Drive-In Cult Classics, Volume 2

Here we go again, plunging into the Crown International Archives for another batch of B-movie goodne… Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, shall we? The format is somewhat different here: rather than two movies on each side, of two discs, there’s one per side, in this five-disc set. If you do the math, you’ll realize that should be ten films; however, for some reason, my set got a bonus copy of disc one. So, if there’s anyone out there who wants Madmen of Mandoras and it’s re-edited version, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, first person to email me with their snail-mail address will get it. As you’ll see, it’s not really a double-bill of which I need two copies.

These movies are definitely older than those in Volume 1, with the majority being in black-and-white, and dating from the first half of the sixties: the sex ‘n’ violence content is, obviously, toned-down as a result, even if most of them are perhaps closer to the horror genre than before. A number of these titles were previously released as part of the Starlite Drive-In series, and while it’s apparently random, on some of them, there is an effort to preserve the drive-in experience. You can, if you wish, choose to watch the movie preceded by cheesy concession stand promos, and lurid, if tame, trailers for such classics as Secret File: Hollywood about a newspaper which digs up all “the news unfit to print.” That’s a nice touch.

Unfortunately, the actual quality of the movies is significantly worse than Volume 1. The Creeping Terror is the only one I’d want to see again, and that’s purely for bad movie purposes. The rest, virtually without exception, are cheapjack productions churned out without thought or care. Clearly destined for the bottom-half of a double-bill, the aim here appears to have been to provide nothing to distract the teenage drive-in audience from their other pursuits. Even at a low, low price of barely a dollar per movie, this will do little more than use up valuable space on your DVD shelves.

Bloodlust! (1961)

Rating: C-

Dir: Ralph Brooke
Star: Robert Reed, Wilton Graff, June Kenney, Gene Persson

This not-exactly enthralling version of The Most Dangerous Game sees two couples on a cruise. They opt to land on and explore an apparently deserted island, only to find themselves the “guests” of Dr. Balleau (Graff), a former Army sniper who now indulges his fondness for hunting by tracking down those who arrive on his island. And, boy, you should see his trophy-room. But he’s not totally savage; he’s only going to use the guys for sport, the women being kept for… Well, it’s vaguely hinted (this being 1961), that a different kind of “sport” will be part of their future, the good Doctor’s wife now being stuffed and mounted. And not in the conjugal sense, either.

Given the amount of time the doctor spends with the four new victims, flagrantly disobeying Evil Overlord rule #173 (“I will never allow my enemies to stand directly behind me”), it’s stunning they never bother to simply rush him. At least one (Reed, who’d later go on to fame as the dad in The Brady Bunch) is an only slightly gone-to-seed jock, despite a somewhat odd and distracting posture, while one of the girls announces right in the opening scene that she’s the daughter of a judo master. Perhaps they were stunned into submission by Graff’s resemblance to a cut-rate Vincent Price, or possibly Robert Englund.

There’s way too much slow meandering around the jungle here to be interesting, even at a brief running-time, which is likely the movie’s best feature. While it may suck, at least it doesn’t suck at length, so by the time you come to the conclusion that it isn’t going to get any better, you’re past the half-way mark. The film needs to be a good deal more energetic to succeed: instead, it’s only occasionally that it appears to possess a pulse, such as the trophy-room, or one amusing sequence involving an acid-bath and the aforementioned judo heiress.

These are mere blips on the flat-line which is the prognosis for the movie, with neither the performances nor the direction climbing much above tolerably workmanlike. It’s not giving away much to say it ends more or less exactly how you think it might, though even there, our protagonists are so useless, one is left questioning whether they deserve to survive. Still, I have a lot more tolerance for crap, when it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and clocking in at 68 minutes will hardly tax the patience. At least, not for very long.

The Creeping Terror

Dir: “A.J. Nelson” (Vic Savage)
Star: Vic Savage, Shannon O’Neil, William Thourlby, John Caresio

This one was so amazing, I needed to cover the movie in more detail here, but figure I might as well lob in a few additional comments here, just for completeness. This doesn’t technically belong here, since there is no real evidence that this ever played theatrically – at a drive-in or anywhere else – after it was made in 1964. It appears to have first showed up on television “creature feature”-type programs in the mid-1970’s, and has acquired something of a cult following since, as one of the worst movies ever made. This is mostly due to the monster it contains, but there is hardly an aspect of the movie that is not woefully inadequate. Even the location was not what was originally seen: instead of Lake Tahoe, a lot of it was filmed at Spahn Ranch instead. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s where the Manson family hung out. There’s another connection, as the assistant director here, Randy Starr, provided Charlie Manson with the gun used in the Tate-LaBianca killings.

The Devil’s Hand (1961)

Rating: D-

Dir: William J. Hole Jr.
Star: Robert Alda, Linda Christian, Neil Hamilton, Ariadna Welter

It’s films like this that make me look yearningly at the shelf, where the Hammer box-set sits temptingly, next in line to be watched. Because I’m pretty sure that, at about the same time Crown International were putting out dreck like this, any of the eight movies in the Hammer set could probably kick its arse without climbing from its coffin. Rick Turner (Alda) is plagued by dreams of a mysterious woman, until one day, he sees her exact likeness as a doll, in the window of a shop. Inside, he’s greeted warmly by owner Frank Lamont (Hamilton, who’d go on to become Commissioner Gordon in the Batman TV series), who recognized him from when he brought in the picture on which the doll was modelled. Except, Rick has never been in the shop before. Weirder yet, another doll looks just like his fiancee, Donna (Welter), who not long after, goes down with a heart condition. Turns out, to cut to the quick Lamont and the mysterious woman, Bianca Milan (Christian), run a satanic cult devoted to “the great devil god Gamba” – the temple is in the remarably capacious basement of the doll shop – and have their eyes set on Rick as their latest recruit. Can he withstand the brainwashing and escape with his soul intact?

It’s not as interesting as it sounds, with even the cult being a hodge-podge of influences: African drummer, Tibetan servant, contraption hanging over the altar to “test” adherents’ loyalty that resembles a prop from Wheel of Fortune. Christian may be the best thing about the film, coming on like a slutty version of Anne Francis, even if her evil talents appear to amount to little more than a spot of astral projection. Otherwise, it’s a completely non-threatening religion, whose idea of evil appears to consist of not much more than stock market manipulation, and the dispatch of sleazy tabloid journalists. Hardly seems even moderately dubious behaviour, by the lax standards of the early 21st century, really, and it certainly doesn’t make for enthralling viewing, with the dark, satanic rituals looking more like a bit of dinner theatre at the local Rotary club. Even at a terse 71 minutes, this outstays its welcome, with few aspects which will stay in the mind beyond the laughable finale and closing credits.

The Hearse (1980)

Rating: D+

Dir: George Bowers
Star: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux, Donald Hotton

Troubled teacher Jane Hardy (Van Devere) heads off for a summer break in her late aunt’s home, escaping after a tough year which included both a divorce and the death of her mother. Arriving in Blackford, where the house is located, she starts to settle in, but soon finds that the majority of the locals are distinctly unfriendly towards her – at least, when they find out who she is related to. Jane also discovers that she is being stalked by a mysterious black hearse, and eventually learns that after her aunt Rebecca died, the hearse taking her to the cemetery crashed and burned: neither the driver’s body, nor that of the funeral subject, were found in the wreckage. Meanwhile, Jane has also found a diary in the attic, in which her aunt details her life. Two of the local men – one young, one older – also want a slice of her city pie, and the lawyer who is working with her on the house, reckons he should have inherited it too.

This may be one of my shorter reviews: the DVD was faulty, and wouldn’t work in either house DVD player, so I ended up watching it in the office, on Chris’s PC. Bit of a shame, as the print was very nice – though maybe that’s just in comparison with the awful copy of The Creeping Terror. Seems like the director must be a big fan of John Carpenter, as there are chunks of this which seem distinctly influenced (in tone, if not so much content) by both Halloween and Christine. This surprised us, as it feels more like a product from the start of the seventies than a decade later, but I found this New York Times review of it by Janet Maslin, which proves otherwise. It also shows the film as rated “PG”, and that gives some idea of how much terror you can expect to have generated by this, i.e. not much. The vast majority of this plays at about the level of a TV movie-of-the-week – and not even one on an interesting channel.

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

Rating: C-

Dir: Kostas Karagiannis
Star: Donald Pleasence, Costas Skouras, Peter Cushing, Luan Peters
a.k.a. The Devil’s Men

Despite a cast featuring two horror icons, this is a pedestrian and disappointing yarn about a Greek town, almost entirely populated by worshippers of a idol with a the body of a man, and the head of a bull, which shoots fire from its nostrils. [Cool: I want one for the living-room] I’m thinking it’s Moloch. Anyway, this requires regular human sacrifice, and fortunately, there are any number of amateur archaeologists who turn up to dig in the local ruins. The steady stream of disappearances which results eventually irks local priest Father Roche (Pleasence), into calling for back-up, in the form of NY private eye Mile Kaye (Skouras), along with Laurie (Peters – whom I remember fondly as the Australian guest accidentally groped by Basil in Fawlty Towers. Here, she wears platform shoes, hot-pants and other non-archaeology suitable clothes), the girlfriend of one of the missing diggers. She keeps seeing, and being chased by, mysterious hooded figures: Milo is sceptical, but Father Roche has no doubt they are up against the devil himself. After Laurie becomed the latest abductee, the men have to go up against cult leader Baron Corofax (Cushing) and try to rescue the survivors before they become the latest victims to go under the knife.

It’s only when Cushing, and to a lesser extent, Pleasence, appear on-screen, that the movie even stands a chance. The director makes good use of Cushing’s piercing blue eyes, and he lends the film weight and interest which is sadly missing from the rest of it – and that’s the majority of the movie. It’s slow and talky when it needs to be building up the energy and building towards the finale. There’s too much creeping around underground temples, and sitting around at the local inn, and Karagiannis fails miserably to build suspense. The Greek settings are at least somewhat different, I suppose, and of all the people to produce the noodling, primitive electronic soundtrack, would you believe… Brian Eno? Yep: the famous new wave producer for, among others, Talking Heads and Devo. Go figure. Anyway, it certainly needs a better finish, than the one we get here, which takes the concept of deus ex machina – with the emphasis strongly on the deus – and buries it headfirst in the ground. That adds a final full-stop to a movie which could probably best be described as a load of old bull.

Terrified (1963)

Rating: D-

Dir: Lew Landers
Star: Rod Lauren, Steve Drexel, Tracy Olsen, Stephen Roberts

This is one of those times where the title, combined with the film’s quality (or lack thereof), has me keen to write a one-line review and leave it at that. “Terrified? Terrible, more like…” After a somewhat striking pre-credit sequence, in which a man in a black ski-mask is pouring cement into a grave where his victim lies helpless, it’s rapidly downhill from there. Turns out this was Joey, the brother of Marge (Olsen), and is only the latest in a significant line of her relatives to meet an untimely end. The masked psycho also enjoys moonlit drives and scaring other users of the road by driving right at them. Marge’s affections are being fought over by Dave (Drexel) and Ken (Lauren), the latter of whom is writing a college paper on terror. Marge and Dave head out to a local ghost-town to find “Crazy Bill,” the local drunk, and see if he can shed any light on what happened to Joey. They find him alright… They find him dead!!!! [Sorry. Couldn’t resist] Ken shows up, and while M&D go to call the sheriff, starts looking for the killer…

Way too much creeping around a graveyard in this one. Way too much, though it is a remarkably well-illuminated cemetery, given it’s supposedly the middle of the night, and is pitch-black during the road scenes. There are virtually no aspects of this that are well-done: the performances are cardboard, the direction pedestrian, and if you don’t guess who the killer is with your first attempt, you’ll nail it with your second – simply because of the limited pool of candidates, though the characters explicitly pronouncing who he is targetting, and why, early on certainly doesn’t enhance the suspense. About the only aspect that’s remotely praiseworthy is the way the masked killer targets men, which is somewhat ahead of its time. Terrified seems especially poor when you realize Psycho came out three years previously. Now, not every such movie can be a classic, but it also fails miserably when placed beside (while I’ve made this comparison before, it’s worth repearing) the similar kind of things Hammer were making – Paranoiac was released the same year, and Nightmare the next. Even if far from the best things the studio produced, they’re still far better than this tedious and completely uninteresting effort.

They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968)

Rating: D

Dir: David Bradley
Star: Walter Stocker, Audrey Caire, Carlos Rivas, John Holland
a.k.a. Madmen of Mandoras

Technically different films, but I’m putting these two together, since they are effectively the same movie. In the 70’s, when Crown started releasing their library to TV, Madmen wasn’t long enough. So they edited it, added a significant slab of new footage at the opening, plus a car-crash borrowed from Thunder Road (which takes place at night, while the chase preceding it is in broad daylight), and also gave it a far more marketable title. Hey, presto, now the story can be sold. Both centre on Phil Day (Stocker), the son in law of Professor Coleman, who has the sole effective antidote to G Gas, a nerve agent, where a single cylinder could wipe out an entire city. He is kidnapped and taken to the Central American state of Mandoras – it turns out that Hitler didn’t die in Berlin in 1945, but escaped [well, some of him did], and is now plotting a true final solution, involving the simultaneous release of G Gas all around the world…just as soon as he gets the antidote out of the Professor. Can Phil, his wife, and the Prof’s other daughter, who is treating the whole thing as a groovy vacation, with all-expenses paid, rescue the scientist and stop the world from being taken over by a fascist head in a pickle jar?

If not quite the worst movie ever made, either incarnation of this certainly qualify as not far short. On balance, Brain is likely worse, given the horrible job done with matching the new footage – compare and contrast Prehistoric Planet – and after 25 minutes, you’ll be looking to gnaw off a limb to escape from agents Vic and Toni. That’s before you even get to the older movie, which is just dumb, incomprehensible in the most part, and with so many ridiculous elements it provokes a kind of bored pity rather than much amusement. That said, the Fuehrer concept at its core is loopily delightful. There’s nothing quite like seeing a severed head yell “Mach schnell! Mach schnell!” from under a glass dome, even if a more appropriate title would be “They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Head, Neck and the Top Bit of His Shoulders.” Also check out the head’s eventual fate, when it’s clear that the reason Hitler lost the war, was because he was made of wax. However, the tedious and poorly-written aspects vastly outweigh the fun to be had here. The original film opens with an elephant being gassed, collapsing to the ground in stock footage. While it’s supposedly to demonstrate the effects of G Gas on animals, it’s also an appropriate summary of the effect the film will have on the audience.