Short Takes

With my long discussions of films taking forever to research and write, I thought the site could use the equivalent of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film — one paragraph overviews of films. Eventually, I will put this in a database or at least subdivide it. For now, this will do.

The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Producers: Ronald S Dunas and Louis M Heyward
Director/Screenwriter: Robert Fuest
Screenwriters: William Goldstein and James Whiton

A brilliant scientist and organist Dr Phibes (Vincent Price) sets about killing everyone on the surgical team that “killed” his wife. The murders are wonderfully creative. Joseph Cotten plays the lead surgeon with his typical charisma. Virginia North plays Phibes silent helper. A funny revenge film. Opinion is divided, but I prefer the follow-up Dr Phibes Rises Again.

The film is copyrighted. It is commercially available in many forms included as a double feature with Rises Again. But I recommend getting Vincent Price: MGM Scream Legends Collection, which also includes: Tales of Terror, Twice Told Tales, Theater of Blood (one of my all time favorites), Madhouse, and Witchfinder General.

The Bat (1959)

Producer: CJ Tevlin
Director/Screenwriter: Crane Wilbur (based on the play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood — based upon Rinehart’s novel The Circular Staircase)

Agnes Moorehead rents a house that contains a bunch of money. Vincent Price wants it. But more important, so does The Bat — a serial killer considerably less silly than Batman. This is mostly just a play on film. It’s a bit spooky but that’s it. Still, it’s well made. The plot is a bit too complex. And the ending is random. But it’s a fun one. Our Gang cutie Darla Hood has a supporting role. The original novel was shot two times before: The Circular Staircase (1915) and The Bat (1926). Not to be mistaken for The Spiral Staircase (1946).

It is in the public domain.

Blood Feast (1963)

Producer: David F Friedman
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Screenwriter: Allison Louise Downe
Our Review: Blood Feast

Generally considered the first splatter film, it’s downright charming despite all the blood. There is virtually no onscreen violence. The gore is as good as anything today. Stand-out performances by William Kerwin as Detective Pete Thornton and Mal Arnold as Fuad Ramses. The combination of a campy production with realistic gore is irresistible. A must see!

Archive.org has a lovely copy available for free. This would seem to indicate it is in the public domain. However, according to my calculations, it should be copyrighted until 2019. Regardless, I recommend getting Something Weird’s Blood Trilogy Blu-Ray, which also includes 2000 Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red. Or you could get Arrow Video’s Blood Feast on Blu-Ray and DVD, which includes a nice print of Scum of the Earth!

Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Producers: Jack Broder (Realart Pictures Inc) and Edward Leven
Director/Screenwriter: Curt Siodmak

Raymond Burr kills his boss in order to steal his wife. Unfortunately, a local witch puts a curse on him that causes him to become… Well, you know. Barbara Payton had a scandalous love life. Warner Bros apparently punished her by making her star in this B picture. Her career never recovered; she made 5 more films and quit. From there she fell into drugs and even got arrested for prostitution. She died at 39. She does not look happy in the film. On the other hand, Lon Chaney Jr makes any film happier — he shines here. Siodmak was a major writer of the 20th century — especially in science fiction. He directed a handful of films — competently. This is an enjoyable, if bizarre, film.

It is in the public domain.

The Choppers (1961)

Producer/Screenwriter: Arch Hall Sr
Director: Leigh Jason

An Early Arch Hall Sr (Eegah) film about a gang of car choppers. It works surprisingly well. It even has nice reversals for modern readers. The smartest character is the secretary, Liz (Marianne Gaba). A fair amount of the humor works. And there is no “good” kid who manages to escape accountability.

The film is in the public domain. Archive.org has an acceptable print. It is also available on DVD, but I can’t speak for the quality. I would assume the worst.

Christmas Evil (1980)

Producer: Burt Kleiner and Pete Kameron
Director/Screenwriter: Lewis Jackson
Other titles: You Better Watch Out

Fascinating story of a man obsessed with Christmas who decides to become Santa Claus. And to settle a few scores. See: Santa steal toys for good girls and boys! Watch: Santa cut a man’s throat with a Christmas star! Experience: Santa’s dexterity as he uses a toy soldier to gouge out an annoying man’s eye! Regardless what you are thinking, you’re wrong. You must experience this film! This was Lewis Jackson’s last film. I’d love to see more! Brandon Maggart puts in an energetic and strangely believable performance. It is supposedly John Waters favorite Christmas film, but he evidences very little knowledge of it on the commentary he does with Jackson. However, he did understand the importance of fetish to it — something that Jackson seemed quite ignorant to.

Film is under copyright and you should buy it because Lewis Jackson should be rewarded. Get the Vinegar Syndrome version.

Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972)

Producer: Louis M Heyward
Director: Robert Fuest
Screenwriters: Robert Fuest and Robert Blees

Freed up from the constraint previously applied of having to make sense, this film focuses on what we all love: the revenge murders. And it doesn’t disappoint. Some may like the original better. It is a more finely crafted screenplay. But ultimately, all that plot seems to get in the way of the good stuff. Valli Kemp takes over as Phibe’s assistant. Robert Quarrydoes a good job as Price’s foil.

The film is copyrighted. It is best found on Vincent Price: MGM Scream Legends Collection.

The Girl, the Body, and the Pill (1967)

Producer: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Screenwriter: Allison Louise Downe

A film of earnest teenage sex and hypocritical adult sex. Allison Louise Downe’s script is much more complicated than a usual Herschell Gordon Lewis film.

This film is really hard to find. It’s the only major Herschell Gordon Lewis film that hasn’t been released on DVD. You can find it used on VHS. I’ve never seen it online. But it’s worth searching out!

Glen or Glenda (1953)

Producer: George Weiss
Director/Screenwriter: Edward D Wood, Jr
Other titles: I Changed My Sex

This is Ed Wood’s masterpiece. But admittedly, it isn’t for everyone. It’s docutainment — not that much different than Orson Welles’ F for Fake. It is highly didactic — a Wood trademark. It’s also wonderfully creative and surreal. When you consider how taboo transsexuality is today, the film is all the more impressive. Its anti-gay elements add to its poignancy by showing Wood’s own bigotry. But most people have a problem with is its highly unusual structure. Glen or Glenda asks that you sit back and go with the film. If you do, you’ll be surprised just how engaging — even heartwarming — it is. It’s also notable for sexual rarities that Wood would explore in many of his later novels: fetish, bondage, and nonconsensual sex. It features standard Wood players Bela Lugosi, Lyle Talbot, and Timothy Farrell. The title role is played by Wood himself under the name Daniel Davis.

It is in the public domain.

Horrors of Spider Island (1965)

Producers: Gaston Hakim & Wolf C Hartwig
Director/Screenwriter: Fritz Böttger (as Jaime Nolan)
Other titles: Ein Toter hing im Netz (1960); It’s Hot in Paradise (1962); Hot in Paradise; Girls of Spider Island; and Spider’s Web
Our Review: Horrors of Spider Island and the Sex-Horror Genre

Is it a monster movie? Or is it a girlie movie? Well, it’s both! This German cheapie was cut as a girl-fight movie in 1962 as It’s Hot in Paradise and then again as a monster movie in 1965 as Horrors of Spider Island. It’s the second film that is better known, probably because it was used for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a surprisingly enjoyable film. A dance troupe on its way to Singapore crash lands and only eight sexy women and their manager (Alexander D’Arcy) survives. But he turns into a monster soon and there is more than enough time for the women to get into fights in their pajamas. The film features Rainer Brandt and Barbara Valentin. Helga Franck would probably have gone on to a good career but fell from a window to her death at the age of 30.

The film is not copyrighted and a decent copy is available at Archive.org. Something Weird has released it on DVD. It comes with no features to speak of (at least ones related to the film). But the print is beautifully restored and presented in its original 1.85 : 1 aspect ratio.

All of the credit information is based on hearsay. The posters provide no details and the prints only list Jaime Nolan as the director.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

Producer: Sandy King
Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: Michael De Luca

The apocalypse is coming and HP Lovecraft sent it. The story follows John Trent (Sam Neill) who goes searching for a missing horror novelist only to become convinced that he is a character in one of the novels. This film is captivating from beginning to end. Julie Carmen (Gloria) is excellent as the editor who helps Trent in his search. This is probably Carpenter’s best film. It rewards multiple viewings.

The film is under copyright and well protected. Commercial copies look fine. The best release is the Shout! Factory Blu-ray.

Ishtar (1987)

Producer: Warren Beatty
Director/Screenwriter: Elaine May
Our Review: Ishtar Is a Funny Movie — Why Haven’t You Watched it?

Ishtar tells the story of two loser song-writers who band together to become the successes of their dreams. Eventually, their agent offers them a gig in Ishtar. Being broke, they jump at the idea. In Ishtar, they become pawns of both the CIA and the local revolutionaries. Much follows that really doesn’t matter. It is sublimely silly. It’s strange watching it now how enjoyable it is given that at the time of its release, it was taken as given that Ishtar was a bad a film. Ultimately what sunk it was that the budget was $50 million — an unheard pricetag for a comedy. And film critics know about as much about art and entertainment as they do brain surgery. Paul Williams created a half dozen parody songs the film. May’s screenplay is efficient and funny. The acting is exceptional. It’s sad that so many people didn’t get to see it because film critics don’t think comedies should be expensive. First thing we do: kill all critics.

The film is available as a Blu-ray — but with no extras. Generally, DVD copies are more expensive. The documentary Waiting for Ishtar is worth checking out. Ishtar is a genuinely great film and a wonderful subject with which to torture the millions of people who hate it despite never having bothered to watch it.

Jail Bait (1954)

Producer/Director: Edward D Wood, Jr
Screenwriters: Alex Gordon and Edward D Wood, Jr
Other titles: Hidden Face

Son of a famous surgeon rebels by leading a life of crime. He gets in big trouble. He dies, but otherwise, it all works out. It stars familiar Ed Wood people like Dolores Fuller, Lyle Talbot, and Timothy Farrell as the heavy. This was silent film star Herbert Rawlinson’s last film and future cinematic Hercules Steve Reeves’ first feature film. Word is, Wood shot 17 takes of Reeves trying to shave. I don’t know if that is true, but years later, Reeves said that Wood was a very kind director. This is the film to show anyone claiming Wood was a bad director. It’s a competent and enjoyable B feature.

It is in the public domain.

The Killer (1989)

Producer: Tsui Hark
Director/Screenwriter: John Woo
Other titles: 喋血双雄

This is probably John Woo’s greatest film. An assassin accidentally blinds a beautiful nightclub singer. He falls in love with her and takes a job to get the money to pay for her needed surgery. There is also a cop who is on the trail of the assassin. This results in a hilarious scene where the two men are fighting at her apartment while trying to avoid her knowing — a scene that is lovingly ripped off at the beginning of Kill Bill: Volume 1. Otherwise, it’s a great example of Woo’s skill as an action director. Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee are in fine form. Sally Yeh is featured in pretty much her last film role.

There are two notable releases of the film. The first is by Criterion Collection. It has the advantage of being based on the original Chinese print. It also has a commentary track by John Woo. But his English is so bad that there is little content to it. Woo repeats himself endlessly, but it does have a few interesting bits. It’s primary problem is that it is out of print and normally sells for upwards of twice its original price of $39.95. A more recent release by Dragon Dynasty is a better choice. You can get it for less than $10 for a Blu-ray and DVD combo. It doesn’t have a commentary track, but it does have good deleted scenes. The copy is based on the American release, however — and is not of the highest quality. It includes an optional English-dubbed audio track.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Producer: Robert L Lippert
Director: Sidney Salkow
Screenwriters: Richard Matheson and William F Leicester
Other titles: L’ultimo Uomo Della Terra
Our Review: The Last Man on Earth

This is the first and best screen version of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. The world has turned into vampires and Vincent Price is the only one left alive. So he spends his life trying to wipe them out. This film was highly influential on Night of the Living Dead. It gave me nightmares for years when I was a kid. The film is in the public domain and Archive.org has an excellent copy of it. Beware: most DVD copies are dreadful. I recommend House on Haunted Hill w/ Bonus Last Man on Earth Disc IN COLOR. The color on Last isn’t very good, but the original is the best copy I’ve ever seen.

Madhouse (1974)

Producers: Milton Subotsky & Max Rosenberg (Amicus Productions)
Director: Jim Clark
Screenwriters: Greg Morrison and en Levison (based on th novel Devilday by Angus Hall)

Vincent Price plays an actor famous for this “Dr Death” movies. After the release the fifth film, he announced his wedding engagement. But later that night, a man dressed as Dr Death decapitates his fiance, sending poor Price to the loony bin. Years later, released, Priced is hired to reprise the role of Dr Death for a BBC television series. And Dr Death starts killing people again. The plot isn’t hard to guess. And the denouement makes roughly as much sense as that time I killed my wife because she sang out of key in the shower. Still, it’s a lot of fun. Horror heavyweights Peter Cushing (the Christopher Lee of Frankenstein and, yes, Star Wars) and Robert Quarry (Dr Phibes Rises Again). Ellis Dale and Catherine Willmer do a wonderful job playing the kind of caring parents we all wish we had. This film makes a great double feature with Theatre of Blood.

Madhouse is available as a single DVD with a commentary track by Film Historian David Del Valle. (Also available in multi-format and Blu-ray.) You can also get it paired with Theatre of Blood.

The Neanderthal Man (1953)

Producers/Screenwriters: Aubrey Wisberg & Jack Pollexfen
Director: Ewald André Dupont

Fairly standard but well-made 1950s B mad scientist film. Directed by German expressionist director. Well lit with well frame shots. Good acting. Some rather unfortunate special make-up effects — although they do give the film a certain charm.

This film should be in the public domain. But somehow Paramount managed to renew its copyright. So you will have to buy it — generally on a collection.

Poltergeist (1982)

Producers: Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall
Director: Tobe Hooper
Screenwriters: Steven Spielberg and Michael Grais & Mark Victor

A little girl communicates with dead people via a television. Eventually, she is kidnapped to the other side. Luckily, Zelda Rubinstein comes to the rescue. A very good horror fill with lots of clever social critique. It’s not one of my favorite Tobe Hooper films but it is good. Did Steven Spielberg direct this? It’s too filled with Hooper’s obsessions and sensibilities. Like Spielberg would ever put in daddy reading Reagan: The Man the President. But you don’t have to get Hooper’s little jabs at society to enjoy this well-made little horror film. Starring JoBeth Williams and man who the government never helped out when he was on food stamps and welfare, Craig T Nelson. Also starring the psychotronic hero James Karen.

It is copyrighted. I have it on an old DVD and it’s okay. The video quality could be better. I would assume the 2008 Blu-ray is better.

Poltergeist (2015)

Producers: Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Roy Lee
Director: Gil Kenan
Screenwriters: David Lindsay-Abaire

Don’t listen to the haters; this is a good film. The problem is that it isn’t nearly as good as the original and isn’t as good as most of the films listed here. But I wouldn’t avoid it. Just the same, don’t seek it out. All the interesting subtext of the original is gone. And a week after watching it, you will probably remember the original better. Starring Sam Rockwell and Jared Harris.

It is copyrighted. The DVD looks great. There is also a Blu-ray but really, why?

Scum of the Earth! (1963)

Producer: David F Friedman
Director/Screenwriter: Herschell Gordon Lewis

This is the film shot just days after Blood Feast. It’s an underappreciated gem. The story revolves around a pornography ring and traps young women and even a photographer into doing work they wouldn’t normally. As Samuel L Jackson would say, they are the weak. Much of the film is hard to watch with off-camera rape and murder. But it builds to a heartwarming ending where even the weak find redemption. Generally considered the first Roughie.

Mal Arnold, who played a 60 year-old just the week before, plays a teenager here. William Kerwin is his usual fabulous self as Harmon the blackmailed photographer, and Lewis’ wife, Allison Louise Downe, plays the principal female (she’s not as good an actor as she is a writer).

If Blood Feast is in the public domain, then certainly Scum of the Earth! is. Regardless, no one has uploaded it to Archive.org. You can usually find it on YouTube or DailyMotion. The only version of this film by itself is a DVD-R — not recommended. It is usually paired with other films: Blood Feast, The Defilers, and Night Tide.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Producer: Melvin Van Peebles & Jerry Gross
Director/Screenwriter: Melvin Van Peebles

“Rated X by an all-white jury.” Also, well, there are still parts of this film that might make you uncomfortable. But this is an incredible film. It’s a simple “man on the run” story. But it is filled with so much grit and directorial brilliance that it is hard not to love. If you’re white, check your privilege and don’t pretend you know anything after watching it. It’s a fun film that tips many of the tropes of this genre on their heads. Watch Melvin Van Peebles eat a live lizard!

Film is under copyright and well protected. Generally, the commercial releases are of mediocre quality. Thankfully, the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray is available. It’s wonderful. There is also a combo package with Blu-ray and DVD. The two are usually the same price, so why not? Don’t mistakenly purchase the DVD-only version; it isn’t from Vinegar Syndrome. As I write this, both the Blu-ray and combo packages are less expensive. Don’t get tricked into buying a lesser copy for more!

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Producers: Gustave Berne & Sam Jaffe and John Kohn & Stanley Mann
Director: Douglas Hickox
Screenwriters: Anthony Greville-Bell (based on idea by Mann and Kohn)
Other titles: Theater of Blood

Revenge doesn’t get any better. Vincent Price plays a “vigorous” Shakespearean actor who kills all his critics using scenes from the plays. Price delights in the many parts he gets to play. Diana Rigg plays his devoted daughter. The cast is filled out with many of the shining lights of British character actors. Of particular note is Coral Browne who gets a wonderfully grisly death. Robert Morley wins the prize for the most disgusting death. I don’t see how this film can be better. I watch it at least once a month to cheer myself up. (No living writer doesn’t occasionally need to watch a bunch of critics murdered!)

Theatre of Blood is copyrighted. The commercial copies have always been of good quality. Recently, Arrow Video put out a 1080p Blu-ray that features a commentary by the cast of The League of Gentlemen. Truthfully, this film deserves a proper academic commentary with all the literary allusions and details about the actors. But this is the best treatment the film has yet received. There is a very cheap DVD, although I haven’t checked it. The ultimate way to get it, I still think, is the MGM Midnight Movies double feature of Theatre of Blood & Madhouse.

This Island Earth (1955)

Producer: William Alland
Director: Joseph Newman
Screenwriters: Franklin Coen and Edward G O’Callaghan (based on the novel by Raymond F Jones)

One of the most thoughtful science fiction films of the 1950s, This Island Earth provides an intelligent script, good acting, and state-of-the-art special effects. Not really psychotronic at the time, it definitely is now.

It is in the public domain with a good copy at Archive.org. For fans, there is a DVD.

Turbo Kid (2015)

Producers: Anne-Marie Gélinas & Ant Timpson & Benoit Beaulieu & Tim Riley
Directors/Screenwriters: Anouk Whissell & François Simard & Yoann-Karl Whissell
Our Review: Turbo Kid: Gory Post-Apocalyptic Nostalgia

“Mad Max on a BMX!” A post-apocalyptic action-comedy centering around a teen (Munro Chambers) who scavenges for water, food, and cool gadgets from the 1980s before life went to hell. He is joined by Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) and Frederic (Aaron Jeffery), an arm-wrestling cowboy Kiwi. They join forces to defeat Michael Ironside, who is particularly badass in this film. It’s a lot like eating a whole quart of Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche — yes, it isn’t exactly edifying but it’s so good! If you must hide away while watching it, we understand.

Turbo Kid seem always to be available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, so check there. There is a 3-disc Blu-ray Collector’s Edition for those who really like it. It is available on DVD. Be careful about region. Currently, the NTSC version is very expensive.

The Werewolf of Washington (1973)

Producer: Nina Schulman
Director/Screenwriter: Milton Moses Ginsberg

Dean Stockwell is the US president’s assistant press secretary. He is bitten by a werewolf while still working in Hungary. While at the White House, people start dying and no one will believe that it is him. This film is a hilarious takedown of the Nixon White House. But even without knowing that, the film is quite funny. It’s never particularly scary, however. It features notable actors like Thayer David (Dark Shadows), Clifton James (Live and Let Die), Biff McGuire (Serpico), and especially Michael Dunn (The Wild Wild West).

This film is in the public domain. Unfortunately, these copies are terrible. What’s more, many commercial DVDs of the film are nothing more than public domain copies. Beware! (I’ll try to locate a copy I feel is worth recommending.) Check YouTube. As I write this, there is an acceptable copy there. I have yet to see a copy that wasn’t cropped to 4:3.

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