Saturday, December 26, 2009

DEATH & THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD

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The porn industry is one which has thrown up more than its fair share of casualties. Murder (Artie Mitchell and the Wonderland Murders involving John Holmes) and scandal (such as the underaged career of super-starlet Traci Lords) sit side by side with the burn-outs, rampant drug use, falsified AIDS tests and reported involvement of organised crime which help shatter the fragile illusion that porn is somehow a legitimate offshoot of the mainstream film industry. But in the meat grinder world of American Adult Entertainment, where pretty and often naïve and vulnerable young women are both its greatest asset and its most disposable commodity, it is the self-inflicted death of a starlet which, to me, most vividly echoes all that is dark and disturbing about the industry.

The first suicide to rock the smut bizz in a big way was that of Colleen Applegate. A naturally pretty blonde and high school cheerleader with all-American looks, Applegate left her small hometown of Farmington, Minnesota in 1982, at the age of 18, and headed for California with her boyfriend, Mike Marcell (later, it would emerge that she left the small town after a suicide attempt some months earlier had been made public). Arriving in Los Angeles, Applegate and Marcell struggled for several months before an interview with World Modeling Agency owner Jim South led to Applegate posing for layouts in low-rent skin rags like Club, before quickly graduating to the prestigious publications such as Hustler and Penthouse.

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Applegate’s wholesome looks and naivety eventually attracted porn film producers, and after her boyfriend split to join the U.S. Army, veteran adult producer Bobby Hollander dreamed up the screen name Shauna Grant and put Colleen to work in such hardcore flicks as Summer Camp Girls, Private School, Sex Games, Paper Dolls, Suzie Superstar and Centerfold Celebrities. Her shamed family back home tried to put on a brave face as Applegate’s star rose, although her increasing cocaine consumption made her unreliable, which combined with her unenthusiastic onscreen performances (she hated having sex in front of an audience), saw her career dry up as quickly as it had ignited. She quit the adult industry less than a year after she had entered it (and with over 30 movies to her name) and moved to the desert resort town of Palm Springs with Jack Ehrlich, a 44 year-old cocaine dealer. The following year, Ehrlich was sentenced to five years imprisonment for cocaine possession, cutting off both Applegate’s livelihood and drug supply.

Applegate could have returned to Minnesota to make a new start – her parents had offered to pay for her travel and college expenses – but the thought of how she would be received back home was too much to bear, and she decided to take an easier way out. On March 21st, 1984, the depressed, high-as-a-kite Colleen Applegate shot herself in the head with Ehrlich’s .22 caliber rifle. She died in hospital two days later, after never having regained consciousness.

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The porn industry tastefully cashed in on Applegate’s suicide, rushing out a compilation video titled Shauna Grant: Every Man’s Fantasy (there was also a tribute magazine of the same name). Even mainstream Hollywood felt compelled to deal with Applegate’s story, producing the better than average 1987 TV movie Shattered Innocence, the same year Applegate was also found herself the subject of an excellent PBS documentary, The Death of a Porn Queen.

Applegate’s story wasn’t a whole lot different that Michelle Schei’s. Born in Oakland, California on March 2nd, 1964, Schei suffered regular beatings and emotional torment from her sadistic mother. She tried to escape by running away from home at 14, was working in a Guam massage parlour two years later, and by 18 was stripping at the famous Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, before beginning her adult film career in 1987. Schei acted under a variety of pseudonyms, including Carolyn Chambers and Heather Newman, but in most of the 130+ films in which she performed she was billed as Megan Leigh. Some of the titles on her resume include Sex Lives of the Rich & Famous, Hot Scalding, Goin’ Down Slow and Lips on Lips.

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Shei rarely looked like she was enjoying herself in front of the camera, and developed a healthy dependence on Quaaludes to help her cope. But she still couldn’t escape the clutches of Mrs. Schei. On June 16, 1990, after another flaming row with mommie dearest (who had chastised her for entering into a same sex relationship with another adult film performer), and a high level of Valium in her system, Schei finally set herself free by putting a .38 revolver into her mouth and pulling the trigger. Ironically, Schei had purchased a $500,000 house for her mother less than a month prior to her suicide, as a way to try and resolve the long-standing dysfunctional relationship.

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But the biggest porn star suicide still remains that of Shannon Wilsey. Born in 1971, Wilsey entered the screen smut scene in 1990 under the name Silver Kane. After appearing in a couple of one-day wonders like No Boys Allowed and Raquel’s Addiction, the platinum-capped starlet underwent cosmetic surgery, changed her name to the exotic and Southern sounding Savannah, and became the biggest adult film star of the early-nineties, grinding out features like Telemates, Hurts so Good and Blonde Forces. She also developed a penchant for dating rock stars, among them Billy Idol, Gregg Allman, Motley Crue singer Vince Neil and guitarist Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses. Despite her stardom, Wilsey never looked enthusiastic while having sex in her films (have you noticed a pattern developing here?), and often just laid back and let her on-screen partners do all the hard work.

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The last piece of work which Wilsey was involved in occurred after she crashed her Corvette on the night of July 11, 1994. High on heroin and sinus tablets, she freaked out over the broken nose she had suffered in the accident, petrified that it would scar her for life and diminish her work prospects. Rather than face that possibility, she ran home and shot herself in the head with her .40 calibre baretta. Showing great taste, High Society published a tribute to the late porn goddess, including photos of her brain matter sprayed all over her garage floor. Even the September 9, 1994 edition of the short-lived Aussie rag The World ran a five page cover story on the suicide. Their article featured a full-page photo of Wilsey with a superimposed, bloodies handgun resting on her naked breasts, with the headline ‘Dead Gorgeous’ emblazoned across the photograph.

I guess that’s just the kind of respect your death gets when you make your living by having sex on film.

Copyright John Harrison 2009

OTHER NOTABLE AMERICAN PORN STARLET SUICIDES:


Alex Jordan - Age 31
Alex entered the adult business in her mid-20s, an age when most actresses are getting out. She and her husband thought it would be a good way to finance a comfortable middle class future. She won the 1993 Adult AVN Awards for "Best New Starlet". Jordan's best friend was her parrot, and when it died, she went crazy. Speaking on the telephone to her husband, she accused him of not caring about her. His crime? Lack of sensitivity to her feelings about her bird's death. She wrote a note describing her depression over the loss of her bird, and on the 27th of June, Alex hung herself in her closet.

Trinity Loren - Age 34
Loren began her porn career on screen in late-1985, and quickly achieved renown as one of the first starlets of the straight-to-video era of adult films. She retired from pornographic films in the early-1990s, fearing the threat of the AIDS virus.

In 1998, Loren's boyfriend, pornographic director Joe Gallant claims that the pair were about to start doing some sex scenes together as a start of Loren's comeback into the adult industry. Trinity Loren died on October 25, 1998 due to an overdose of prescription painkillers.

Teri Diver - Age 29
Diver was one of the most prolific porn stars of the 1990s, appearing in over 200 movies. Diver was a migraine headache sufferer for years, which led to her death on January 2, 2001. She apparently took an overdose of her migraine medication, which caused her to go into cardiac arrest.

(Thanks to www.hellandjustice.com)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

REX SIKES INTERVIEW

My interview with Rex Sikes, who played Rodney in Rene Daalder's cult 1976 exploitation film Massacre at Central High, has been posted on the DVD Holocuast website at the following link:

My original review of the film has also been re-posted on the site at:

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

THIS BED WE MADE

The taste of cigarettes and red wine was stale in my mouth as I lay naked on my back, my eyes contemplating the old ceiling fan that whirred slowly overhead but my mind barely taking in its existence. Instead, I could think only of the soft hands that ran slowly and sensuously over my body, the sharp tips of their blood red nails leaving soft trails in my skin, and the sweet smell of perfume that hit my nostrils and seemed to seep into every part of my being like some insidious and instantly addictive narcotic.

The motel was seedy, but the rooms were dark, the price was right, and it was just enough off the beaten track to not attract too much attention. As our bodies began to intertwine and become lost in the heat they were generating, I guessed that it wouldn’t have been the first time that more than one of the Ten Commandments had been broken within the seamy walls of Unit 12, with the cracked plaster and peeling paper that looked like it hadn’t been changed – or even properly cleaned - since the 1970s.

I looked up and caught a glimpse of her face as it became momentarily illuminated by the glow of the blue and purple neon that buzzed off and on outside our window, advertising the motel and its vacancies as if it were a dirty set of cheap womens’ underclothes. I was in love with this woman, and I needed her to live as much as I needed the oxygen that filled my lungs, but I knew what we were doing was immoral and wicked, and as much as I tried not to give a damn, I was always fighting within myself to overcome the feelings of guilt and uncertainty that often flowed and ebbed within me, like a tsunami that washed up onto a shore before receding, leaving a trail of annihilation and broken lives in its wake.

She was the first dame I’d met in well over twenty years who made me go weak at the knees, and tremble inside like some pathetic little school kid who’d just been hit by his first case of puppy love. As much as I hated the mental seizures she brought about in me, the touch of her hand and the warmth of her lips were like no other, and when I was able to push aside my fear and anxieties, she was able to take me as close to heaven on earth as I’m ever likely to come.

Where things are likely to go from here, I don’t think either of us really knows. Perhaps we don’t want to know. As much as we may try to deny it – to both ourselves and each other - the excitement and danger of the unknown is one of those invisible ties which bind us so tightly together, and makes staying alive worth the effort.

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Copyright John Harrison 2009

Saturday, November 14, 2009

AND PARTY EVERY DAY

AND PARTY EVERY DAY:
THE INSIDE STORY OF CASABLANCA RECORDS
By Larry Harris (with Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs)
(Backbeat Books, USA, 2009)

In the 1970s, no independent record company embodied the fast paced, drug fuelled, hedonistic lifestyle of the decade as much as Casablanca Records. Founded in 1973 by the enigmatic Neil Bogart, Casablanca was America’s premier disco label, even though their biggest (and first) signing was the New York glam rock band Kiss. As a kid growing up a huge Kiss fan, I was always fascinated by the exotic look of the Casablanca label design…it appealed to me not only because I was a film buff who loved Bogie in Casablanca, but Casablanca’s was also the name of the sleazy Fitzroy Street disco which I used to frequent as an underaged patron (I can still picture the huge front door with it’s intimidating peep hole, and the bouncer taking seemingly forever to size me up and down before the door would finally open to usher me in).

In And Party Every Day (its title taken from a line in the famous Kiss track Rock & Roll all Nite), author Larry Harris (who worked at Casablanca from its inception, becoming Vice President in 1976 before leaving the label three years later) charts the beginnings, rise and ultimate fall of the Casablanca label, tying it in inexorably with the era (accentuated by the various side bars which encapsulate major events and pop culture moments of the time).

After struggling to survive through the first three Kiss albums (the band were building a huge live following but record sales were sluggish) and suffering a major flop in a compilation album of classic Johnny Carson Show moments, Casablanca finally hit pay dirt in 1975 with the release of Kiss’ double live landmark LP, Kiss Alive! Rather than concentrate on other similar hard rock acts (although they did sign LA glam rockers Angel), Casablanca eventually focused much of their effort on the burgeoning disco and dance craze, signing artists such as George Clinton and Parliament, Donna Summer, Cher and the Village People to their roster of talent. At the height of their success, the label branched out into filmmaking, although their only notable achievement was the 1978 disco flick Thank God it’s Friday.

As much as it is a history of the label, And Party Every Day is also a biography of Neil Bogart, who was undoubtedly the energy, the heart and soul behind Casablanca, and whose decadent lifestyle rivalled that of rock journalist Lester Bangs. Like Bangs, Bogart’s time on earth was short, after he died of cancer in 1982 at the age of thirty-nine. Larry Harris and his co-authors Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs (who co-authored the extensive reference work Kiss Alive Forever: The Complete Touring History) as an energetic svengali, talented and full of passion and seemingly limitless energy, but also a man whose grand vision would often stretch a company beyond its means, and whose escalating drug consumption would cloud his own judgement.

Refreshingly, And Party Every Day comes off as something a lot more than just another Kiss related book. Naturally, the authors realise that the Kiss connection will be a prime factor in sales and promotion, and to that end they certainly don’t skimp on information and stories regarding the band (in particular, their early years as Casablanca’s initial act, as well as the disastrous 1978 Kiss solo albums, which saw over two million unsold LPs being shipped off the flea markets for quick, cheap sale).

But make no mistake that Kiss are just a supporting player in this book, which is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the history and workings of record labels, during a time where office furniture was literally covered in a layer of cocaine dust, Studio 54 was the place where record deals were made, chart positions were bought with money and drugs, and work was just one big party...with an ultimate price to pay.

Review Copyright John Harrison 2009

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

TORSO

1973/Italy/Directed by Sergio Martino

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A prime example of vintage Italian giallo (a term derived from the series of mystery/crime pulp novels first published in Italy entitled Il Giallo Mondatori, taking their name from the yellow cover background), Torso is a brutal, at times shocking thriller about a psychotic killer doing away with young women from a local college campus. When four of the girls head for the supposed safety of a mountaintop country villa, the killer tags close behind and the terror continues.

Starring Suzy Kendall, Tina Aumont and Luc Merenda, Torso can be seen as something of a template for the wave of slasher films that became popular in the late-seventies and eighties, and features some gruesome murders, groovy fashions, great locations, cool music (by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis) and lots of beautiful European dames! It has also been released under the titles Bodies Bear Traces or Carnal Violence and just Carnal Violence. The print of the film I watched this morning was from the DVD released in the US by Blue Underground, which replaces all the trimmed scenes of violence and gives you the option of watching the film in Italian or English dubbed language (although unfortunately there are no English subtitles for the Italian language track).

C
opyright John Harrison 2009

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

KISS: SONIC BOOM

Get ready to party like it’s 1975 (and occasionally, 1985).

With Kiss seemingly happy to spend the last decade as little more than a travelling nostalgic circus, and it’s two founding members pushing ever closer to pension age (Gene Simmons has just hit 60, Paul Stanley is 57), I honestly never thought I’d live to see another full album of original material by these guys. After their last studio effort, 1998s ill-conceived and disjointed Psycho Circus, Simmons and Stanley have both bemoaned the fact that the music industry is dead, killed by illegal downloading and an audience mostly apathetic to new releases by ‘heritage’ acts.

Produced by Stanley and recorded in the old-fashioned analogue way, Sonic Boom is much better than any Kiss album produced at this stage of their career has the right to be. While it might not be the vintage sounding recording that the band were hyping it up to be, it does combine elements of their most successful epochs into one tight, cohesive little package. Opening with Modern Day Delilah (which bases itself around a heaving, swaggering riff that could almost pass itself off as an obscure 1970s stoner rock classic), Sonic Boom ploughs through its ten tracks in just over 40 minutes, ensuring a brief but savage aural attack that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Refreshingly ballad-free, Sonic Boom may rank as one of Kiss’ most consistent albums, with not a weak track in sight. Only When Lightning Strikes (sung by lead guitarist Tommy Thayer, wearing the Spaceman make-up made famous by Ace Frehley) comes close to being considered filler, although Thayer’s blistering fretwork throughout the album more than compensates (even if he does ape many of Frehley’s trademark licks and solos in order to achieve that classic Kiss sound). Even drummer Eric Singer is given a chance at the mic, with great results, on the rousing All for the Glory.

While Stanley the Starchild handles the more commercial material (the anthemic closer Say Yeah sounding like it could have come off one of the band’s mid-1980s recordings), it’s Simmons who is clearly the star here, with the Demon coming up with possibly his strongest contributions to a Kiss album to date, combining a thumping bass tone with his typically lascivious lyrics (“Baby, feel my tower of power”) on tracks like Russian Roulette, Hot and Cold and the album’s high point, Yes I Know (Nobody’s Perfect), a rocking boogie shuffle that could easily be an outtake from 1975s Dressed to Kill.

While it’s unlikely to win them an army of new fans, Sonic Boom should restore the faith in many die-hard followers who have stuck with the band throughout their 35+ year history, and is a powerful reminder that, beneath all the make-up, bombast and crappy merchandising, Kiss remains one hell of a good hard rock outfit. If this is to be their last offering, then it is a fitting and memorable swansong.

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Copyright John Harrison 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

THE DEVIL DANCED IN DENNIS ALLEN

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A name that seems to have been pushed back somewhat from the public psyche – thanks in no small part to the more headline-grabbing exploits of the violent Carlton Crew/Carl Williams drug war (as detailed in the series of popular Underbelly books and the top-rating television mini-series of the same name) – Dennis Allen was a man fully deserving of his fearsome reputation. While he only spent a few brief years at the top of Melbourne’s criminal hierarchy, it was enough time for Allen to spread fear through even the most hardened of souls who treaded the murky waters of Melbourne’s underworld, leaving behind a trail of dead bodies that helped give credence to his self-appointed (and fully-deserving) moniker of ‘Mr Death’.

Dennis Bruce Allen was born to crime patriarch Kathy Pettingill in Carlton on November 7, 1951, and grew up in a housing estate in Heidelberg (originally built for athletes competing in the 1956 Olympic Games and turned into public housing afterwards). By the time he was 20, Allen – a social misfit - had already amassed a decent rap sheet for fights, thefts and petty crimes, before serving his first significant jail time when he was put away for ten years after raping a young woman in a Sandringham flat in October 1973. He would only serve four of those years, but quickly found himself back inside for harbouring his 14 year-old brother Jamie, who was at the time an escapee from the Turana Youth Detention Centre in Parkville. While on day release to visit his grandparents in October 1981, Allen skipped custody and was later found in a Richmond pub in the company of a prostitute, so drunk that he was vomiting up blood.

It was after his release from incarceration on July 2, 1982, that Allen’s reputation grew, as he quickly established a booming heroin empire from behind the fortified walls of his Richmond base. At the time, Richmond was looked upon as one of Melbourne’s seedier and less-desirable suburbs, and Allen snatched up a number of residential properties in the area, always paying cash for the transactions. By the first half of 1984, Dennis Allen’s drug empire had already become so prosperous he had managed to plunk down $28,000 for 108 Stephenson Street (which Kathy Pettingill ran as a brothel while living next door, dealing heroin to customers through a hole in the wall), 102 Stephenson Street ($37,000), followed by Nos 35 and 37 Stephenson Street ($58,000 total). Not bad for a man who had been unemployed since his release from jail.

It was 37 Stephenson Street that Allen decided to call his home, employing a renovator (whose name has never been released) to live at the property while he installed exposed beams, skylights, additional rooms, and a 3.5 metre fish tank that took up an entire wall. While his dealing was known to the police and came under frequent surveillance, Allen had uncanny luck when it came to avoiding charges, thanks to investigations that often broke down or went nowhere, and the fact that Dennis was not only paying off corrupt cops but was working as a police informer. Coming from a family of criminals also helped him avoid prosecution, as he often called upon his brothers to help him commit his crimes and dispose of evidence.

The Cherry Tree Hotel, just around the corner from Stephenson Street, became Allen’s base away from home, and he was often seen drinking at the bar throughout the day, downing Southern Comfort and Coke’s and chain-smoking Viscounts. Flaunting his success, his heavily tattooed, streetfighter’s body would usually be adorned by up to $250,000 worth of gold necklaces, rings and bracelets, which provided a strange juxtaposition to the bib and brace overalls he would usually favour.

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On a winter’s afternoon in 1984, Dennis Allen’s propensity for sudden, swift violence made its presence known when the renovator and his wife (who also has never been named) were having a drink while listening to the Sandown horse races at 37 Stephenson Street. As the afternoon wore on and Allen became increasingly more drunk (and likely stoned – he consumed a prodigious amount of amphetamines), a young blonde-haired man named Wayne Stanhope arrived at the house and began to party with the occupants. According to statements given years later by the renovator and his wife, Allen and Stanhope acted like friends, popping down to the Cherry Tree for a quick drink between races and returning with bottles of Southern Comfort. At one point, the pair went into the kitchen and injected themselves with speed.

As evening came on, the small group continued to drink heavily as they listened to loud music. At one point, Stanhope climbed out of his chair to change the record when Allen suddenly pulled a gun from out of his pants and fired a fusillade of shots into the man’s shoulder, chest and head. As Stanhope slumped down onto the carpet, Dennis went to the bedroom door where his young nephew Jason Ryan was staying and retrieved another handgun, which he emptied point blank into Stanhope’s head. Although the man was clearly deceased, Allen demanded his girlfriend fetch him a kitchen knife, which he used to slit Stanhope’s throat, before ordering a clean-up. The terror stricken witnesses had no choice but to comply – they didn’t want to end up the same way – and before long, three of Allen’s brothers (including Jamie and Trevor Pettingill) arrived to help dispose of the corpse. While the burned out remains of the Ford Escort panel van which he had borrowed from his grandfather was discovered in shrubs in the Brisbane Ranges the following day, Stanhope’s body has never been found, and it remains a mystery to this day where his remains ended up.

Exactly why Allen killed Stanhope has never been firmly established. He may have owed drug money that was unlikely to be paid back, or he may have been suspected of having a big mouth. But just as possible, Allen may have killed Stanhope on nothing but a spur of the moment impulse…maybe he didn’t like the way he looked at him, or disagreed with something he said. Maybe he just didn’t like Stanhope touching his state of the art stereo system. When you choose to live in this world, death can often come violently, suddenly, and without reason.

Helga Wagnegg, a 30 year-old prostitute whose best days were well behind her, was another name that ran head-on into the malevolent face of Dennis Allen and wound up stone cold as a result. Allen believed Wagnegg – a regular visitor to his den – to be the police informant that led to an earlier raid on the property, which yielded drugs, firearms and sticks of gelignite buried in the backyard. Allen’s retribution for this act of betrayal (either real or imagined) was to administer Wagnegg with a ‘hot shot’, a lethal injection of heroin well beyond the addict’s normal level of tolerance. Over a period of two hours on an evening in November 1984, as she sat slumped in his backyard, Allen injected Wagnegg no less than four times, including once in the neck. He then ordered Jason Ryan to fetch a bucket of water from the nearby Yarra River, submerging the unconscious girls’ head in it in an attempt to make it appear as if she had drowned when her body was later retrieved from the river.

But it was the killing of 33 year-old Anton Kenny on November 7, 1985 that became Dennis Allen’s most notorious, and well publicised, crime. Kenny, a former Hells Angel who was kicked out of the club when he gave a statement to police (an unforgivable betrayal in the bikie sub-culture) was shot five times with a .32 calibre pistol during an afternoon of drinking at Allen’s house (it was his 34th birthday). According to a witness, Kenny was murdered because he called Dennis Allen a ‘rat’. Treating it as though it was nothing more than a piece of meat that was in his way, Allen disposed of Kenny’s body by cutting off its legs with a chainsaw and stuffing it inside a 44-gallon drum, where it made local headlines when it was pulled out of the Yarra nearly four months later.

A classic sociopath, Dennis Allen did his own killing for a number of reasons. He enjoyed it, and the rush of power and adrenalin it brought him, and taking care of business himself eliminated the risk of having to look for hired hitmen. But above all, it enhanced his reputation as a man who was not to be crossed or trifled with. Most people who owed Dennis Allen money made sure they paid it back on time and in full.

By 1986, Dennis Allen’s empire – and his life – was already verging on self-destruction and burn-out. Years of massive drug and alcohol consumption finally caught up with his body, leading to a debilitating heart condition that slowly sapped him of his health and strength. With his grip on the heroin trade slipping, people started coming out of the woodwork to provide statements (mostly as a way to barter better deals for themselves) and police eventually put together enough evidence to charge Allen over Wayne Stanhope’s murder.

But as he had done on several occasions throughout his life, Dennis Allen would cheat the judge and avoid his day in court. Confined to a wheelchair, his once imposing frame enfeebled and shrunken by the loss of nearly 20 kilos, Allen died of heart failure in April of 1987. Ironically, his death was soon followed by the rise within the underworld of his clan of brothers, two of whom, Victor Pierce and Trevor Pettingill, were later tried for (and found not guilty of) the brutal 1988 slayings of two young policemen in Walsh Street, South Yarra (Allen’s nephew Jason Ryan also testified to be present when the Walsh Street killings were planned). After Victor Pierce was shot dead in 2002 (purportedly by Andrew Veniamin), his widow Wendy told a reporter for The Age that her husband was guilty of the police killings all along.

In the pantheon of colourful criminals who operated during those increasingly distant and gloomy days of Melbourne in the 1980s, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read may have come away with the glory, the talk shows, the books and the movie, but Dennis Allen took with him something that few people possess, and which still remains intact more than 20 years later: the power to invoke fear and anxiety from beyond the grave.

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Copyright John Harrison 2009
(Note: the above is a portion of a much longer planned piece which I am currently working on)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

ROSS KEMP ON GANGS

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Hosted by UK actor Ross Kemp – best known for his role as tough guy Grant Mitchell on the UK soapie Eastenders – Ross Kemp on Gangs is an investigative series which takes us into the inner sanctums of some of the worlds most notorious and dangerous street gangs. What could have easily been a glossy puff-piece series is given weight and made engrossing by the level of access which Kemp is given by some of the gang leaders and the fact that the host is prepared to take some obvious risks, putting himself in potentially dangerous locations and situations in his quest to get himself as close as he can to the pulse of these tribal organizations (whom, despite their different ideologies, are essentially fighting for the same thing - protection and ownership of their own backyard).

Some of the cities and countries which Kemp visits over the course of the 12 episodes in this series include El Salvador (where he investigates the notorious M 13 gang), St Louis (one of America’s most gangster rife cities, where the Bloods and the Crips fight an ongoing turf war), Poland (a vicious gang of neo-Nazi soccer thugs who make English football hooligans look like a Wiggles audience), Kenya, Bulgaria and Los Angeles (where the rising Latino gangs are rapidly outnumbering the blacks).

I’d never heard of this BAFTA award winning series until a review copy of it filed into my PO box last week…apparently it has been shown on Foxtel here in Australia at some point. If you are an anthropologist or just a casual true crime fan with an interest in the subject matter, it’s well worth picking up this three disc set when it is released in Australia on October 16.

John Harrison

Saturday, October 10, 2009

HORRORCORE MUSICIAN ARRESTED FOR MASSACRE

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The small town of Farmville, Virginia – with a population of just 7,000 - played host to a shocking multiple-murder back on September 18, when one of its pastors, his daughter, wife and a friend of the family were slaughtered in a manner which was not only brutal and senseless, but has once again thrown a spotlight on both extreme music and the impact and influence it has on its fans.

The young man accused of the crime, Richard Samuel McCroskey III, is a 20-year-old rapper who goes by the name of Syko Sam in the music genre known as "horrorcore", an extreme mutation of hip hop and death metal which features lurid lyrics based around fantasies of murder, maiming and other acts of violence. Some of the more notable bands in the horrorcore genre include Insane Clown Posse and Necro.

The victims of the McCroskey’s alleged crime were 50-year-old Mark Niederbrock, pastor at the Walker's Presbyterian Church, his 16-year-old daughter Emma, his estranged wife Debra Kelley, 53 and Emma's 18-year-old friend from West Virginia, Melanie Wells.

McCroskey had been invited to Farmville by Emma, who flew in from his home in northern California to meet up with the girl. They had planned to attend the Strictly for the Wicked Festival, a Horrorcore music event in Michigan.

No priors have been found on McCroskey's criminal record, although police have revealed they have uncovered found videos of him holding various weapons and rapping about "murderous rages" and disposing of corpses. While no specific details regarding the crime scene have been released to the press, police officers have said that all four of the deceased appeared to have fallen victim to 'blunt force trauma'.

The accused came into the picture at 4pm on Friday, September 18, 2009, when tow-truck driver Elton Napier received a phone call to assist McCroskey, whose car had broken down. Napier told police that when he arrived on the scene, McCroskey was wearing a black hoodie and that the young man "was really smelling bad, like real bad. I can't describe it."

After two deputies arrived on the scene and ticketed McCroskey for driving his Honda - which belonged to the Niedercrocks - without a valid licence, McCroskey then accompanied Napier in the cab of his lorry and Napier recalls that "I just held my head out the window so the wind would hit me in the face. That was the stinkiest rascal I've ever smelled."

McCroskey was dropped off at a newsagents about four miles away, where he retrieved a black bag from the towed car while Napier headed inside for a cup of coffee. McCroskey later caught a taxi to nearby Richmond International Airport where he spent the night. In the meantime, police had discovered the murder scene back in Farmville and quickly issued an arrest order for McCroskey. He was picked up at the airport the next day.

The deeply religious town are still in shock about what has transpired, but have dismissed McCroskey's claims that "Jesus made me do it" as Satan talking. If convicted in the state of Virginia, McCroskey will almost certainly face the death penalty, with Virginia being the second biggest endorser of capital punishment in the United States (behind Texas). 103 people have been executed since 1976 with 21 people currently on death row.

John Harrison, October 10 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

RACE WITH THE DEVIL

1975/USA/Directed by Jack Starrett

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This effective little horror/action/road movie hybrid is the type of film that 1970s suburban drive-ins used to thrive on. However, despite its roots being planted firmly in the low-budget exploitation genre, Race with the Devil also manages to capture that distinct sense of ‘stranger in a strange land’ alienation and paranoia which also permeated some of the more mainstream Hollywood films of the time, such as John Boorman’s Deliverance.

After an atmospheric opening credit sequence (made all the more effective by Leonard Roseman’s sinister score), we are quickly introduced to our main protagonists. Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda) are best friends and partners in Cycle World, a rising company which manufactures racing dirt bikes. Together with their wives Alice and Kelly (Loretta Switt and Lara Parker), they decide to take off for the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado in Frank’s brand new, state of the art recreational vehicle.

Working their way through Texas on the first day of their journey, the couples pull off the highway and decide to set up camp for the night by an isolated and tranquil creek bed. Late that night, with a few drinks in the bellies, Frank and Roger inadvertently witness the execution and sacrifice of a young woman by a group of robed Satanists. When the coven discover they are being watched, it sets of a tense cross state pursuit, with the four holidayers not knowing where it’s safe to stay, or just who the hell to trust.

Apart from a couple of minor flaws (one of which is the rather flat, TV movie look which the film sometimes exudes), Race with the Devil manages to hit its mark on just about every required level. Director Jack Starrett (who reportedly came in at the last moment, after Two-Lane Blacktop helmer Monte Hellman pulled out) keeps the film pacey and tight, its 84 minutes racing by like the pages of a tacky paperback novel (of the type whose subject matter could easily have inspired Lee Frost and Wes Bishop’s screenplay). There are some effective moments of suspense, as well as an eeriness which pervades certain scenes, such as when Kelly gets the uncomfortable feeling that everyone is watching her and plotting against her while she is swimming in a trailer park pool.

Without doubt one of the finest American actors of the sixties and seventies (and sadly one not fully appreciated until after his premature death), Warren Oates delivers yet another finely drawn-out performance. Gruff, at times laconic and at others explosive, Oates had the ability to make his characters so believable and real, even when working with sub-standard material, and he interacts well with Peter Fonda, who also delivers one of the more enjoyable performances of his post-Easy Rider career. Although Loretta Switt (best known as ‘Hot Lips’ Houlahan on the long-running M*A*S*H television series) and Lara Parker also assimilate into their roles well, they are not really given much do do – women’s lib had yet to make its way into the horror genre as yet - and are relegated mostly to looking scared and screaming hysterically.

A rollicking piece of classic grindhouse fodder, Race with the Devil is nowhere near as well regarded by cinephiles as it deserves to be.

Review Copyright John Harrison 2009

PINK SLIP

Equal parts disturbing, shocking and hilariously cheesy and inept, Pink Slip is a classic piece of vintage Classroom Scare cinema from the early 1970s.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

JASON VOORHEES

Some more of my model figure kit work - this is the Jason Vorhees model kit released by Screamin' in the early 1990s. I sold this kit as a built-up on eBay a while ago.

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ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT DJ

A few pics of the promo diorama I made for Melbourne exotica DJ Bebe Bombora, customized from various model kits, action figures and Hot Wheels cars:

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I'll be posting more pics of some of my other action figure/model kit work (both customized and non) in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A PEEP THROUGH THE GLORY HOLE

THE MURKY WORLD OF EARLY, HARDCORE QUEER CINEMA

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While the history and impact of straight, ‘mainstream’ adult cinema has been well covered and documented in the past decade, via films such as Boogie Nights, documentaries like Wadd (about the legendary John Holmes) and in the pages of several books (The X Factory and The Other Hollywood are two excellent tomes that immediately come to mind), early gay hardcore cinema has remained consigned for the most part to the dark back alleys of film history. In fact, many people still seem surprised that these films even existed at all, so obscure have they remained over the years.

The origins of modern gay porn cinema can be traced back to the strengthening of the gay rights movement in the late 1960s, when open and proudly homosexual characters began to appear more regularly on film, although it was mostly via the work of underground filmmakers like Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising) and Andy Warhol (Bike Boy, Blowjob). Some low-budget exploitation filmmakers tried to cross pollinate genres, but the result was not always a success (the 1971 flick The Pink Angels, about a gay biker gang who get lynched on their way to a drag ball, was a miscalculation that appalled homosexual viewers and alienated the straight drive-in crowd).

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Loosening censorship laws and the increased distribution avenues for independent cinema in the early seventies saw the emergence a run of grimy, softcore gay features with titles like Stud Farm, Meat Rack (a Freudian tale of a mother-hating male hustler) and Sticks and Stones. Mostly these films would be screened in the small number of adult cinemas that were cropping up across the United States with the aim of catering to an exclusively gay clientele.

Gay porn became of fully-fledged genre unto itself once the door to hardcore cinema was kicked in by the likes of Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones. The demand for gay sex films became so strong that New York alone had over a dozen cinemas devoted to screening all-male features. Of course, many of these cinemas were of the ‘storefront’ variety (small shops that were cheaply converted into makeshift movie houses), and had names like The Gaiety, The Jewel, Eros, The Kings and The Ramrod.

It was within the darkened confines of these tiny, musty cinemas that one room weekend productions like Midnight Geisha Boy, How to Make a Homo Movie, Gay Guide to Campus, Confessions of a Male Groupie, Hold Your Piece and Swap Meat were screened, usually on rickety 16mm film equipment, the whirr of the sprockets providing an additional aural accompaniment to not only the onscreen soundtrack but the illicit action that was often taking place between anonymous audience members.

While the seventies didn’t produce a landmark gay porn classic on the level of Deep Throat or Debbie Does Dallas, a few interesting gems did spring up to distinguish themselves from the pack. Boys in the Sand and L.A. Plays Itself, both released in 1972, managed to break through and receive some positive attention in the mainstream entertainment press, inspiring even some chic hetero couples to venture into the cinema to wallow in their ‘decadence’, while 1977s Heavy Equipment, starring Jack Wrangler (one of the decade’s biggest names in gay porn and currently a prominent producer of musical theatre) has the distinction of being the first hardcore feature to be filmed in 3D.

Naturally, like their straight counterparts, most of these cinemas offered not only live stage acts, but also encouraged patrons to get together after (or during) the film in one of their special rooms they had furnished either out the back or upstairs. The Ramrod had its Stud Room (‘Always Open!’), the Rendezvous had its After Dark Lounge, while the Gaiety promoted its Apollo Room (‘Where Boy Meets Boy!’). The Night Shift cinema (situated on New York’s 8th Avenue) outdid them all, setting up a prop subway car, park bench and a few fake trees to try and re-create the Big Apple cruising experience.

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For those people who were unable (or too embarrassed) to attend a gay adult cinema, release could be sought in the form of 8mm ‘loops’, short films that were usually shot without sound and lasted on average around eight to ten minutes and were sold via ads in the back pages of gay (and the odd straight) sex publications, to be viewed in the comfort and convenience of your own lounge or bedroom. For those without access to a projector, the mail order companies (who were invariably based on the fringes of Hollywood) offered little plastic handheld movie viewers for a few bucks a pop, or would throw one in for free if you purchased three or more loops at once.

Today, original 8 and 16mm reels of early gay hardcore films are considered important cultural artefacts, and are highly sought after by collectors and historians, while those who want to recreate the heady and somewhat illicit atmosphere of those long gone early days can do so thanks to pioneering companies like Something Weird, who offer up a lot of these vintage films on VHS and DVD (visit them at
www.somethingweird.com). For those who really want to experience the full gay grindhouse experience, Something Weird even offer up copies of Heavy Equipment that comes with two pairs of 3D glasses – one for you, and one for your bud!

Copyright John Harrison 2009

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

SOMETHING WEIRD REVIEW INDEX: A

Thought I would start posting an archive of all the reviews I have contributed to Mike Vraney's groundbreaking Something Weird Video company over the years. Used in their catalogues, on their website and on their VHS and DVD sleeves, I will be posting these reviews alphabetically over the coming weeks. I have decided to post the reviews as originally submitted, even though many of them I would probably write a little differently today (bear in mind too that these reviews were written specifically for the company to help promote it's releases).

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ADVENTURES OF BUSTY BROWN
1964/USA/B&W/Directed by Barry Mahon

Another two-day wonder from the mind of producer-director Barry Mahon, The Adventures of Busty Brown is a sleazy slice of sex noir starring the lovely Laurie Dane as the titular character, a svelte private eye hired by an Asian importer to locate his young daughter, Lotus Lee, who’s been kidnapped by feared local gangster Limey, and forced to dance topless at his seamy nightclub in an attempt to blackmail the rich old man into handing over half of his business operations.

Fronting up at Limey’s club, it doesn’t take long for Miss Busty to land a dancing gig at $150 per week, and she’s soon wowing the patrons with her wild go-go routines (which she performs in white boots and to the accompaniment of a bad guitar pop band). Meanwhile, Lotus Lee is being held at a nearby seaside motel -- where Limey puts his girls “who can’t dance” to other kinds of work -- and is threatened by both Limey’s henchmen (“I just want to find out if what they say about Chinese girls is true!”) and the head honcho himself. (“They don’t even have enough guts to rape me,” Lotus spits out to Limey about his kidnapper thugs.)

Ensconced at the same motel, Busty creeps into Lotus’ room and explains that she has been hired by her daddy to rescue her. “I’ll do anything you say,” Lotus meekly replies as Mahon throws in a little mild lesbianism by having the two girls sleep together. Meanwhile, some goons from a rival underworld gang raid the motel and try to make off with some of Limey’s working girls, but are quickly overpowered and held captive in the room while Limey’s gals cavort and indulge in various acts of erotic shenanigans.

At dawn the next day, Busty and Lotus sense the opportunity to escape, and take off on two horses conveniently left standing around outside the motel. With Limey in hot pursuit, the exciting chase comes to an abrupt conclusion at the edge of a cliff where Busty gains the upper hand by spraying Limey in the face with a gas-shooting pen gun....

With a soundtrack full of cool nightclub lounge tracks and clichéd oriental gongs, The Adventures of Busty Brown showcases Mahon’s economical creativity at its grimiest, while exhibiting all the hokiness of a typical Get Smart episode. Except, of course, that this comes complete with bare tits.

AFTER THE BALL WAS OVER
1969/USA/B&W/Produced by Distribpix

This bizarre sixties shocker utilizes a storyline which frequently popped up in those classic 1950’s EC crime comics such as Crime SuspenStories and Shock SuspenStories: namely, the greedy husband who tries to drive his wife insane to get his mits on her fortune. Of course, the big difference here is that the EC comics never displayed this much hot, naked female flesh.

Pretty Evelyn Lloyd (Suzzane Landau of The Three Sexateers and Four on the Floor) is a well-off wife whose husband, Richard (Neal Taylor) has been acting very strange of late. He invites young couple over to their pad and openly invites them to have their way with his confused wife. At one such get-together, a strange stag flick is screened. As Richard’s buddy, Kenneth, paws at Evelyn, she finds herself getting turned on despite her disgust: “I did hate it, but I didn’t want him to stop!”

From here on, things get weird. Her chauffeur (who looks a lot like legendary – and shamed - music producer Phil Spector) appears out of nowhere to snap lewd pictures of her, and a visit to a phony shrink results in her being given hallucinogenic sleeping pills. Of course, all this is part of Robert’s plot to drive Evelyn into an asylum so he can take over the family business.

After a couple of drug-soaked sexcapades, a stoned Evelyn is chased around the apartment by goons wearing a variety of rubber monster masks (photographed by lots of great, twisted camera angles and distorted lenses). She races into the bathroom only to see a body rise from the bathtub and reach out for her (in a scene reminiscent of the French classic Diabolique). This is too much for Evelyn who promptly collapses. But just when Robert thinks he’s done with his wife, she turns the tables with a rude surprise for him...

After the Ball Was Over is definitely a strange brew. Produced by New York’s Distribpix (with no director credited), it reminds one of Doris Wishman’s black & white roughies, particularly since it seems to have been shot without sound or dialogue. The only talking we hear is a voice-over conversation between Evelyn and her lawyer. Some of the dialogue reads like a tacky old adult paperback (“His hands and tongue were never still!”), and the great musical track is quite experimental at times.

With his black rimmed glasses and thinning hair combed unruly to one side, Neal Taylor, who plays Robert, looks like a beefed up Woody Allen. I just can’t help wondering why he went to so much complex trouble to get a hold of Evelyn’s money. Whatever happened to the good old days of 1940’s film noir when the gold-digging husband simply shot the wife dead?

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ALL AROUND SERVICE
1974/Germany/Colour/Directed by Jonnig Wyder

A German sex comedy in a similar vein to the popular English Confessions of... series of films, All Around Service sets out to amply demonstrate that whatever the British can do, the Germans can do a whole lot dirtier!

Frank is one-half of "Frank & Fred’s All Around Service," a two-man maintenance company who take care of the needs of a large apartment complex. Naturally, they also take care of the needs of the frustrated housewives who dwell within that complex. Of late, however, Frank has become more of a one-man band since Fred has spent the past year in the company of a rich socialite named Vicki... who obviously likes her men lanky, draped in bad leisure suits, and sporting very dodgy beards.

"Normal people screw at night," Frank’s girlfriend Nana tells him after an early morning romp in his caravan. Thoroughly shagged out (literally) from his job, Frank is relieved when Fred finally returns to the fold after Vicki gives him the boot on their first anniversary! A young gay kid whom Frank had to hire to help out gladly takes a hike to make way for Fred’s return - the kid’s sexual proclivities provide the source of much juvenile amusement between the two - and it isn’t long before Frank and Fred are back on the job. Without a place to stay, however, Fred ends up sharing the caravan bed with Frank! (And they were the ones making fun of Frank’s gay assistant?!!) What follows is a string of sexual misadventures within the apartment complex, highlighted by a scene in which a woman feels-up and straddles her hubby who’s sitting on a sofa focused intently at a televised soccer match.

In a strange turn of events which the screenplay never really explains, Vicki (Fred’s ex) teams up with Nana (Frank’s current) in an attempt to put an end to Frank and Fred’s swingin’ ways. They type up a letter detailing the pair’s daytime adventures and distribute it to all the husbands in the complex. Vicki then arranges for the guys to get a maintenance job at another complex, one supposedly inhabited only by old people and single men but - oops! - turns out to be yet another breeding ground for tender young flesh!

The boys’ troubles haven’t stopped however, as a group of angry husbands from their former complex hatch a plan to pounce on the couple and teach them a lesson. More specifically, they intend to teach their overactive private porn a lesson. Luckily for the two studs, one of the housewives - a large woman who could easily pass for Divine’s stunt double - gets wind of the plan, manages to thwart the attack, and ends up wrestling her big bald husband outside Frank’s caravan....

Filled with a typically funky soundtrack, the sex scenes in All Around Service are somewhat raunchier and more explicit than those found in similar Euro softcore features of the day. It also demonstrates once again that the term ‘German comedy’ is indeed something of an oxymoron.

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ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO
1961/USA/B&W/Directed by Brooke L Peters

This compact, no-budget teen crime flick is an interesting curio as it represents one of the last JD films to retain that classic fifties feel before the ideals, fashions, and music of the sixties changed everything.

After an alleyway bottle fight leaves him with a scar down the side of his face, Chet (Darrell Howe), a brooding, troubled young man whose older brother, Duke has just hours to live on death row, sets out to exact revenge on those who sent him to the gas chamber. Unfortunately, Chet's sister Patty (The Tingler's lovely Pamela Lincoln) is dating clean-cut Mickey (Ronnie Burns, son of George and Gracie), whose father was the prime witness at Duke's trial.

Embarking on a campaign of terror, Chet and his gang don Elephant Man-style hoods and savagely beat up the son of the local D.A. After next giving his trampy girlfriend a little goodbye 'action' when she tries to give him the heave-ho, Chet then burns down the house of Judge Brennan during a rather posh party. Understandably worried that her brother is rapidly losing it, Patty sends Mickey to Chet's shack to talk some sense into him. The resultant confrontation quickly turns violent with Mickey self defensively stabbing one of Chet's cohorts in the stomach. Rather than helping his wounded friend, Chet pushes the knife in deeper (a surprisingly galvanizing scene) in order to frame Mickey for murder...

Starkly filmed in glorious black & white, Anatomy of a Psycho's opening scenes are quite foreboding, and convey the pulpy sensibilities that made all those great Confidential-style magazines so easily digestible. Director Brooke L Peters (who also helmed the Ed Wood-scripted Shotgun Wedding in 1963 under his real name, Boris Petroff) manages to bring a few nice creative touches, such as a close-up of Chet's somber face superimposed over footage of his brother being led to the gas chamber. An a nice little buildup of tension is created when two boys start bouncing a ball against the side of a car inside of which hides Chet, waiting for his victim to approach.

As Chet's doomed friend Moe, co-screenwriter Larry Lee gives himself the grooviest lines of dialogue ("I don't like the heat waltzing into my pad!"), and sharp eared viewers may recognize the same stock music from Plan 9 from Outer Space which is played over the early alleyway fight scenes!

Anatomy of a Psycho is an essential JD purchase.

ANN AND EVE
1970/Sweden/Colour/Directed by Anne Mattson


A delightfully lurid piece of Euro art/trash, Ann and Eve is one of those films which helped convince any hormone-crazed teenage boy that Sweden was a country completely overrun by insatiable sex addicts.

"No man has ever satisfied me," middle-aged Ann (Gio Petre, resembling at times a more hardened Honor Blackman) announces to her younger and far more naive friend Eve (Marie Liljedahl, star of Grimm's Fairy Tales for Adults and Jess Franco's incredible Eugenie). Moments after a surreal opening sequence in which Ann fantasizes that she guns down a man in a tent...or, perhaps, really does kill the poor bastard. Faced with making a choice between nymphomania and lesbianism, Ann seems to have decided on a bit--or, rather, a lot -- of both, becoming along the way "Sweden's most hated journalist!"

With Eve's marriage just around the corner, Ann decides to take her friend on a holiday to Yugoslavia, all the while encouraging Eve to "experience something unusual," and subjecting her (and the audience) to a number of tirades on the ugliness and futility of matrimony, love, and happiness. Initially scornful of Ann's views, Eve is eventually worn down and, after a brief fling with a married sailor, embarks on a series of torrid one-niters which trigger doubts about her previously rock-solid belief that her soon-to-be-husband Peter is her one true love: "Now that I've done it, I want to do it again!"

At this point, Ann and Eve begins a headlong descent into truly bizarre David Lynch-style territory, as Eve is seduced by a chubby female opera singer, is placed on an altar and fondled by several women at once while a midget accompanies the action on piano(!). and is gang raped by a bunch of gritty labourers on the back of a dirty flatbed truck--after the men play a game of cards to see who gets her first! There is also a strange little interlude where Ann attends a film premiere with the entire sequence played as a film-within-a-film (complete with credits).

Finally, after sharing a brooding handyman with Ann, Eve realizes how disgusted she has become with herself and her debauched behaviour ("You're vile!" she scowls to her reflection), and the film ends on a rather sudden and perplexing note as Ann receives a telegram revealing some startling and grim news about her former lover ("The best I ever had")...

From the vaults of Harry Novak, and filled to the brim with sixties Euro fashions, sports cars, and futuristic architecture -- as well as highlighting the combined talents of the female leads from Inga (Miss Liljedahl) and I, A Woman Part II (Miss Petre) -- Ann and Eve ends up being the cinematic equivalent of all those naughty magazines we all used to keep safely hidden under the mattress as a kid...

Reviews Copyright John Harrison

Saturday, August 29, 2009

SERIAL COLLECTORS

True Crime Memorabilia:
Preserving Dark History, or Celebrating Madness?

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As instinctual, curious human beings, it is in our nature to be fascinated by extreme acts of human aggression and deprivation….it’s what makes us devour newspaper stories and huddle around the water cooler at work, speaking in shocked and hushed tones whenever a new act of human deviance is uncovered for the masses to try and comprehend and digest. And no one really seems to question the motives of someone who merely reads true crime books, or watches the rash of crime documentaries and reality shows which flood our television screens

Why is it then that many of these same people look down with horror and disgust at someone who takes their interest in true crime that one step further by collecting memorabilia and artefacts relating to their favourite cases and/or criminals? Is it because the thought of true crime collectables conjures up misguided images of sick and disturbed kids sitting around trading serial killer cards the way we once swapped football player cards?

“I’ll trade you two Dahmer’s for a Manson.”

While true crime cases have been the occasional subject of mass-market paperbacks since the early 1950s, it wasn’t until the Tate-La Bianca murders, perpetrated by Charles Manson’s followers in 1969, that the modern crime collectibles genre was born and became a big financial commodity. The extreme violence of the crimes, the involvement of a Hollywood starlet, the fact that the killers were members of society’s so-called ‘peace and love’ movement, and the enigmatic magnetism of Manson himself, all helped to galvanise the public, and publishers were quick to cash in on the case, rushing an avalanche of titles into print, all of which purported to tell the ‘true, full story’ behind the murders. The early wave of Manson books would range from the engrossing and revealing (prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, John Gilmore’s The Garbage People and Ed Sanders’ The Family) to the bizarre and ridiculous (Reflections on the Manson Trial by Rosemary Baer and Ray Stanley’s fictionalized 1970 paperback The Hippy Cult Murders).

Magazine editors also clamoured over each other to cash in on the case, with publications such as Life and Rolling Stone running cover features on Manson, and trashy tabloids and detective rags covered the more salacious aspects of the killings and subsequent trial (as perfectly demonstrated in the August 1971 issue of Uncensored, whose cover screamed: ‘Sex Capers of the Manson Jury!’ ).

Exploitation film producers also began to realise that dollars could be made from the public’s fascination with true crime during this period, and the early 1970s saw a number of sleazy, violent (and again, highly fantasised) low-budget movies emerge, devoted not only to Manson (1970’s The Helter Skelter Murders, 1971’s The Love Thrill Murders with former teen idol Troy Donahue in the Manson-like role of Moon, and Kentucky Jones’ rare The Manson Massacre from 1972), but other high profile cases that had the public fascinated (and living in fear) at the time (such as the The Zodiac Killer from 1971, about the still-unsolved series of shootings in San Francisco which would also inspire the first classic Dirty Harry film).

The seeds of true crime’s prominence in pop culture had been well and truly sown, although it would be almost twenty years before the crops would sprout into some strange and very bizarre directions.

Murderabilia

It was Andrew Kahan, Director of the Mayor’s Office in Huston, who is said to have first coined the term ‘murderabilia’, used to describe the new wave of true crime collectibles which began to hit the market in abundance in the early 1990s. For a while, it even became fashionable amongst some of Hollywood’s elite young actors to be in possession of serial killer artefacts (Johnny Depp at one point had a huge collection of original John Wayne Gacy art, but later sold it when he garnered negative criticism for it).

Modern true crime memorabilia invariably does focus on that produced in connection with infamous serial or ‘spree’ killers – those crimes which always fascinate and terrify us the most, due in no small part to the often complete randomness of the acts. A rundown of some of the more controversial true crime collectables would include:

Original Art

The most contentious of true crime memorabilia, original artwork by convicted serial killers also brings in huge sums of money because of their uniqueness (although the artists themselves are unable to profit from any of their work due to the ‘Son of Sam’ law).

Among the most popular – and accomplished – serial killer art are the works painted by notorious Chicago boy killer John Wayne Gacy, who managed to sell over $100,00 worth of his original painting before he was executed by lethal injection (which naturally saw the value of his art increase even more). Gacy’s colourful, surreal and often disturbing portraits encompassed subjects such as Snow White’s seven dwarfs, other notorious killers and even self-portraits of himself in his Pogo the Clown persona, which he would often don to entertain sick children in hospital wards (wouldn’t that be a story to pass on to your grandkids – being a sick child and laughing at the antics of one of the world’s most perverted killers).

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In other solitary confinement and death row prison cells across the United States, Charles Manson makes bizarre puppets out of socks and any other material he can get his hands on, Lawrence Bittaker (who tortured and killed teenaged girls in the back of his ‘Murder Mac’ van during the late 1970s) makes unique ‘pop-up’ greeting cards, Hong Kong born Charles Ng (who with his partner Leonard Lake tortured at least a dozen people to death) makes and sells origami, while Night Stalker Richard Ramirez entertains himself and his legion of (mostly female) followers by doing crude drawings of devils, stabbings and dismemberment.

Personal Effects

Incarcerated killers without an artistic streak can still satisfy the demands of their collectors by offering up anything from swatches of clothes to nail clippings and locks of hair (as does Sunset Strip killer Douglas Clark). Nothing proves your loyalty as a fan more than owning an actual piece of your favourite serial killer.

Letters and Autographs

Correspondence is one of the favourite pastimes of the long term incarcerated, a means to pass the hours of boredom and maintain some social contact with the outside world, making letters, envelopes and other hand written material a relatively easy and affordable item to acquire (at least until the convicted is executed). There’s also something personal and an element of uniqueness in collecting correspondence, which can often reveal an insight into the author’s reasoning and state of mind.

T-Shirts

Axl Rose transformed the Manson themed ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ t-shirt into a controversial fashion item by wearing it onstage at Guns ‘n’ Roses concerts in the early 1990s, when the thought of wearing a shirt emblazoned with the image of a mass killer would have been considered taboo. Now, companies such as Rotten Cotton proudly hawk their lines of serial killer t-shirts at comic book conventions, offering up fine cotton wear bearing the likes of Aileen Wournos, Jeffrey Dahmer, Jim Jones, O. J. Simpson and just about any other sociopath with anything resembling a cult following.

Comic Books

The Manson killings occurred at just the right time to be taken notice of by the burgeoning underground comics scene (headed by names like Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez and Gilbert Sheldon).

One of the first and most compelling appearances of Manson in comic book form was in the 1971 one-shot The Legion of Charlies, published by Last Gasp. Written by Tom Veitch, and featuring the artwork of the late Greg Irons, the book begins with a four page prologue in which the Manson killings are compared to the horrific My Lai massacre in Vietnam in March of 1969 (in which US Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. was found guilty of the premeditated murder of at least 22 South Vietnamese civilians).

More recently, the early-1990s say a resurgence of independent comic books which focused on unique topics, including rock and porn star biographies. Comic Zone, a New Jersey based publisher, debuted their Psycho Killers title in December 1991, with the first issue devoted to Manson. Drawn by Stan Timmons and Blackie Neilson, from a Jack Herman script, the comic is presented in a very chaotic format, and does have a certain hallucinogenic feel to it, particularly in the sequences which illustrate the Family‘s life out in Death Valley.

The black & white artwork is generally sketchy, dark and abstract, with occasional photo images inserted into the panels for effect (the cover also consists of a number of photographs, assembled into a collage and tinted with green, pink and yellow, presumably for psychedelic effect).

Subsequent issues of Psycho Killers were devoted to Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, The Moors Murders and others.

One highly recommended true crime comic is My Friend Dahmer: A True Story by Derf, a disturbing and at times even poignant one-shot underground comic book, written and illustrated in 2002 by John Backderf, who recounts his experiences as a high school classmate (and superficial friend) of Dahmer's during the late-1970s.

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Action Figures

Spectre Studios are an online company based in Denver, Colorado who specialize in creating hand painted action figures of some of the world’s most notorious criminals and serial killers, including Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy (in his Pogo the Clown costume) and of course, Charles Manson, who is available in two versions - the long haired messiah and the shaven head prisoner with the swastika forehead.

Approximately six inches in height, the figures are packaged like most mainstream action figures on traditional backing cards with bubble plastic, but while novel they are not especially well-crafted (with the exception of the Gacy/Pogo figure), and with a price tag of US $40.00 each, make for a pretty expensive curio (sculptor David Johnson, who started the line when a friend commissioned him to produce a Ted Bundy figure, was auctioning his figures for as much as US $130.00 on the online auction site eBay, before they began to place restrictions on the selling of items which they felt glamorized violence and crime).

Naturally, this article only touches the tip of the iceberg (or should that be stiletto knife?) as far as true crime collectables go. Is it all in dubious taste? Probably. But time has a habit of changing society’s perception. People visit London’s infamous Black Museum and extol the virtues of preserving those dark instruments and mementos of murder from the 1800s. So too will future anthropologists come to appreciate – and learn from – the modern day artifacts inspired by the madness within man.

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Copyright John Harrison 2009
(Note: Top portrait of Charles Manson drawn by Melbourne artist Matthew Dunn - http://www.matthewdunnartist.blogspot.com)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

OLD MELBOURNE GAOL

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Me behind iron doors during a night time 'ghost tour' of the Old Melbourne Gaol (hanging place of Ned Kelly), June 19, 2009.

http://www.oldmelbournegaol.com.au

NEW WRITING

Issue 8 of the cool retro mens' digest magazine Bachelor Pad has just hit the streets, featuring my piece on vintage Las Vegas, as based on my memories of my first visits to that once sinful and alluring town as a kid in 1980 and 1981.

Check out the magazine's website at:
http://www.bachelorpadmagazineonline.com/

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Friday, May 15, 2009

CREEPY IMAGES

A new publication from Germany, Creepy Images is a cool A5 (digest) magazine devoted to 'Horror and Exploitation Movie Memorabilia'. Printed on quality, glossy paper that befits its subject matter, the debut issue of Creepy Images features nice reproductions of the German lobby card set for Joe D'Amato's Anthropophagus, the French lobbies and posters for Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Italian cards and posters for Shock Waves and more. With heavy emphasis on the visuals, Creepy Images is light on text but makes a great reference work for collectors. Hopefully the magazine will find a big enough audience amongst fans to warrant further issues.

For further details and ordering info visit the Creepy Images website at: www.creepy-images.com

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

BLIMEY! THE HAMMER STUDIO COMEDIES

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By 1970, England’s Hammer Studios, who had established their reputation during the late 1950s and 60s as the undisputed kings of gothic, colour saturated horror cinema, had begun to fall on hard times. Finding it increasingly hard to compete with the emergence of the new wave of independent American horror, which upped the ante with flicks like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Hammer tried to stay relevant (and commercially viable) by introducing a stronger mix of violence and sex in their films, particularly their female-led ‘Karnetsin’ vampire trilogy: The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (also released in ’71). While these films still managed to find an audience, and today are rightfully regarded as cult classics of a kind, the rich atmosphere and unique class which Hammer had so beautifully generated in films like Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) had all but evaporated, and the writing seemed to be on the wall for the company.

In 1959, Hammer adapted the popular Granada TV series The Army Game into a feature film, retitling it I Only Arsked, and featuring future Carry On movie regulars Bernard Bresslaw and Charles Hawtry amongst its cast. The success of I Only Arsked (which took its title from a phrase which Bresslaw often used on the series) may have been a deciding factor in prompting Hammer to try and boost their coffers by adapting another popular television comedy into a feature.

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When On the Buses debuted on TV in 1969, it was an instant success, both in England and in a number of countries abroad, especially Australia. Set in the disorganized Luxton & District bus terminal, the show starred Reg Varney as bus driver Stan Butler, who together with his leering conductor Jack Harper (Bob Grant) spent as much time chasing the ‘clippies’ (female bus conductors) as they did on their bus route. Constantly trying to keep them in line was their ever frustrated, Gestapo-like Inspector ‘Blakey’ (Stephen Lewis), whose catchcry of “I’ll get you, Butler” became one of British television’s most enduring phrases. Subplots in the series were usually provided by Stan’s dysfunctional, constantly bickering family – mum (Doris Hare in most episodes), sister Olive (Anna Karen) and his brother-in-law Arthur (Michael Robbins).

Hammer’s 1971 film version of On the Buses was directed by Harry Booth, from a screenplay by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney. The plot has the bus company branching out to employ women drivers, something which doesn’t make Stan and union boss Jack very happy, as it threatens to reduce their overtime. One of the subplots has the bumbling Olive taking a job at the bus terminal canteen, then losing it when she falls pregnant to Arthur. There’s also time for plenty of girl chasing, and fans of cult horror director Pete Walker will get a kick out of seeing Ivor Salter (the lorry driver in House of Whipcord) bob up as a policeman. The inclusion of a cheesy but snappy theme song ("Oh, it’s a great life on the buses” ), performed by one Quince Harmon, helps make On the Buses an enjoyable slice of grimy UK working class comedy.

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Shot at the EMI-MGM Studios, as well as in the surrounding streets of Borehamwood, On the Buses proved to be a huge hit for Hammer, with the UK gross even surpassing that of the then-current James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. An inevitable sequel was soon put into motion, and Hammer set up a competition for the readers of the The Sun newspaper to come up with an appropriate title. The aptly-named Bob Butler (a real life bus driver) won the thousand pound first prize with his title Mutiny on the Buses, which was released in 1972 and once again directed by Harry Booth from a Ronald Wolf and Ronald Chesney screenplay (Wolfe and Chesney had also created the television series). Mutiny saw the Luxton bus company expanding their services to include a tour of the Windsor Safari Park (an idea that quickly ends in disaster after Butler and Blakey conduct a test run of the tour), while Arthur becomes a bus driver after getting retrenched from his job with British Rail.

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The third and final entry in Hammer’s Buses films, Holiday on the Buses, appeared in 1973, and was something of a step-up from the rather bland Mutiny. While Wolfe and Chesney once again scripted, director Bryan Izzard (a veteran of 17 episodes of the television series) was brought in to give the story and characters a more familiar feel, along with a boost of energy. Holiday sees Butler, Jack and Blakey all getting the chop from the bus company, only to resurface at a tacky Pontin’s holiday resort, where Blakey has taken a job as head of security, while Stan and Jack conducts bus tours of the area for the holidayers. As in the first two films, Stan seems to do all the work chatting up one of the lovely young birds, only to have his good mate Jack pounce on her behind his back. What a friend! (As Jack himself explains it to Stan: “I don’t know what you’re so worked up about, mate. It’s only a bit of crumpet…There’s plenty more of that about” ). Bob Grant’s hair has turned almost silver in this movie, and Stan’s family, more white trash than ever, turn up looking for a cheap vacation (which gets off to a not so wonderful start when most of their clothes end up in a dirty river before they’ve even reached their destination). Guest stars included Wifred Branbell (Steptoe & Son) as an old lech who hits on Stan’s mum, and Kate Williams (Eddie Booth’s wife in Love thy Neighbour) plays a nurse at the holiday resort who, for some strange reason is attracted to Blakey (but also can’t resist the charms of Jack).

Shortly after the release of Holiday, Reg Varney left the television series. Although the show struggled on briefly without him, Hammer wisely decided against making any further On the Buses films.

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But the studio was far from done with their television adaptations. Apart from Holiday on the Buses, 1973 also saw the release of a Love Thy Neighbour feature, which brought together all the regulars from the series (which had debuted in 1972). Produced by Hammer vet Roy Skeggs and scripted by the show’s creators, Vince Powell and Harry Driver, the film was directed in a rather flat and lacklustre fashion by John Robins. Cantering around a local ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ competition, the Love Thy Neighbour film recycled many of the same racial jokes and gags from the series, with the only real new angle being the introduction of Eddie Booth’s mother, who comes to visit and ends up going out with Bill’s father.

In the following twelve months, four more Hammer TV adaptations were released: That’s Your Funeral, Man at the Top and Nearest & Dearest all appeared in 1973, while their version of Man About the House followed in 1974. I don’t recall ever seeing any of these films at any point, so I’m not entirely sure about the quality of them, although I imagine for the most part they would be pretty dire and dated, but as a sucker for almost any early seventies UK working class comedies, I'd certainly be keen to pick them up should they ever surface on disc locally.

Copyright John Harrison 2009

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Above: CD compilation of music from Hammer's comedy films, released in the late 1990s.

Oh! It's a great life on the buses,
there's nothing like it, you'll agree.
Take a ride on the buses,
because there's plenty you can see.

Oh! It's a great life on the buses,
there is no better place to meet.
So why not look around you,
no need to leave your seat.

Oh! It's agreat life on the buses,
no matter what the time of day.
You can see the world up on the buses,
were on our way.

There's so much feeling on the buses,
as people fumble for their fare.
It always happens in the cruches,
they take there chance while it's there.

It's so exciting on the buses,
when some one is fumbling next to you.
And when the traffic jams in rushes,
there's little else to do.

There's always gay life on the buses,
make sure you leave your bird at home.
You'll see so many on the buses,
you won't be sitting on your own.

It's so romantic on the buses,
you'll find it thrilling when you ride.
And you can get it on the buses,
upstairs or down inside.

Oh! It's a great life on the buses,
no matter what the time of day.
You'll see the world on the buses,
were on our way.

Music by Geoff Unwin.
Lyrics by Roger Ferris.
Sung by Quince Harmon