Saturday, February 24, 2007

THE MANSON MASSACRE

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1972/Directed by Kentucky Jones

The rarest of the exploitation films produced to cash in on the Manson killings, The Manson Massacre has long been considered a lost film, with endless searches through dusty old film vaults always failing to locate a print. The sense of mystery and intrigue surrounding the film was such that even the director's name caused debate - it is thought that Kentucky Jones was a pseudonym thought up by the director, who feared that his life might be in danger from Manson loyalists (although another rumour suggests that the film was actually funded by peripheral Manson Family members, and the director changed his name to avoid potential backlash from police or outraged relatives of the victims).

Amazingly, just when it looked like The Manson Massacre may have been lost forever, a print turned up in 2001 in the most unlikely location - on a German DVD released on the low-budget Astro label. Unfortunately, the print has been dubbed into German language and does not contain any English subtitles, but the quality of the transfer is fantastic, and even includes the original German theatrical trailer.

Despite the lack of subtitles, the film is easy to follow for anyone at all familiar to the Manson story, and is a quintessential piece of early-70s scuzz, dripping with sleaze and jam-packed with topless hippie chicks and psychedelia drenched violence. The film does seem to take great liberties with the facts behind the case, but does contain an interesting structure, with frequent black & white flashbacks filling us in on the background of Manson's girls, along with their first meeting with the Messiah (one of the girls falls for Charlie when he helps her steal a vibrator which her horrified father refuses to buy for her!). Other flashbacks depict Manson killing the husband of a woman he has been sleeping with (played by the lovely Uschi Digart - surely someone worth killing for) and being gang raped in the showers by a group of fellow inmates during his subsequent prison sentence.

Until an English language (or at least subtitled) print of this gem comes along, this German cut of The Manson Massacre is required viewing for all those with a fascination for cinema's exploitation of one of America's most notorious and enduring murder cases.

Copyright John Harrison 2007

BLESS THE BEASTS & CHILDREN

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Directed by Stanley Kramer

Based on Glendon Swarthout's novel of the same name, Stanley Kramer's 1971 production of Bless the Beasts & Children remains one of my favorite films from that decade, despite the fact that it has been much maligned by critics and virtually ignored by audiences. It had a huge - almost profound - effect on me when I first saw it on late night television as a teenager, and my appreciation for the film (and book) has only increased over the ensuing years.

Swarthout's novel, published in 1970, concerns a group of teenaged boys who are spending their summer at the Box Canyon Boys Camp in Arizona. When the no-good-at-anything 'Bedwetters' (as the camp director dubs the cabin with the least sporting and competitive abilities) decide to prove their true worth by breaking out of camp one night and setting off on a dangerous trek to set free a herd of buffalo that are scheduled to culled by hunters for sport. In their ensuing journey to the killing fields, the six boys learn more about life and friendship than any parent or camp counselor could ever hope to teach. Unfortunately, at the story's tragic conclusion, they are also forced to learn about death and loss, and facing responsibility for their actions.

Kramer's adaptation of Bless the Beasts & Children sticks pretty close to its source, not surprising since the novel is written in a very visual and free-flowing style. The film starts with the six boys embarking on their mission in the dead of night, then utilizes flashbacks to illustrate their previous days at the camp, as well as select moments from their home lives. These flashback sequences, filmed in a clever and at times surrealistic style, reveal how it is the home situation which has fostered the boys' feelings on insecurity and inadequacy.

Cotton (Barry Robbins) has a military father and lives with his divorced mother, a forty-something social animal who is terrified of aging. In many ways, she resents her son because he represents a symbol of her advancing age. As Swarthout writes in his novel: 'To remain a girl, she had to keep her son a boy.'

Teft (Bill Mumy) is the tallest and most cunning and street smart of the group. Since his father is too busy playing the stock market to spend time with his son, Teft has taken to hot-wiring cars in order to gain attention.

Schecker (Miles Chapin) is the overweight son of a famous Jewish comedian, who finds it tough dealing with the pressure of having to live up to his father's success. At fourteen, Goodenow (Darel Glaser) still wets the bed and longs for the company of his real father (who in the book is deceased, although the film makes no mention of this). The Lally brothers (Bob Kramer and Marc Vahanian) are bickering siblings, the older Lally extremely spiteful of the attention which his younger brother receives.

Visually, Kramer's film is quite striking. Michael Hugo's cinematography makes great use of the beautiful Arizona landscapes (which appear often ethereal and other-worldly). The many flashback sequences are edited into the film a way that doesn't distract from the narrative or slow down its pace. The only negative aspect of the film's visual style is the use of excessive zooms and pull-backs (one of Kramer's greatest weaknesses).

Barry Devorzon's score sounds somewhat dated when listening to it on its own (it was released on vinyl on the A&M label but has never appeared on compact disc to my knowledge), but works perfectly within the context of the film. Cotton's Dream is a memorable piece of music, and was later used as the recognizable opening theme to the daytime soapie The Young and the Restless. The title song, sung by the Carpenters, was a minor hit single in 1971 for the vocal duo, and was nominated for an Academy Award.

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There are a number of memorable scenes in Bless the Beasts & Children: Cotton talking Goodenow out of drowning himself in the lake after being thrown out of his cabin, the Bedwetters smoking grass for the first time. Teft standing up to their oafish cabin counselor Wheaties, and the boys making a mess of their late-night raid on a rival cabin (the rival group all urinate into a large chamber pot and douse the Bedwetters with it).

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the film is a flashback sequence which shows the Bedwetters making a day trip to the buffalo grounds, assuming they are going to see the native American animal in its natural habitat, then being exposed to the sight of the helpless beasts being methodically slaughtered. It is this sickening scene that inspires Cotton and his motley crew of misfits to take off on their midnight mission to save the remainder of the buffalo.

All of the young actors in Bless the Beasts & Children are competent in their roles, and receive equal doses of attention from Kramer. They are appealing and genuine, without being cocky or aggravating. Bill Mumy, best known at the time for his role as Will Robinson on Lost in Space, was perhaps the most experienced of the young cast members, and co-wrote It's a Beautiful Day, one of the songs heard in the film. Bill at the time was fronting his own country group, Redwood (who in 2005 issued a retrospective CD of their music).

Barry Robbins is also a standout as Cotton, the troubled but determined teen who whips the Bedwetters into shape and leads them on their mission. Robbins seemed to posses the talent to be a real star when this film was released, but simply vanished from sight (he did pop up in an episode of Columbo and in the 1978 TV movie Actor). A 1972 issue of the teen magazine 16 reported that Robbins had inherited millions from a rich aunt, so maybe he just decided to retire and enjoy the good life. He unfortunately died in 1986 at the age of just 41.

Of the adult performers, the late Jesse White is perfectly cast as Sid Shecker, the obnoxious comedian. He's the type of low-rent Vegas lounge act that you loathe on television, yet laugh and applaud wildly when you see him in person simply because he is famous. As Cotton's mother, Elaine Devry is effective in her one brief scene, and Bruce Glover (Crispin's father, who also played the homosexual hitman in the 007 film Diamonds Are Forever) is as oddball as ever as a hick pool hustler who torments the boys at a grimy diner.

As both a film and novel, Bless the Beasts & Children is at its essence both a coming-of-age story and a road movie with a difference, and has the undefinable 'weird' quality that also permeated the original Lord of the Flies. In many ways, it can be viewed as a time capsule of the period in which it was born out of, the early-1970s. With the aid of its visuals, the film in particular succeeds in capturing the social atmosphere and attitudes of this much-maligned period of modern American history, while the themes that lay at its core remain just a relevant today - if not more so - than they did thirty years ago.

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Unfortunately, Bless the Beasts & Children has not yet made a legitimate appearance on DVD, while it's only video release was in the early-1980s, making it a somewhat scarce film to track down. One can only hope that a future DVD release will increase the film's appreciation. A truncated 15 minute version of the film, titled Love to Kill, was shown in American high schools in the early 1970s. Shocking Videos sell both versions of the film on one cassette or DVD-R, available from their website at:

http://www.revengeismydestiny.com/NewArrivals.html

Bill Mummy's website is at www.billmumy.com, and Mark Vahanian (who played Lally II) is now one of Hollywood's top personal trainers whose website is at www.bodycoach.com

Copyright John Harrison 2007

Friday, February 23, 2007

DEMON LOVER DIARY

One of the best fly on the wall film documentaries, Demon Lover Diary (1980) captures all the chaos, tensions and ineptitudes of a 1970s zero-budget horror movie shoot. When young cinematographer Jeff Kreines agreed to shoot Demon Lover in 1975, his girlfriend Joel DeMott decided to record the project on 8mm, not realising she would eventually end up with a cult documentary that is infinitely more interesting, entertaining and revealing than the film itself (which was eventually released in 1977 to universal panning).

Coming off at times like a true Blair Witch Project, it’s both scary and sad to see Demon Lover co-director Don Jackson – who has mortgaged his house to the hilt to finance the movie and is on the verge of being fired from his factory job – trying to convince everyone around him that he is making a masterpiece of horror, yet he seems to be the only one who doesn’t realise he is producing a complete celluloid turd (even co-director Jerry Younkins, who helped raise funs by ‘accidentally’ chopping of a finger and collecting $8,000 insurance, calls the film “junk” in front of a local reporter). It all climaxes with a surreal trip to Ted Nugent’s house (!) to borrow some guns for the film, and ends with Krienes and DeMott literally running in fear of their lives after the whole production collapses. Tying Demon Lover Diary inexorably to its era are the ugly fashions, haircuts and mutton chops, along with a background radio which warbles Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, Captain & Tennille and others.

Copyright John Harrison 2007

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GHOST RIDER

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson



Based on the Marvel Comics character created by writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, Ghost Rider is hardly your typical superhero fare. Debuting in August 1972 (in Marvel Spotlight No.5), the character came together from such diverse inspirations as Evel Knievel, Old West mythology, Las Vegas Elvis, a lingering 1960s fascination with the occult, and an updating of more traditional horror elements (this was a period where Marvel Comics were catering heavily to the horror crowd via such titles as Werewolf by Night and Tomb of Dracula).

The origin of the Ghost Rider character is the stuff of pure pop pulp: Johnny Blaze, a flamboyant Evel Knievel-like stunt bike rider, sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in order to save the life of his dying stepfather and riding mentor 'Crash' Simpson. When the pact backfires (Mephisto cures Crash's illness only to cause his death during a spectacular jump at Madison Square Garden) Blaze becomes host to the demon spirit Zarathos, and transforms into the mystical Ghost Rider, his body metamorphasising into a leather clad, fiery skeleton, haunting the backstreets and highways on his demonic chopper, meting out justice on the wicked with his terrifying 'Stare of Penance' (which enables the criminal to feel all the suffering and pain they have inflicted on their innocent victims throughout their life).

Thankfully, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (who previously helmed the disappointing Marvel adaptation Daredevil) has realised that the only way to bring Ghost Rider to the screen is to not take its subject seriously (ala Batman Begins) but rather to simply let loose and have a lot of fun with it.

And for the most part, it works.

Filmed in Melbourne, Australia (doubling for Arizona), Ghost Rider is an enjoyable and quite satisfying combination of horror, action and humour (maybe the best of it's type since Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness in 1992 – although it's nowhere near as creative as that film). More importantly, it also has a genuine sense of fun, one that seemed lacking in other recent comic books films such as Fantastic Four and Superman Returns.

As Johnny Blaze, Nicholas Cage (himself a huge Ghost Rider fan who rallied for the role after hearing Johnny Depp was interested) turns in one of his patented off-the-wall performances, almost channelling at times his Sailor persona from Wild at Heart and infusing him with strange little character quirks (such as drinking glasses of jelly beans rather than cocktails!). There aren't that many cast members around who overshadow him, although Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles is suitably creepy (and great to see him back in a biker film!), and Sam Elliott is his usual stoic self in his role of the cemetery caretaker who guides Blaze through his transformation. Eva Mendes as Blaze's childhood sweetheart is not called upon to do much more than wear a wonder bra and look perfectly tanned and manicured, while Wes Bentley as the villain Blackheart looked a bit too much like a member of a Goth boy band to be truly frightening.



Ghost Rider is one of those films that is more memorable as a series of set pieces rather than a strong narrative. Blaze's early stunt jumps, his transformation into Ghost Rider, riding up and down the outside of a skyscraper on his chopper, and torturing his victims with his Stare of Penance are all moments of simple, popcorn munching thrills. The cgi effects are decent for a medium budget production as this, and the soundtrack pumps with such suitable tracks as Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train and Spiderbait's cover of the classic Ghost Riders in the Sky.

For a movie that many thought would be a given failure (it had no press screenings and the release was put back by 8 months while they tried to improve the effects), Ghost Rider has turned out to be an unexpected success, at least in box-office terms. Of course, the movie is garnering some of the worst reviews imaginable, but its popularity with audiences has proven that a film such as this is pretty much critic proof. It's almost a throwback to the kind of movie that would have played across American drive-ins for months on end during the 1970s.

Certainly not a movie for everyone, those who come to Ghost Rider leaving their thinking caps at the door and ready to unleash their inner child for 100 minutes of super-cheesy thrills are likely to come away smiling.

Copyright John Harrison 2007

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

SEYTAN: THE TURKISH EXORCIST

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1974/Directed by Metin Erksan

When William Friedkin's big-budget, studio produced horror classic The Exorcist was first released in 1973 to not only critical acclaim and big box-office but also significant controversy, exploitation filmmakers were quick to jump onto the demonic possession bandwagon, with a glut of cheap knock-offs hitting the screens within months of its release, ranging in diversity from the Euro-trash horror of The Antichrist (1975) and Beyond the Door (1975) to later American obscurities like Al Adamson's Nurse Sherri (1977).

Another of these was Abby (1974), a highly entertaining blaxploitation film starring William Marshall and Carol Speed, which so closely resembled its source material that Warner Brothers (the studio who had produced The Exorcist) successfully had the film pulled from release, and to this day it has never been officially released, and is available only in bootleg form through various underground DVD dealers.

If Warner Brothers saw red over Abby, they would have no doubt suffered a near-coronary when (or indeed, if) they eyeballed Seytan, a mind-boggling Turkish production. Thanks to their lax (and/or blatant disregard for) foreign copyright laws, Turkish filmmakers are famed in their country for churning out their no-budget interpretations (i.e., rip-offs) of all the latest Hollywood hits, with the period between 1974 and 1987 being particularly prolific. During these years, Turkish audiences were treated to their country's own unique takes on Superman, Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., The Wizard of Oz and many more. Often, these films utilised the original soundtracks and even whole chunks of actual footage from their mainstream counterparts.

If you've yet to be seduced by the wild, wacky and totally off-the-wall world of Turkish fantasy cinema, then Seytan would make for a perfect introduction. Anyone who is at all familiar with The Exorcist doesnt have to understand the dialogue to follow what is going on, as this is a virtual scene-by-scene remake of the original, with all head-turning, pea soup-vomiting scenes intact. Even the sets and locations do their best to mirror the original (they even managed to find a long, steep outdoor staircase for the Father Karras character to tumble down at the film's climax). And naturally, Mike Oldfield's signature Tubular Bells is repeated frequently throughout the film.

Of course, where Friedkin's film was a polished, brilliantly paced and staged exercise in supernatural, brooding terror, Seytan is merely gross and hysterically inept, despite the fact that director Metin Erskan was a respected filmmaker in his homeland, with over twenty years of filmmaking under his belt before helming this. My favourite scene has the possessed Turkish Regan (Canan Perver in the Linda Blair role) flaying about wildly on her bed - it's blatantly obvious that the effect has been achieved by someone lying under the bed and pushing the mattress up with their hands (watch the way in which the poor girl grabs desperately to the bed post to avoid flying off onto the floor!). The dialogue has been changed throughout to reflect Islam rather that the original's Catholicism, although according to some sources the racy language is not repeated here.

Naturally, the VHS copy of Seytan which I sourced (from a Turkish Beta cassette, released on the Istanbul based Alpaslan Yapim label) is in Turkish language without any English subtitles, although none are particularly needed to follow the plot of the film (in fact, watching it this way helps to make it even more of a surreal viewing experience). Still, it would be nice to see some enterprising and visionary label officially pick up some of the best examples of Turkish genre cinema and release them in clean, subtitled prints on DVD.

Very entertaining and highly off-the-wall, and most recommended, particularly for those jaded viewers who are looking for a whole new world of cinematic oddities to discover and delight in.

Copyright John Harrison 2007