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 clich├ęd 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)