H: Helltown (2017)

Searching through the Discovery+ stream for something strange to start my evening, I saw that I had picked Helltown as a possibility back when we first subscribed (My wife is addicted to those house-flipping shows and hey, the complete Mythbusters and Good Eats was much too tempting). The description reads “A former military member sheds light on the 1974 evacuation of Boston, OH.” Now I had never heard of this evacuation of an entire town , so clickedy click and off I go.

We start in 2016 with phone footage from 4 teenagers who were livestreaming their trespassing into abandoned Boston. This is broken up with text in an appropriately Blair Witch-style typeface, telling us that the town had been evacuated for a State Park in the early 70s. It will also tell us the kids went into a restricted part of the park, and that one of them did not make it out alive.

This brings us to a historian professor who has Boston Ohio, or as it is more popularly known, “Helltown”, in his curriculum. He goes through the government acquisition of the town through eminent domain for a state park by President Gerald Ford, backed up by some local TV coverage. The swiftness of the resulting ouster of the townspeople gave rise to many conspiracy theories, the professor tells us. Which brings us to the person we are going to spend much of our time with, conspiracy theorist and YouTuber Terry Greenbaum (Darren White).

Yes, the theorist is played by an actor. Didn’t I mention that the professor is also an actor? Which you probably figured out because the man is way too good on camera to be just any academic. Yep, this is a mockumentary based on the actual Helltown story.

Helltown is a real place, and apparently you can visit it (but stay away from the restricted area, oooOOOooh). It’s story is more prosaic and sad than spooky, but as the professor says, it’s become a magnet for conspiracy theories and urban legends.

Greenbaum will tell us of the many strange tales about Helltown, but the most significant one is an incident just after the evacuation, when an altercation between the military and some recalcitrant Bostonians erupt in violence, leaving all but one dead – Everett MacMahon (Terry Brandon), who has kept silent about his experience – until now.

With the death of the teenage girl in that party (not by a bear attack, Greenbaum assures us, citing Jaws) and his own incipient dementia, MacMahon has decided that the truth must come out, and his narration will be supported by reenactment. A lot of reenactment, if you were still on the fence about this being real. MacMahon was part of a small Signal Corps team sent into the area after the evacuation to record and inventory what was left. But the real kicker for me is that as MacMahon continues his story and Greenbaum his investigation, the story starts veering into folk horror territory, and the reasons for Helltown’s evacuation and restriction are far more terrible and outlandish than originally thought.

That’s all I’m going to tell you. Starting what I thought to be a documentary and finding myself in folk horror, almost Lovecraftian territory, was a lovely surprise.

Not everyone had the same experience, though.

Going through the IMDb and a Google search finds this movie derided and hated, mostly because it’s fake; I see some local historians whose outrage is understandable, but a whole lot more of them seem angry that they got fooled for a while. Hey, I was also fooled for a while, though my willing participation in my own fooling was more hopeful than anything else, that such eldritch weirdness really could be possible in this world. So my reaction was more “Haha, good one, you got me!” than outright anger. The fact that this was originally presented on the show Destination America and is still hosted on the Trvl Channel doesn’t help dispel that anger.

The fact I love folk horror probably helped, in my case. No, it definitely helped. So, sorry Boston OH purists, but I really enjoyed it, and I know some others that might, as well. It was a nice little trick’r’treat surprise.

G: The Giant Claw (1957)

When you’re trying to do something like an A to Z horror movie binge, it pays to lob yourself a softball every now and then. Ideally, you like to find some semi-obscure stuff that no one’s ever heard of, not a universally-derided feature that doesn’t really need another thousand words dropped on its misshapen head, but here we are.

Besides, I hadn’t watched it in years, and when I mentioned it to a fellow Crapfest devotee, the response was “The what?” so maybe this is a good* choice after all. (*good not guaranteed)

For those of you in the “what?” category: Jeff Morrow is two-fisted electrical engineer Mitch MacAfee, who sights an enormous fast-traveling UFO while calibrating a new radar system. Military brass continue to poo-poo his sighting even after numerous planes start disappearing. Eventually it is confirmed that the UFO is actually an enormous bird from outer space, and conventional weapons are useless against it because it is surrounded by a field of anti-matter (like a lot of late 50s sci-fi monster movies, it is best to not ponder the “science” part overmuch).

MacAfee, being a two-fisted electrical engineer, quickly masters theoretical physics and creates a gun that will fire mu-mesons at the anti-matter field, rendering the bird vulnerable to rockets and plunking it’s dead ass in the sea. The end.

Mara Corday is on hand as MacAfee’s love interest Sally Caldwell, a mathematician he meets while testing that radar system. Like Morrow, she had already cemented her genre bona-fides with movies like Tarantula and The Black Scorpion. Morrow and Corday have some good chemistry when they’re allowed to, as when they are wading through some sub-Hawksian banter. Except for the fact that she actually responds favorably to MacAfee’s abrupt and rather uncomfortable two-fisted electrical engineer romancing, Caldwell is a fairly progressive character; she’s the only one that realizes the reason why the Claw has come to Earth is more important than the how to get rid of it, doesn’t hesitate to pick up and use a high-powered rifle (“I was born in Montana.”), and is essential in the rapid development of the mu-meson gun. Hell, the mu-meson gun was probably her idea.

So there’s the building block of a perfectly good late 50s sci-fi monster flick – good grief, it even has Morris Ankrum as a general! The script, however, seems more interested in the sub-Hawksian banter than in actual storytelling – it falls back on the crutch of narration too often. But where the movie runs off the rails and starts plowing through populated areas with no sign of stopping is in the production itself, courtesy of semi-infamous producer Sam Katzman.

Legend has it that the original plan was have Ray Harryhausen provide a stop-motion Claw, which proved too expensive for Katzman’s taste. He outsourced the work instead to a Mexican puppet maker for the lordly sum of 50 bucks, and there was ever an illustration for You Get What You Pay For, this monster is it. (also didn’t stop Katzman from lifting clips from Harryhausen’s Earth vs the Flying Saucers)

Jeff Morrow was famously mortified when he finally saw the finished version of the movie, slinking out before it ended to avoid facing anyone. I can only imagine what that felt like, being told told during shooting that he was reacting to something absolutely horrible, only to later find out it was the wrong kind of horrible.

“Hey! Look at my strings!

I long held that the failure of The Giant Claw was exclusively due to this cartoon turkey buzzard, and one of my Lottery-winning fantasies was to pay, say, WETA Workshop to produce better, scarier bird sequences and restore Claw to its rightful glory. My rewatch, however, proved that movie itself is too flawed for even that to help. There are several legitimately excellent sequences (the bit with the Claw scooping up helpless parachutists with a loud crunch! properly horrified me at ten years of age), but so, so much drivel propping them up it is, alas, a lost cause.

Which is why I love it.

F: Followed (2018)

Found footage movies! You love ’em or you hate ’em, and I seem to see a lot more of the latter emotion online. I regard it as another sub-genre, with entries worthy of respect, and some that should be tossed on YouTube and completely forgotten about. I found Followed to be pretty good, actually.

So what we are given is a up-and-coming video blogger named Mike (Matthew Solomon) who calls his vlog “Drop the Mike”. It’s about all sorts of unsavory subjects – suicides, gruesome murders. He’s gotten popular enough that a goth clothing line is willing to sponsor him to the tune of a quarter million if he can get his subscriber count to 50,000 by Halloween. He conducts a poll of his current subscribers and the almost-unanimous choice is the Lennox Hotel.

The Lennox is pretty transparently based on the Cecil Hotel, a skid row pile built in 1924 with a pretty horrifying history, including one time resident Richard Ramirez, “The Night Stalker”, and the disappearance of Elisa Lam – both of whom will referred to by different names, of course.

So Mike books two rooms for the Halloween weekend, one for himself and his camera crew, the adjoining one for his long-suffering editor, Nic (Caitlin Grace). The crew is his childhood friend and longtime cameraman on the vlog, Chris (Tim Drier) and sound op Dani (Sam Valentine). The manipulative Mike has booked Dani because Chris is sweet on her, and Chris wants nothing to do with this weekend. Did I mention the room booked is the one where the Lennox’s most notorious serial killer lived and cut up some of his victims?

Another of the found footage movies I really liked, Found Footage 3-D, did a very nice Scream-style breakdown of the rules for found footage movies, one of which is “Why do they keep shooting when everything is going to hell?” Mike’s been a vlogger for a long time, and almost automatically puts his cameras down where he can record conversations, often much to the ire of his friends. One of the things which will drive Nic slowly to a breakdown (not the only reason, given the surroundings) is that she’s having to run through multiple video cards a night to keep the vlogstream going.

Also in the cast is John Savage, giving the movie some needed gravitas as a local writer and expert on the Lennox. giving us the obligatory “Wait you’re not going to actually stay there?” and providing some clues as the weekend from hell wears on.

There are some things a found footage flick like this won’t be able to follow through on, and one of those is a truly coherent climax to all the spooky hotel weirdness, but it does have a quite effective ending. It’s interesting to me that we’re still using the “electronics start glitching out when something unnatural approaches” from Marble Hornets (and Silent Hill), but I admit that effect still gets my pulse racing.

Besides, you knew in the first sentence of this post if you were going to watch it or not.

D: Demon Wind (1990)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but… awwwww crap I used that lede for Assignment Terror didn’t I?

Well, you have heard this one before, because what you have here is the classic setup for what Joe Bob Briggs famously dubbed a “Spam in a cabin movie”. Not that there’s anything wrong with spam in a cabin movies. Hell, I wrote one. But I am also pleased to report that in this case, we have a movie that is determined to not just be another spam in a cabin movie.

We have a guy, Cory (Eric Larson) who is driving to the Middle of Nowhere with his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensee) to a deserted farm somewhere just past the Middle of Nowhere. Cory had found his estranged father just two weeks before – his dad had disappeared after checking into the mysterious deaths of his parents at that farm – and after the subsequent suicide of Estranged Dad, Cory is going to find out what’s what. And since this is a spam in a cabin movie, Cory has invited along a bunch of friends who will serve as the potted meat product.

First, though we have to stop at the Middle of Nowhere Gas Station and Diner, to be menaced by this movie’s Harbinger (Rufus Norris), who bluntly tells them there is no farm and to go away. (Honestly, this guy might have served as a model for the character in Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods) As more friends arrive and gather in the diner (which oddly seems to be much bigger on the inside than out), the Harbinger ramps up his menace, finally pulling a gun and threatening them if they don’t leave and go back home. This leads to a cathartic confession from the Harbinger about the night that Cory’s grandparents died, after which the Harbinger admits the gun isn’t even loaded and becomes downright human.

This deviation from the spam in a cabin template, the humanizing of a traditionally one-note character is the first indication that Demon Wind might have a few more tricks up its sleeve than your typical Evil Dead cash-in.

We already know how the grandparents died because we watched the beginning of the movie, and it wasn’t good, so its time for our 8-pack of Spam to finally find what’s left of the farm. Only the ruined facades of the cabin and barn (that blowed up real good) still stand. Oh, and a skeleton tied to a cross.

The cabin’s facade holds the next interesting twist: basically just a wall and a doorframe, looking through the door lets you see and even enter an intact cabin, apparently maintained by the magic of Cory’s grandmother. This will become important since the cars will no longer start, and attempting to leave on foot results in a mysterious fog that transports our cast to different locations, ending back up at the farm.

So we have a bunch of people boarding up a cabin that does not exactly exist, and we get to winnowing down our chopping list. This all has something to do with Cory’s lineage – that plotline gets pretty berserk – there’s a zombie siege (of course) and oddly enough, two of the Daggers of Megiddo from The Omen. Even odder, they seem to be single-use weapons.

I love Spam! I’m having Spam Spam Spam Spam actress and Spam!”

There are parts of Demon Wind that play out like the sizzle reel to raise funding – the whole spam in a cabin thing, the zombie siege (“kids love zombies!”), the stuff modeled on obvious, profitable hits. Then there are the parts where writer/director Charles Philip Moore wants to show he can stretch the envelope on these things. Talking about those times any further would rob you of the fun of discovering them on your own. And you knew if you were going to watch this movie by the second paragraph of this review.

The movie comes so close to being a hidden gem. There are drawbacks, of course, most of them budgetary (oy that animation); the script deals in stereotypes, sort of a stylistic necessity in a story that deals in wall-to-wall murders, but the women seem particularly underwritten. Still, it’s a very good attempt to not exactly transcend the genre, but stretch it out in interesting directions. I’ll take interesting variations over rote repetition any day.

C: Catacomba (2016)

This is an anthology movie inspired by Italian erotic horror comics from the 70s. If you are familiar with those, you know what to expect. If not, I’ll try to ease you into it as best I can. The movie’s poster, which is also the cover of the eponymous comic book that will serve as the delivery mechanism for our stories, serves only the slightest initimation of what went on in these books.

It’s a movie poster AND a comic book!

Examples of the stories are not that hard to find on the Interwebs – try Googling “Lorenzo Lapori comics” since he provided the comic art used throughout the flick. (This is also the name of one of the directors, so don’t get waylaid) Doing this netted me two complete stories, and allow me to say holy shit. I feel physically abused by those stories, while still being amazed by the utter perversity of the creativity being displayed. Posting any art from them to give you, in one image, a demonstration of the genre would be like posting straight up porn. Snuff porn. This is amazingly transgressive stuff – or maybe I’m finally getting old? A close mixture of sex and violent horror has always been off-putting to me, which is why I can’t enjoy the films of Jean Rollin as do so many.

So, thus fortified, let’s deal with the movie.

The mandatory framing device involves a young man seeking a haircut so he can have an evening of bouncy-bouncy with a girlfriend. Finding his usual hairdresser closed for a funeral, he happens on a flyer for “A Devil for Every Hair” salon (not a red flag, no siree). he makes his way there, and while waiting, peruses a comic book. This is, of course Catacomba, which will yield four story sequences, each beginning and ending with line art by the aforementioned Lapori.

The first involves a horror writer lolling about under a tree that, legend has it, was used to hang witches. He needs inspiration, you see, and is a bit put out when two gothy women arrive on motorcycle, but then thinks perhaps his inspiration is going to take a much more sexual form. They do indeed accost him, but then proceed to torture him in a graphic manner (including emasculation), pulling his arms off with a motorcycle, and then cutting off his head. They eat parts of his corpse, and that night Satan comes and screws them (Satan appears to be on loan from The Devil’s Rejects). Then the dead author gets reanimated as a tree monster and kills them. The end.

What? You were expecting more of an EC-style twist, with a moral or something? Ha! Forget that nonsense, this is Catacomba! Enjoy your atrocities!

The second story is going to jettison the economy of the first by presenting us with a number of threads: There is a killer in a Halloween mask stabbing people for no good reason; an unemployed scumbag raves to his friends that his wife is cheating on him; the wife insists that it is an alien who made love to her; and the scumbag’s friends decide to have some “fun” with the wife. This fun will involve rape and the murder of the scumbag, who was getting on everybody’s nerves anyway. The cops are chasing the maniac through the nearby woods, resulting in one cop dead and another wounded. The wounded cop, the murderous friends and the alien lover all wind up in the same place, where everybody dies except the alien and his lover. The maniac gets away, I guess. The end.

Incidentally, the guy waiting for the haircut is waiting so long because the hairdresser keeps taking people in back to kill them. Oops!

Third story lifts the central concept of Robert Bloch’s The Man Who Collected Poe, substituting Paganini for Poe. A noted Paganini scholar and collector has actually raised the composer from the dead and forced him to write new music for a highly anticipated anthology. The collector’s wife and her lover conspire to kill him, but the Paganini-obsessed lover just has to speak to the revenant and find out what fueled Paganini’s virtuosity. Turns out it was Satanism and stringing his violin with human guts. Go figure.

Our hero finally winds up in the barber chair, and reads the final story at the behest of the hairdresser. This one is more a chaotic tone poem than anything else, involving a Satanist seeking the spirit of his old lover, who either committed suicide or he murdered, and following yet another gothy seductress through rooms of a house with a different sex act in each room, and finally he winds up screwing the body of his former lover until the goth chick cuts him in half with a machete. Slowly.

And then the hairdresser feeds our hapless hero to the zombies in back of his shop. The end.

The Paganini story is the most handsomely mounted of the four (five, counting the framer), and is worth watching. The others are hindered by the usual mundane roadblocks of such fare – budget mainly, some corners cut story-wise (especially the alien lover story) – and some of those are no doubt due to the vicissitudes of filmmaking, where if anything can go wrong, it will.

I’ve already stated that these sorts of stories aren’t really for me. There will be some folk who are familiar with the source material and might want to check this out, though. I just hope that after the last three movies, my next one will at least feature some coherent story telling. Then again, we are also aware of who I am and what I do, so confidence is not high.

B: Blood of Ghastly Horror (1973)

I think we all know there is a movie called Blood of Ghastly Horror. We saw the video cases, the ad mats in genre magazines. And somehow I had passed it up all these years. Let me emphasize that: I used to run a movie review site called The Bad Movie Report and I had spent my entire life not watching something called Blood of Ghastly Horror.

Well, I’ve taken care of that. Go me.


Blood of Ghastly Horror opens with the murder spree of a disfigured green-faced guy who goes around crushing people, racking up five kills in a few minutes, and two of them are cops. (Budget-minded viewers will note that the cops all drive the same car, and they all park in the same alley for the entire movie) Homicide detective Cross (Tommy Kirk!) is on the job, especially after he is delivered a box containing the head of one of the dead cops. A note enclosed with the head leads him to opening an old case file about a killer named Corey (Roy Morton), and so begins our first flashback to another movie entirely.


Let’s see if we can manage better detective work than Cross in untangling this Gordian Knot of a movie. This flashback is excerpted from Adamson’s first movie, Echo of Terror, which is actually a pretty decent low-budget suspense flick about a failed jewel heist. An unwitting everyman (Kirk Duncan) gets involved when a doctor’s bag (did I mention the robbers are dressed as surgeons in full gear? Walking around an office building?) containing the jewels is hurriedly dropped in the back of his pickup truck when the heist goes sour. His daughter finds the bag and hides the jewels in her doll, which would charitably be called a Golliwog by our British readers. Thus supplied with a MacGuffin, she leaves for a tour with her nightclub star mother, supplying us with the basis for the rest of that movie.

In order to make this movie more commercial, Director Al Adamson and Producer Sam Sherman added go-go dancing and more murder for a version called Psycho A-Go-Go. Corey was already a sadist in Echo, but here blossoms into full-bore psychopathy. Now, one of the jewel robbers (played by Adamson himself) got killed in the heist (by Corey), and the cops find his fingerprints all over Adamson’s apartment – but Corey was declared dead two years before! The investigation leads to Dr. Howard Vanard (John Carradine!), who signed the death certificate. Vanard will eventually confess that Corey was one of the first casualties of Vietnam, so brain-damaged he was doomed to life as a vegetable – until Vanard installed a device in his brain that would take over from the damaged parts. The result: Corey was functional again, but was also a psycho.

My father wore this helmet to work for years.

We are, incidentally, into yet another movie, The Fiend with the Synthetic Brain, an effort to turn Psycho A-Go-Go into a science fiction movie, as the go-go dancing fad was over by the time that version was finished. It also means that Vanard engages in a flashback-within-a-flashback, which I believe is illegal by international law.

Meanwhile, back in Blood of Ghastly Horror Vanard’s estranged daughter Nancy (Regina Carroll!) shows up because she’s been receiving bizarre psychic messages to come to the city. This because Corey’s father Dr. Elton Corey (Kent Taylor!) who spent many years in Jamaica studying voodoo, is the one using the green-faced zombie (Richard Smedley) to kill everyone involved in his son’s decline and eventual death. Dr. Corey will then take us through the remainder of Psycho A-Go-Go (with a brief sidetrip to The Fiend with the Synthetic Brain for Corey the Younger to kill Carradine). Then damn near everybody dies and Tommy Kirk arrives too late, as usual. The end.

The major reason to watch/survive a movie like Blood of Ghastly Horror (besides the fact that it’s named Blood of Ghastly Horror) is to pick out the various sources, which is how I’ve survived a number of Godfrey Ho ninja stitch jobs. This is made infinitely easier here due to the fact that Psycho A-Go-Go was shot by the recently-immigrated Vilmos Zsigmond and looks gorgeous, especially those final chase scenes in mountainous wilderness. You can’t really say those sequences stand out like a sore thumb, it’s more like they stick out like a healthy thumb on a diseased hand.

I’d say that Blood of Ghastly Horror‘s value – if it truly has any – is educational as concerns the actual movie business. Unable to find distribution for a low-budget crime film with no bankable stars, it was turned into a more violent, sexy film, then a science fiction movie, then a bare-bones horror flick. It’s a fascinating process to watch, but ugly.

A: Assignment Terror (1970)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: aliens from a dying world plan to invade the Earth, and decide to start raising the dead to conquer our supposedly inferior race. Except this time the dead being raised are classic monsters, and the aliens are once again represented by Michael Rennie, in his last film role as “Doctor Warnoff”.

To aid him, Warnoff has two more of his alien pals inhabiting recently dead Earthers who have skills he requires: Maleva (Karin Dor), a biochemist, and Kerian (Angel del Pozzo), a soldier. It took me two viewings to figure out that particular part of the plot, thinking during the first runthrough that his two henchmen were simply raised from the dead. And, eventually that Warnoff himself is seemingly an alien in a Earth suit. I think.

This is not the least confusing part of the plot, either.

Warnoff starts off by pulling the wooden stake out of the skeleton of Count Janos (Manuel de Blas), a nod to the classic Universal monster mashes of the 40s, specifically House of Frankenstein. There will be enough of these nods to wear out your neck gimbal as the movie progresses. Warnoff’s plan is to infect humanity with vampire blood, which, like a lot of Warnoff’s plans, will not come to anything. Count Janos will occasionally wander around unsupervised and cause problems.

Next up, and the real reason we are all here, is the infamous lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy), whom they revivify by surgically removing the silver bullets from his still-beating heart (real open heart surgery footage – the 70s, everybody!), while Warnoff explains that the idiots back in Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror did it wrong, and helpfully informing the aide who will eventually betray him the proper way to go about killing a werewolf.

Not-Drac’s feeling much better.

Oh yeah, that’s right: Warnoff is kidnapping local women and brainwashing them with his Super Annoying Sound MachineTM. This sort of thing brings the attention of the police in the person of Inspector Toberman (Craig Hill), who seems to be the sole person in the employ of the Commissioner… no, wait, there’s a guy who brings in a file folder. So Toberman is the other cop in whatever strange land this takes place. As is traditional in these flicks, the Police are a hapless lot.

A treasure trove of information!

While Toberman meanders through his investigation, Warnoff also racks up a living mummy (George Reyes) and the Monster of um, Farancksalan. Naturally, all these personages will gather at the local creepy castle owned by Warnoff, so there will be more unrealized plans and more importantly, inter-monster carnage, while the Commissioner shows up with the Army just in time to see the castle blow up.

This is actually Paul Naschy’s second outing as Daninsky (it was supposed to be his third, but a French co-production never happened). Assignment Terror exists mainly because his first, Las Noches del Hombre Loco, was an enormous hit. Promised a healthy budget, Naschy (under his given name of Jacinto Molina) wrote a script that drew heavily on his love of the Classic Universal monsters (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man being a particular favorite of his). Then the budget did not materialize, a whole lot of plot got dropped (including the Golem of Prague and some flying saucers), production stopped several times, and there were at least three directors involved over time.

Waldemar has looked better…

Naschy himself was not very kind to the flick, being especially disappointed in the makeup effects by Francisco Ferrer. Given that Assignment Terror bends over backwards to avoid any possible legal problems with Universal (Farancksalan? Really?), I was surprised to see that the makeup for the Farancksalan Monster is a direct quote of Universal’s, kind of like a comic book simplification. Though I also note that it looks like the Monster is blind, only directed by Warnoff’s psychic guidance, which continues a thread from Ghost of Frankenstein on through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

I mean, you remember that, right? Ygor had his brain put in the Monster’s body, but the blood types didn’t match, so he went blind? And the Monster was still blind in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? Naschy sure did. How the hell Naschy managed to become such a serious Monster Kid in Franco’s repressive Spain is probably a fascinating story.

This really is a confusing jumble of a movie (small wonder). The timeline is twisted, unknowable, and extremely elastic. Although we see the beginning of his plan, Warnoff will later take credit for actually creating the monsters over thousands of years. Which is a really long time to figure out that human emotions will eventually resurface in the aliens occupying Earthly bodies, causing Plan 10 from Outer Space to ultimately fail. Warnoff’s terrible management skills must also take some of the blame.

Assignment Terror is surprisingly restrained for a Naschy script – this could have easily been shown as part of a monster double or triple feature where all the movies were rated PG at most – I could really imagine it on a bill with The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant and Twilight People. There is little blood, no sex (Count Janos will paw Maleva’s boob, in a bit that could have been easily cut)… it’s all pretty mild stuff. And yet, because of the heavy nostalgia riffs, I found myself quite enjoying it. There are several instances of lovely, moody cinematography, particularly when a tomb is involved, which is at least three times.

Despite its shortcomings – and there are many – it’s just so darned eager to please. I can see Naschy cackling because Universal never got the Mummy into their monster mash movies, and he was going to rectify that matter! And he got to do his Farancksalan vs the Wolf Man fight. That’s not nothing.

Those Missing Crapfests Pt. 1

Okay, I have a few of these to get through, so forgive me if I resort to my notes/bullet points form of communication. You know our cast of characters, so let’s just charge into No-Man’s Land.

I like to weaponize my fellow attendants’ penchant for movies featuring nudity, so for our first Crapfest we’re catching up on I brought Ken Russell’s Lizstomania, the Master of Wretched Excess’ film biography of Franz Lizst. I reviewed this one some time ago, so I’ll just plagiarize myself:

Lisztomania is concerned with the composer’s adult life, starting with his affair with the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis), then into a concert where the audience is populated by screaming young girls (causing me to flash back to the final concert scenes of A Hard Day’s Night), then onward through his years of fruitful creativity under Princess Carolyn zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (Sara Kestelman), finally ending with his exorcism of the Nazi vampire Richard Wagner, using a flame-throwing piano made of steel and glass. Then Liszt returns from the afterlife in a pipe organ spaceship powered by the women he loved in life, to defeat Wagner, resurrected as a Frankenstein Monster/Adolf Hitler with an electric guitar that doubles as a machine gun.

What I’m saying is, some liberties may have been taken with Liszt’s biography.

This is Russell’s follow-up to Tommy, which you are much more likely to have seen, and that might prepare you for the absolute lunacy that is Lizstomania, but don’t count on it. I love it for its madness, but my fellow Crapfesters did not, even though it has more exposed breasts than a Hartz Chicken Buffet. The big loser, here, though, is poor Paul. He had, numerous times, almost rented the movie at Blockbuster, only to bypass it for more user-friendly fare, and he was really looking forward to seeing it that night. Alas, he found out his younger self was looking out for him much better than I did.

I was dismayed that the group did not recognize the opening scene of Das Rheingold, but then the Russell version does involve more Rhinemaidens, nudity and implied rape than Wagner’s, and less of his music. Haven’t even mentioned the cameos by Ringo Starr (as The Pope), Rick Wakeman and Nell “Columbia” Campbell.

Dave’s reply to this was Caged Women. Now, there are approximately one hundred and eighty-eight movies named Caged Women, so to clarify, this particular one is the 1991 Italian/Portuguese co-production also known as Caged Women in Purgatory. Beautiful American Janet (Pilar Orive) is, for some inexplicable reason, vacationing alone in South America – not someplace touristy like Rio, but what a certain chief exec would refer to as a “shithole country”. When a local corrupt cop hits on her in a cantina, she is recused by another “American”, Frank (Christian Lorenz). R-rated sex between the two Anglos ensues.

But! Said corrupt cop arrests her on fake drug charges and she gets sent to a remote women’s prison. You can apply your standard women’s prison template after this, with some minor alterations. The warden makes no secret of the prison being a bordello, forsaking the usual Philippine-lensed sugar plantations. The prison is an old ruined castle with some sort of huge cage on the roof, where prisoners are thrown for discipline so the crew didn’t have to build a “hot box”. Janet is thrown into it along with a fellow rebellious prisoner, and the only liquid available is the sweat on their own bodies, so we are eventually led into an R-rated lesbian sex scene. Speaking of lesbians, there is also a female guard who likes whipping prisoners on a St. Andrew’s cross.

And speaking of R-rated scenes, Frank was so impressed by his sex scene that he’s been doing detective work on what happened to Janet and even manages to substitute himself for the regular helicopter pilot to the prison. Just in time, too, because the warden has arranged for a Most Dangerous Game scenario with Janet and her rebellious prison mates. It’ll solve come discipline problems and act as an apology to some of his clientele, especially the one Janet kneed in the balls when he tried to rape her.

Frank manages to hide guns in the tiger pits meant for the girls and some satisfying mayhem ensues. The prisoners are freed, and the lesbian guard winds up in the cross, discovering she likes being whipped. Janet and her side action from that cage on the roof fly out with Frank, and decide to show him how grateful they are while he’s still flying the helicopter. Amusing as that may be, it is exceedingly dangerous, and I can only assume the movie ends just before they crash.

I went into this with a little bit of apprehension, as some of the European versions of WiP movies can be deadly nihilistic, but this particular one is not bad. Pilar Orive deserves some plaudits for spending most of the movie naked, or nearly so. Our audience certainly thought so.

We had fallen to reminiscing about the days of weird martial arts movies at Crapfest, and it turned out Erik had never seen Master of the Flying Guillotine, so we fixed that. If you haven’t, you should fix that, too. Especially if you were a Street Fighter 2 fan and ever fought Dhalsim. This was, like, the third time we’ve shown this movie at Crapfest.

We finished up with a tale of kung fu treachery, Chang Cheh’s Masked Avengers, starring the Venoms. The story this time out concerns a band of bandits who always wear garish masks while they rob and murder. My favorite Venom, Kuo Chui/Philip Kwok is one of the bandits who’s split off from the gang – after their usual attack and slaughter of a family on the road, they kept the pretty daughter. Robbing and murder is perfectly alright with Kuo, but rape is just beyond the pale. This puts him a position to aid the rest of the family in tracking down the bandits hideout to rescue the girl (unfortunately useless, the gang’s depredations have driven her mad), and put an end to the bandits reign of terror.

Chang Cheh’s flicks are often distinguished by their cruelty, and Masked Avengers might have the crown in that category, as lots of helpless people are pincushioned by the bandits’ trademark tridents and made to die slowly. The movie is fairly light on the fight scenes, until the final storming of the hideout, which results in an epic fight that lasts an astounding, exhausting nine and a half minutes.

Have you all been nice boys and girls? Well, okay then.

All right! Three more of these to get through!


Galaxy Lords (2018)

It has been a hectic and horrible couple of weeks, let me tell you. Most of it is extremely boring, unless you’re in my skin, and you don’t want to be in here, it would get too crowded. So let’s talk about movies.

One of the non-horrible pieces of news in this period was the Criterion Channel finally going live. I’ve only had time to look around briefly, but I have loved what I’ve seen. Several films I’ve always meant to track down and watch are now literally at my fingertips. The Spirit of the Beehive, Tokyo Story, Last Hurrah for Chivalry, The 400 Blows. Spectacularly, there’s also Karl Zeman’s Baron Prasil, under its more familiar American title The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. That was my introduction to Zeman, on a laserdisc I found in a cutout bin years ago. I recalled Tim Lucas praising it in the late, lamented Video Watchdog, and it was a dazzling purchase I never regretted. It gives me hope we will see a Zemen set from Criterion at some point. To my fellow subscribers: add that to “My List” right now,  if not watch it right away. It is that much fun.

So, with some of the greatest cinema in the world at my disposal, what did I watch? Galaxy Lords.

To demonstrate the enormity of this disconnect, I should forego my usual practice of putting the trailer after the review, and serve it up to you right now:

Some of you are reacting with appropriate horror. Most of you are thinking, From you, I expect nothing less.

In case you couldn’t figure out the plot from that trailer, here’s the official synopsis from their IndieGoGo campaign:

A mere decade after the Heptigalaxial Cosmic Infinity War, the Kingdom of the Seven Galaxies is once again on the precipice of oblivion. The evil prince ADORASTIUS has escaped his icy incarceration and threatens the universe with the most fantastical yet calamitous power imaginable.

The multiverse cries out in peril, and the beleaguered hero GALACTIC COMMANDER HELIOS must forge a crew of old friends and new allies to defend the sanctity of the cosmos. Still tormented by the shadows of the past, he must once again breathe the air that smells of interstellar combat.

From the tranquil glades of KELVADOR to the perilous crags of GRINDLEBAR, the fate of the history of all existence rests upon the shoulders of the GALAXY LORDS!

To the obvious: this is a tribute to the movies that flooded cinemas after the summer of Star Wars. In a backstory that will itself be exceedingly familiar to anyone who follows low budget movies, it was shot by a group of friends on weekends and holidays over a course of several years. Its reported budget is $15,000, and all that money (all that money – it is to larf) is quite literally on the screen. It is remarkably cheap and cheesy, and that is kind of the point. The costumes (including the wigs and beards) are from thrift stores, with possibly a few leftovers from cosplaying; the armor is literally cardboard, and so is  a lot of the tech and miniatures, along with pieces from the hardware store put together with what the filmmakers say is “a horrifying amount of hot glue”. Every single scene is green-screened with a fabricated background, even the few that probably would have been easier to do in an actual location.

A lot of the reviews I’ve read of Galaxy Lords latches onto the 80s sensibilities and utterly excoriate the movie for its budgetary limitations. I think the primary problem with these reviews is they are deliberately ignoring the cybernetic gorilla in the room, and that is amount of inspiration derived from anime. One look at the meticulously overdone eye makeup on the character Wranthelon (director Von Bilka, who also plays the villain, Adorastius) should clue you in to that. The overwrought angst of our hero Helios (co-writer Dan Underhill, also villainous Chicago-accented sidekick Quazar) is also lifted from any given anime movie/series; and my favorite lift is the very end, when Helios addresses what’s left of his crew in a St. Crispin’s Day speech that promises excitement and high adventure in pursuit of the villain, getting your blood to a fever pitch – and then the movie ends. Not sure how many tapes I saw in the 80s cobbled together from TV episodes that ended that way, but there were enough to scar me.

Visual tropes from anime are present too – good grief, just look at Wafelord Hagglehawk and his immensely impractical warhammer! – and my absolute favorite is when the Lords of the Galaxy finally get back together to help Helios and each one is given their own animated intro with high tech animated backgrounds, Olen Mills double exposures, and a flyby of their ship. This entire flick is like Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars had a sleepover with a bunch of sci-fi anime bootleg tapes and somebody spiked the punch with MDMA. If you miss the tremendous love for anime at also at work here, you’re going to miss a lot of the fun.

The miniature work here (by Nicholas Schwartz), the landscapes, fantastic cities and space battle scenes are gorgeous. With the Lords of the Galaxy you have seven different ships, each different with unique cockpits, controls and weapon arrays. Yes, yes, Battle Beyond the Stars did that, but they had a budget of $2 million. These guys had three fiddy, an out-of-commission GameCube, and an abundance of pluck. This is a labor of love, and it looks great.

The baroque storyline and dialogue is delivered with earnestness – this isn’t a jokey pastiche, but it is an amusing sendup if you’re willing to accept it for what it is, and ride with the archness of the offering. It is about 20 minutes too long – perhaps even as much as 30 – but by golly, they finished it, it looks slick, and I admire them for that.

It’s on Prime Video, even. Go for it.



Two Generations of Digital Monstrosity

So, how’s that thing where you watch movies of quality again going?

Just fine, thanks.

What have you watched so far?

Er, a couple of Asian monster movies.

That doesn’t sound like we’re talking about the same thing.

Go away, I explain.

Monstrum was a fair box office hit in Korea last year, but dropped behind Searching in its second week of release and never recovered the lead. We’re in that very popular period of Korean history for their genre flicks, the Joseon era, 1527, in this case. King Jung Jong is having a difficult time; his court, led by an ambitious Prime Minister, is actively opposing him, and using a supposed rampage by a monster to make him appear weak and ineffectual. The king tracks down one of his old captains – Yoon Gyeom – who had gone into self-imposed exile years before. He had been present at a massacre of an entire village to contain an epidemic, found one survivor – a baby girl – with no trace of disease, and after excoriating the court for their extreme response, left to raise the girl, along with his faithful lieutenant. Knowing him to be a righteous man, Jung Jong asks him to take his rank back up to investigate the monster situation.

Well, something is killing lots of people in a bloody manner, and there seems to be a resurgence in the disease that led to the massacre years before. Yoon, however, is skeptical; too many of the bodily remains of the supposed monster slaughter bear odd marks that look like rope burns. And, of course, the political maneuvering continues, muddying the waters further.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Okay SPOILER alert here, though it’s pretty much spoiled by the trailer below, anyway: yes, the whole monster thing is a plot by the wicked Prime Minister to overthrow the government and take over. But, goshdarn it, there actually is a Monster, it’s the source of that disease, and the Prime Minister’s machinations serve to not make it royally pissed off, but also manage to bring it right into the Imperial Palace. There is a fair amount of mayhem ensuing.

I’m trying to be fairly circumspect here, because Monstrum is an enjoyable movie and I want you to experience it yourself. What I feared was going to be a rehash of Brotherhood of the Wolf turned out to be a bit more nuanced, and more brutal in execution. I really need to apologize to the actors and filmmakers here, because my aged Western brain is not having much success with parsing the Korean names – which after years of watching Chinese and Japanese movies just feels like a complete personal failure. This is because I want to praise what becomes the core of our good guys; Yoon (Kim Myung-Min) is easy, but I can’t easily pin down his lieutenant (Kim Im-Kwon), the grown girl Yoon rescued (who has become a expert archer and medicine woman)(Lee Hye-Ri), and the young courtier who falls in love with her (Choi Woo-Shik). (Thank God for that trailer! It helped me maintain a small degree of journalistic integrity) The chemistry between these actors is quite good, and though you sense that this story is pretty much a one-off experience, you’d like to see more of them by the movie’s end.

For reasons that will soon be apparent, I followed this up with Moon Over Tao, with which I have a fairly shameful and stupid relationship. This came out on domestic VHS in the late 90s, and I dutifully bought it, and then never watched it. So this was the perfect time, I thought, and now I have to write about it without getting it confused with Monstrum.

Getting old sucks.

Let’s start the confusion early: Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima) returns to his old lord years after leaving his service to become a monk. He returns because he dreamed of an old comrade in trouble. This comrade, we find, was investigating the source of a marvelous sword taken from a captured bandit, and has not returned. To demonstrate, the samurai Hayate (Hiroshi Abe) uses the sword to cut through a sizable rock as if it were paper. Suikyou leaves to find his comrade, but the Lord insists Hayate tag along. Along the way they meet Reika (Reila Aphrodite), a young orphan girl and beekeeper. Then things get complicated.

Reika witnesses the arrival of, and a fight between, three alien women (all played by Yûko Moriyama), who are seeking a biological weapon they call the Makaraga. One of the women throws herself between her two comrades as they fight, and gets mortally wounded for her trouble. While the fight rages on across the countryside, Reika tends to the dying woman, who explains to her the plot and gives her the Tao, a tuning fork-like device that can “seal the Makaraga”.


In the interest of moving things along (and the plot is fairly complex): Suikyou is certain his old acquaintance Kakugyo (Gene Ballard), a monk gone evil, is the source of all problems. Indeed, Kakugyo is the leader of the bandits; he found a meteorite and stripped away its metal exterior to make the invincible swords his men wield, and in the center, a strange globe from which his mystic senses receive what seem to be fragmented memories: it is, of course, the Makaraga, which the alien womens’ race found so terrible they sealed it in metal and buried it on a desolate moon centuries before. Then, doggoneit, the moon blew up and the Makaraga fell to Earth. One of the surviving women wants to use it to foment revolution on their home planet; the other wants to keep it sealed away forever. Movie plots being what they are, Kakugyo is going to stumble upon the way to revive the Makaraga during what should have been the final battle, and that turns out to be a bad thing, as the beastie is not only immortal, it is eternally hungry.

While Moon Over Tao lacks the political intrigue of Monstrum (though there is a bit – Suikyou is there to kill Kakugyo, and is shocked when Hayate tries to negotiate with him for the sale of the swords to his master), it’s a lot more fun. Well, maybe it’s more fun because of that. I’m surprised there aren’t more examples of Japanese sci-fi mixed with chambara – the only other instance I can think of offhand is Orochi the 8-Headed Dragon – but it’s the internet, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of more. Suikyou is a remarkable character – he carries with him a period clipboard so he can paint one-off magic scrolls on the spot, and his battle staff conceals an enormous paintbrush for the same purpose. The magic fights between Suikyou and Kakugyo are creative and kinetic. And the screenplay is full of little bits that become quite significant later, something I always appreciate.

But we’re here to talk about monsters, aren’t we? We love monsters!

Monstrum‘s beastie is almost totally CGI, as you expect for a 2018 flick – I think I spotted a few shots with CGI-sweetened animatronics, but I could also be wrong. It’s actually a pretty good monster, if still a bit hyper-real – that hair is just a little too distinct. It looks like an enormous monkey dog fed on steroids and evil intent, and it has a disturbing bit of humanity about the face, allowing it to show some emotion, while skeeving us out.

Oooooooh dear

The Makaraga is a mix of animatronics and, sadly, 1997 CGI. It’s actually pretty good CGI for 1997, but it evidences a major problem in that era – trying to make the CGI creation look like it has weight. The Makaraga walks and glides too easily in its environments, and the difference between the animation and the real-world constructions that people interact with is all too obvious. The design does feel genuinely alien, though, so high marks for that.

Monstrum and Moon Over Tao feel largely cut from the same cloth, but are different enough to forge their own identities. Monstrum for straight adventure, Moon Over Tao for popcorn pulp. Just don’t watch them practically back to back, as I did, or they will start blending into each other, and you’ll start feeling like a senile fool when you talk about them.