An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe.


[1] watching it, I was thinking, “It would have been great to have dinner with him and nerd-out about art.” I’m sure he would have had some insights into RH Ives Gammell.

Image taken under Fair Use.

Every JR Bookwalter Film Ranked

JR Bookwalter

Before we get started, I want to be clear about my motivations. I want to know what JR Bookwalter thinks of his films. One that has long fascinated me is just how negative he is about his own work. And in one case, this is very bad.

For decades (Really!) Bookwalter has been slandering his second feature film, Robot Ninja. In the commentary for Chickboxer, he said it was better than Robot Ninja.

Now, I have a soft-spot for Chickboxer, but let’s be real: it’s a weak film. I think it shows that Scott Plummer could be a good director — but he should stay away from action. As it is, it doesn’t compare well to Brett Kelly’s Avenging Force: The Scarab.

Robot Ninja Changes Everything

With the recent (Last!) Tempe release of a restored version of Robot Ninja, it seems that Bookwalter finally gives it the respect that fans long have. And I get it: there were always problems with the film. But it’s not like the new release suddenly made the film a gory masterpiece. It was always that! (Just ask Burt Ward!)

I have something of an obsession with micro-budget films. So it isn’t surprising that I would shine the glorious light of my film-analysis brilliance on Bookwalter. In fact, I’ve written a rather long article about The Dead Next Door that has been sitting around waiting for some final research.

But Bookwalter is hardly alone. I’m just as big a fan of Michael Kallio. And there are many others that I won’t name because I don’t want to insult him. There is something really special about films that cost little money. It allows filmmakers to fly their freak flag. And sure, Bookwalter never reached the heights of George Barry, but there’s much to delight in.

JR Bookwalter’s Films Ranked

In the following list, I have made no effort to be quantitative. These are just my gut reactions to the narrative feature films he’s directed. And certainly, I would probably change the exact order on any given day.

What I think I can say is that I consider 7 of these films to be quite good. Two of them are marginal but very watchable. And the last four, well, I love them, but they’re weak. And I say that knowing that two of these are considered by many to be classics.

Am I being unfair? Absolutely! And I’ll discuss that below.

  1. Ozone (1995): the film JR Bookwalter was born to make. It has some of his best make-up effects combined with a solid script. Also, it stars James Black, and he really is irresistible as a leading man.
  2. Kingdom of the Vampire (1990): a coming-of-age vampire picture. Matthew Jason Walsh is perfectly mopey as the protagonist Cherie Patry is wonderfully theatrical as his mother. That dynamic is what makes it work.
  3. Witchouse II: Blood Coven (2000): this is a solid film no matter how you look at it. And it gives Ariauna Albright a chance to really shine.
  4. Polymorph (1996): a great combination of horror/sci-fi and crime. The effects may not have aged well but the conflicts between the characters work as well as ever. Really: it’s up there with Night of the Living Dead in that regard.
  5. Robot Ninja (1989): in a world of almost weekly vanilla superhero films, this one stands out. It is amazingly gory and violent while also being campy in the extreme. My big problem with the modern comic-book film is that somehow Hollywood takes them seriously. Who could take this kind of thing seriously? And what about that great Terminator homage with him repairing his arm?! I still have trouble watching that.
  6. The Dead Next Door (1989): I’ll admit that I may rate this low because I’ve seen it way too many times. Of course, it doesn’t help that Bookwalter has released it with two different soundtracks and in two different aspect ratios. I still love the film. And it’s very funny.
  7. Witchouse 3: Demon Fire (2001): the position of this is one that would be different on a different day. In its way, it’s as good as the second one. I really enjoy it. I’m just not as keen on the look of the film. Really good writing and acting, regardless.
  8. Mega Scorpions (2003): I’m still shocked at how well this film turned out. I think it shows just what a professional Bookwalter is because it also seems like he really isn’t that inspired. But it works and it annoys me that it isn’t available on disc.
  9. Maximum Impact (1992): probably the best of the six-pack films. It works remarkably well, even though I had to watch it a couple of times before I could remember the plot. Films like this highlight the fact that Bookwalter’s true love is horror.
  10. The Sandman (1995): I told you I was just going for the gut. There’s lots to like about it but tonally, it’s a mess. All the geeky humor goes away after the first half. And the ending doesn’t help. I know I’m being unfair and I know a lot of people love this film. So make your own list!
  11. Galaxy of the Dinosaurs (1992): this is one of the best examples of idiosyncratic art ever made. And I understand: this was just David DeCoteau trying to make some money. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to him that the rich filmed animation of Planet of the Dinosaurs would never merge with the original video being shot. But the combination is something to behold. And Jon Killough did a great job integrating the whole thing. Whoever came up with the ending deserves a prize!
  12. Humanoids From Atlantis (1992): it was all a fake! No it wasn’t! I don’t know. This is such a silly film that it is basically impossible not to like. It is Bookwalter’s ultimate “Let’s put on a show!” film.
  13. Zombie Cop (1991): not a bad film. I just don’t connect with it. Truthfully, I think a big part of it is the choice of locations. It just looks so much like the suburbs that it is hard to take any more seriously than Humanoids From Atlantis. But it doesn’t have the charm.

JR Bookwalter’s Career in Sum

There you go. What’s interesting is that I enjoy watching all of these films. I haven’t thought about Bookwalter’s career before. It’s remarkable when you consider that the budget of all 13 films combined is only that of one normal low-budget film.

It’s a reminder of what we’d get if instead of every $100 million movie, 100 filmmakers were given a million each.

My hope is that JR Bookwalter will put out his own ranking, if for no other reason than to make up for fans having to listen to him slander Robot Ninja for such a long time.


Image taken from JR Bookwalter’s YouTube channel under Fair Use.

Ed Wood and “Final Curtain”

Ed Wood in Final Curtain
Ed Wood in “Final Curtain”

In 1957, Ed Wood wrote, produced, and directed a 22-minute film intended to be a television pilot, “Final Curtain” for a show apparently called Portraits of Terror. It was lost for many years but was rediscovered and presented at Slamdance in 2012. It isn’t close to Wood’s best work, but it does illustrate many of his idiosyncrasies.

Plot of “Final Curtain”

The story is shockingly simple. An actor who plays “the vampire” in a play wanders around the theater after everyone is gone. He is searching for something but he can’t say what it is.

As he wanders, he is frightened by various ghostly things (mostly off-screen) including the manikin of a female vampire (played by ” Jenny Stevens”).

Finally, the actor finds what he is looking for: a coffin (which looks nothing at all like a coffin). He gets in it and closes the lid.

Cast

The actor is played by Duke Moore, who you probably know as Lt John Harper from Plan 9 From Outer Space — the guy who scratches his face with the barrel of his gun. The whole film is shot MOS, so Moore doesn’t have any dialog.

The voice-over is performed by another Plan 9 alumnus, Dudley Manlove. It’s rather good and certainly preferable to Wood’s narration, which takes his already ponderous dialog and elevates it to silly heights.

Who Is Jenny Stevens?

While watching “Final Curtain,” I was pleased to see that the female vampire manikin was Ed Wood in drag. But surprisingly, no one I could find online seemed to have notice this.

IMDb claims that “Jenny” is the same “Jeannie Stevens” who played The Black Ghost in Night of the Ghouls. And indeed, this is true. That was Ed Wood too. The site claims, “According to Paul Marco, Wood could not get Jeannie Stevens to film these scenes, so he wore the costume and acted as a replacement.” But this is not true.

“Final Curtain” was made before Night of the Ghouls. And footage from it is used, including that with “Jenny.” (Typically, the costume doesn’t match that of The Black Ghost.)

I have little doubt that Wood told Marco this story of the mysterious Ms Stevens. It’s even possible it was true for “Final Curtain.” But Wood hardly needed an excuse to dress as a woman. And what is he wearing there? Why, I think that’s angora!

What’s Wrong With Ed Wood

I’m a fan of Ed Wood. I find the award of “Worst Director of All Time” to be offensive — not least because I’m sure the people who voted for that hadn’t seen his work. Jail Bait is a perfectly good crime drama. And Glen or Glenda is nothing short of genius.

But there are things that prevented him from ever finding the kind of success he deserved. Some — like his idiosyncrasies — are also what made him great. Others were not laudable.

Every Idea Is Golden

Wood never let a limited idea get in the way of finishing a project. I know seeing things through to the end is considered an admirable quality. I personally disagree. I think it means you spend a lot of time on projects that aren’t worth pursuing at the expense of projects that are.

This led to Wood publishing upwards of a hundred novels and countless shorter pieces. It also led to “Final Curtain.” The idea really isn’t very good: a man wanders around looking for something only to learn it was a coffin and by extension, his death.

That might all be fine if Wood had an interesting story to tell throughout the journey. But he doesn’t. It’s 20 minutes of padding leading up to a mediocre denouement.

Ponderous Narration

The other major problem with Ed Wood is his tendency to over-dramatize. His narration asks us to be far more vested than we could possibly be. In Plan 9, he describes a chilling idea: that humans could be on the verge of a device that would be far more destructive than even the nuclear bomb.

Yet this is not what his narration tells us we should be worried about. Apparently, the destruction of the universe is nothing compared to space aliens creating a couple of zombies.

Meanwhile, when talking about the important issue of gender dysphoria, Wood uses matter-of-fact narration.

In “Final Curtain” we are told over and over that all this is very important. And maybe if the ending paid-off more, it would work. But it doesn’t. Instead, we walk away with the thought that a silly man must have made this film.

Ed Wood’s Positives

There has been little written about “Final Curtain.” I believe this is because most people assume Wood was talentless and they see this film as just another example. But there are things to like here.

Setting a Mood

Wood does set a mood and maintains it longer than lesser men would even attempt. This is the flip-side of his commitment to projects that are unworthy. He is committed to what he does.

Love it or hate it, there is not a hint of the irony that has destroyed so much modern cinema. Wood’s wholesomeness is a welcome antidote to this — a sign of his bravery in contrast to much modern cowardice.

A Film From Nothing

Another remarkable thing about “Final Curtain” is that Wood manages to tell a story with virtually nothing. I don’t know the story of this film, but I wouldn’t doubt the entire thing was shot in one night when he had access to this theater.

There’s no coffin? No problem! There’s a big cabinet that could conceivably be a coffin. Nothing to look at during 90% of the film? No problem! Add some overwrought narration.

Summary

You have to hand it him. Ed Wood made movies when working with almost nothing. “Final Curtain” is a good example of this. Not that fans needed to be reminded.

Afterword

Ed Wood really is an important filmmaker and his work is worth checking out. Most of his films are available for free:

The other films can generally be found elsewhere on the web. Necromania, which is a hardcore film, can be found of porn sites.

First Look: Michael Kallio

Michael Kallio

One of the great joys of psychotronic film is the way that one gem leads to another. That was the case with my recent discovery of Michael Kallio.

At least once a year, I put on My Name Is Bruce (2008). It’s one of those films that always makes me smile when I’m feeling down. Mark Verheiden’s screenplay is so funny and knowing and Bruce Campbell is fearless playing his idiot alter-ego.

One of the many wonderful characters in it is the director of a low-budget horror film Campbell is starring in called “Cave Alien II.” In one of the featurettes on the DVD is a documentary about the making of “Cavealien 2.” The director, Mike Gg, is interviewed and he insists that it is pronounced “cav-ALL-eon.”

I decided that I had to find out who the actor, Michael Kallio, was. And I learned that he’s written, directed, and produced about 50 films — most of them short. And lucky for us, Kallio has put many of them on YouTube.

Short Films of Michael Kallio

His short films tend to be pretty funny. The first one I saw was Ash vs Evil Dead: Auntie Linda’s Bake Off:

It is not just a loving homage to the series, it fully captures its essence. As fun as Ash vs Evil Dead was, there wasn’t much to it that isn’t in Auntie Linda’s. And Kallio certainly understands the Raimi style.

The Texas Chainsaw Manicure

Another homage is The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. It’s very silly with at least three strong laughs. And it makes a good argument for proper tipping.

(According to Kallio, there is a short film by Bill Mosley — Bill Moseley? — with the same name. I found part of it online. It is about Leatherface as a topiary artist. It is certainly as silly as Kallio’s opus.)

Curse of the Monkey

Another good one is Curse of the Monkey. It is one of many that Kallio shot when he was much younger but only recently finished. But it’s clear what’s there now is what he always intended. It’s got a great silent comedy sensibility with lots of modern references. I love the break in the gorilla suit. And the fight scenes are both realistic and funny.

Michael Kallio Feature Films

Based on this, I looked for Kallio’s feature films. It turned out to be harder than it needed to be because of Amazon’s “profit over usability” search function. But I did succeed!

Hatred of a Minute

I found Kallio’s first feature film, Hatred of a Minute. There’s an irony with loving low-budget films: they usually cost a lot more to get on disc — when they can be had at all. So while I can usually get the latest superhero film for a buck, this one was $19.95. But I wasn’t disappointed.

Unlike the short films I saw, Hatred of a Minute is pretty serious. That isn’t to say that it isn’t filled with sly little jokes. But they come out much more on the second viewing.

The film tells the story of a man’s descent into serial murder along with lots of flashbacks to his childhood. After seeing his step-father physically abuse his mother, he comes to see murdering women as an act of mercy. There’s also a minor B plot that is a police procedural.

But what really makes the film work is its structure. The frame of the story is Eric (played by Michael Kallio) and his drive with a bound woman in the back of his car. Within this, we see Eric as he is just a young man haunted by his past to a full-blown psychopath. As part of this, we have spectacular scenes that go on inside his head. These are thrilling by any measure. They use the full palette of tricks available to writer, director, photographer, and editor.

Despite the film being low-budget, the acting is first-rate. I assume they are mostly people who do industrial work because they don’t have a lot listed on IMDb. The principals are Tim Lovelace (Legion of the Night), Tracee Newberry, and co-writer Lisa Jesswein. Of particular note is Gunnar Hansen (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) as Eric’s abusive step-father.

Koreatown

When I first searched for Koreatown, I didn’t find it. It was only when I was searching for “Michael Kallio” that I found it. It isn’t helped that Amazon has no image for it. But it is at least largely due to my own scattered nature.

It tells the story of a former cop who has just been released from prison after 15 years. He was not innocent but nonetheless set up by a pimp who also killed his girlfriend and kidnapped his daughter. The cop spends the film looking for his daughter — along with vengeance against the pimp.

This sounds simple enough and it does have a Frank Miller graphic novel feel to it. But it is also very much a Kallio story. The lead character is not very effective. He bumbles his way through the first two acts getting people killed and getting himself beaten up and humiliated a number of times. He only survives because the pimp wants to finish him off himself.

Koreatown is highly episodic. This may be intentional or the result of the film being created over many years. Regardless, it gives the film more of that comic book flavor. No one really cares about the beginning of the film as long as we make it to the badass finale. And we do!

It also features a couple of laugh-out-loud sequences. The most notable is when a young man tries to rob the main character. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Other Features

I’m eager to see more of Kallio’s work. Back in the early 2000s, he made two other features: Survive! and Memory Lapse. I haven’t found out anything about the latter other than IMDb’s description, “A drug dealer with too many morals tries to bail out of the ‘business’ but, is sucked back in when a black-out leads to the corpse of his dead girl friend, and he’s to blame.” That sounds like it could be somewhat like Koreatown.

Survive! seems to have been released on VHS — but I have been looking for it for over a year and have never found it for sale at any price. Kallio has, however, released a trailer for it. It seems that he wrote the story but that the dialog is improvised. It looks fun:

More recently, Kallio has been producing a lot of stuff for television. That makes a certain amount of sense given those last three features were shot on DV. (Hatred of a Minute was shot on 16mm film.)

More Michael Kallio

These days, he seems to be doing rather well in Hollywood — including making a number of oddities such as Untitled Radioactive Chicken Heads Documentary. He also seems to be doing stuff along the lines of Larry Blamire (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra) featuring Orton Z Creswell, a Criswell parody:

Although finished, I’m not sure the film has been released. And there’s much more including three episodes of Paranormal, Burbank, about two nerdy ghost hunters. And there are documentaries like Heart of Dorkness, which is part of the extras on My Name Is Bruce.

The truth is that Michael Kallio does a lot of stuff. And he hasn’t seen nearly the attention that he deserves.


Image of Michael Kallio based on his image on his twitter account under Fair Use.

The Story of Film: A Disappointment

The Story of Film: An OdysseyI came upon the documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey by Northern Irish film critic Mark Cousins. And the only way I could watch it was to sign up for some kind of Amazon Prime add-on (there seems to be an endless number of them). It bills itself as a kind of history of film. And since it has been a while since I studied the history of film in any systematic way, I thought it would be worth watching. I was wrong.

The series tries to be more inclusive of non-US filmmakers than other histories. I didn’t find that it did a very good job of this. It is still overwhelmingly focused on American filmmakers. And when it comes to world filmmaking, it still focuses on the usual suspects.

Each of the first 10 episodes covers roughly a decade of time. In general, this is a good approach. Working from the beginning of film allows you to see how it builds. But this series does little of this. When talking about techniques like cross-cutting, it spends almost no time. It is almost as if Cousins assumes that the viewer already knows this stuff.

But most of all, the whole thing comes off as the kind of history that would be watched by college-educated people who want to hold the “right” opinions.

Making DW Griffith Wispy

The whole thing reeks of the modern cinephile consensus. After providing a wholly unsatisfactory overview of early silent film, it does provide an introduction to some often neglected pioneers like Alice Guy-Blaché and Frances Marion. Then it rightly notes that DW Griffith is “over-remembered” but still important. He didn’t invent the close-up. [Sigh.] I’m not sure when people said that he did. When I took film history 30 years ago I learned that he did not invent the close-up.

But what should we remember Griffith for? According to the Story of Film, he added: “the wind in the trees” to film. I’m not even sure what this means other than that he shot outdoors a lot. Regardless, he didn’t invent this any more than he invented the close-up. Griffith is remembered for mastering the full range of film syntax at that time. But I guess it isn’t as interesting to take a nuts-and-bolts approach to his work. “The wind in the trees” sounds ever so much more appealing to upper-middle class viewers!

Bend Over Alfred, We’ve Got Some Smooching for Ya!

One of the most annoying thing in the series is its presentation of Alfred Hitchcock. People often get the impression that I don’t like Hitchcock’s work. That’s not true. I feel like I have to protect his work from intellectual pretenders who want to imbue it with pretenses that just aren’t in the work.

In this 15-minute sequence, we are told, “Hitchcock became the greatest image maker of the 20th century.” Even greater than Picasso! This is comically wrong. What does it even mean to be the “greatest image maker”? To create the most stunning images? That sure ain’t Hitchcock.

But to prove its point, the series says there are 7 reasons why this is true:

  1. Point of view
  2. Where he was born (film shouldn’t be about real life)
  3. His understanding of fear
  4. Close-ups
  5. Inverted establishing shots
  6. Under-use of music
  7. Odd camera angles.

All of this is pretty bland. This is clearly an argument in search of a predetermined conclusion. One could make much stronger cases for literally dozens of other 20th century filmmakers.

I could go point-by-point, but why? I do, however, want to note how idiotic the example is for the fifth reason. It is from the beginning of The 39 Steps. It starts with a close-up pan of a lighted sign that reads: “Music Hall.” And the series narrator says, “We don’t know where we are.”

[Facepalm.]

Then we see images of a man buying tickets, going to his seat, sitting down. And finally, we get the wide-shot of the inside of the music hall. Never would have guessed that! This is a perfectly acceptable way to start the movie and establish the location and the main character. But it isn’t especially innovative. And it has nothing to do with Hitchcock being “the greatest image maker of the 20th century.”

The Lack of Exploitation Film

Above all, The Story of Film focuses almost entirely on art filmmakers. Given the way the series tries to be socially conscious, I would have thought that Samuel Fuller would come up. But no. Similarly, there’s no George Romero. Or Tobe Hooper. Or John Carpenter or Wes Craven.

David Cronenberg is mentioned, but only his most obviously “art” work: Videodrome and Crash. Note that these films are really not related. Videodrome is classic body horror. Crash is a psychological drama. But I will allow that they are about the best of Cronenberg.

My point here is that The Story of Film is really just the story of a certain kind of film. And that film is the kind of appeals to boring college-educated types who get their opinions from articles in The New Yorker. The rest of us are better off putting on The Amazing Colossal Man and making that whole thing go away.

Psychotronic Film’s Move to Television

Old TelevisionI doubtless got my start with psychotronic film through television, not films. When I went to the theater as a kid, it seems like I was always seeing some George Roy Hill film. (That’s no slight of him. I love him. He was one of those great directors who didn’t seem pretentious — like Edward Dmytryk and Michael Curtiz before him.)

But my first real experience with psychotronic film was a theatrical release, I just watched it on television: The Last Man on Earth. Too many people think it is a bad film, which I don’t get. There have been four screen versions of Richard Matheson’s masterpiece I Am Legend — the other three being The Omega Man (fun), I Am Omega (pretty fun), and I Am Legend (pseudo-serious dreck). Not surprisingly, I am Omega got mostly bad reviews and I Am Legend got mostly good reviews — yet more evidence of the fact that film “critics” are idiots.

The Last Man on Earth gave me nightmares for years! I find it rather sweet now. But man did it freak me out at the time. And it seemed to play at least once a month on Bob Wilkins’ Creature Features.

Kolchak Poisoned Me!

But what really got me going was Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Maybe it’s because it was such a silly show and that’s something I like about a great deal of psychotronic film: it doesn’t take itself very seriously. Also, of course, Carl Kolchak is the character I’ve based my entire life on. Not that I run into monsters every week. Of course, there was that one time…

As I wrote of Kolchak: “his pluses just barely offset his minuses.” And I think most of my employers would agree with that. They hate me, but they need me. It is something of a rush to be someone’s mixed blessing. Just like Carl Kolchak.

Psychotronic Television

As I put up the page for Kolchak: The Night Stalker, it occurred to me that I was once again adding a page for a television show. Out of 22 pages, 4 of them are for television series. And actually, that makes a lot of sense. Because by the time of my generation, the B-film had gone away. I went to plenty of double features when I was young — but always at specialty theaters. First run films showed trailers and then the feature.

(Note: this always bothered me. It bothered me even more on VHS tapes, “And now our feature presentation.” No! Now your only presentation! I don’t consider ads for coming films a presentation. But a Looney Tunes cartoon and a short B-picture, sure. Then you get to say, “And now our feature presentation.” Otherwise, don’t try to con me.)

As a result, psychotronic film really went to television. That was even truer once cable came around and all these stations needed content. You all know Mystery Science Theater 3000. It would never have been a national thing had it not been that Comedy Central had just started and the idea of two hours of cheap programming was just too good to pass up on.

Thunderbirds, Lost in Space and Star Trek

The Twilight Zone was psychotronic, although I could argue against that. But even if you question that, think about Thunderbirds, Lost in Space or the original Star Trek.

They are totally psychotronic! You doubt me? You think Star Trek was serious in any way? Watch:

Roger Corman’s Career

And then, of course, there is Roger Corman. But he’s just a symbol. There were others. He started in the movies but he moved increasingly to television. So none of this is too surprising.

Finally, there was the video revolution. In the early days of VCRs, a filmmaker could get just about anything distributed if they got a decent box design. And that didn’t stop those films from showing up on local television either.

The Best of It All

Now film (?!) producers have the best of all worlds. They can shoot feature films, get them distributed if they are lucky, otherwise release them on DVD, and license them to cable. A good example of that is District 13.

Many people make money just making videos for YouTube. I’m sure that if JR Bookwalter were 20-years-old now, that’s probably what he would be doing: shoot a $2,000 feature, get millions of YouTube views and make enough money off ads for a couple more films.

Of course, for people like me, it’s overwhelming. So many films are being made — especially horror films — that it’s like running around the world trying to see every high school play that gets produced. Luckily, there aren’t too many JR Bookwalters around, just as there aren’t too many good high school plays. Unluckily, there are still too many worthy productions for me to ever get around to — especially given my philosophy that if it’s worth writing about, it’s worth writing about in depth.

I’d still rather go out to a rundown theater and watch a nice print of The Last Man on Earth. But that ain’t the world anymore.