M: Madhouse (1974)

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madhouseIf there was one thing – one thing – I have taken away from 70s horror movies, it’s that “monster rallies” almost inevitably suck. I’m not talking about actual monster rallies, but movies that gathered together the gray eminences of horror stars in the same flick. Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, John Carradine, any combination of the above should be marvelous. What they are, usually, is quite tedious. This may be a problem with the horror genre overall in the 70s, desperately trying to re-invent itself in a new era with real-life horror vomiting forth from living room TVs every night. Watch Bogdanovich’s Targets again and realize in how many ways it was a prophetic piece of work, not only cinematically, but in the real world.

Well, sometimes they’re not too terrible, perhaps in spite of themselves. Madhouse falls into this category.

madhouse

That is, however, some very nice makeup.

Vincent Price plays Pete Toombs, an actor who has made his fortune playing a character named Dr. Death in a very successful series of movies (which always seem to look a lot like movies made by co-producers AIP in the 60s, hmmmmm…). During a fairly fractious New Years party “five years ago”, Toombs has a falling-out with his young bride-to-be, and later finds her decapitated body. It’s possible that he killed her in some sort of fugue state, and he spends several years in a mental institution.

In present day, he is called to England by his old friend, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), a former actor himself and writer of the Dr. Death flicks. Flay has joined with producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) – who caused the falling-out five years ago – to produce a Dr. Death TV series. Toombs resists at first, still unquiet over his fiancee’s death, and above all, fearful of Dr. Death. “He frightens me. I’m frightened of what he can do.”

eviltimesmovieb1Well, needless to say, being a horror movie and all, it’s not long before the bodies start stacking up like cordwood. Toombs gets stressed out, closes his eyes, we see hands donning black gloves, and someone wearing Dr. Death’s costume kills someone else in ways reminiscent of the movies. A very real problem is that whoever the killer is wears a skull mask, so it’s obviously not Toombs committing the murders (if it was, why bother with the mask?). In fact, the culprit is pretty transparent from the get-go, though the movie tries to obscure this over the next 90 minutes or so. When the last line of  a flick is, “It’s your favorite dish… sour cream and red herrings” that notice has been noisily nailed to the wall.

Yes, this is famously (and obviously) one of those movies where the script was being written even as scenes were being shot. Supposedly based on a novel by Angus Hall, Devilday, about the only things left over are the main character’s name and the fact that he was a horror star. Everything else was in an improvisational muddle right up to the end, which is just as confusing and unlikely as anything else preceding it. There is a reason this was the final collaboration between AIP and Amicus.

madhouse2But another thing I learned from watching allllll these British horror movies from the 60 and 70s: even in the worst of them, the actors can be relied upon on to take the whole thing seriously. They do not camp or mince about, unless the material explicitly calls for it; even Christopher Lee, when he refused to say his lines as Dracula because he found them too gawdawful, once that camera was rolling and “Action” was called, hit his mark and made with the scary.

Every actor in Madhouse gives it his or her all, even though the script does not particularly reward them for it. Price is especially good, Cushing is sadly wasted, for the most part. Robert Quarry was obviously being groomed to replace Price as AIP’s horror guy, but increasingly it became obvious they had no idea how to facilitate that, which is too bad: he’s always solid. I was also pleased that I recognized Linda Hayden from Blood on Satan’s Claw.

The conceit of using footage from Price’s earlier movies as previous Dr. Death flicks allows us to enjoy sequences with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone – and to ballyhoo their names in the opening credits as “Special Participation by…”

Leave it to AIP to find a way to exploit you after your death. It’s a device lifted from that earlier mentioned, Corman-produced Targets. Too bad AIP learned the wrong lesson from Corman, or, rather, badly misinterpreted it.

Buy Madhouse on Amazon

The First Crap of Spring

So there were a bunch of us who had Good Friday off, for a variety of reasons. Enough of us – back in February, we did it with only four people, and frankly, it has been done with three. At any rate, it was time for an impromptu Crapfest.

We were pretty determined to take it easy, and the first hour – Rick and I arrived at Casa Dave at 3:00 – was spent on the patio, watching Dave grill and smoke these Flintstone-style brontosaurus ribs he had hand-rubbed the day before. Alan made a surprise appearance, having been given the day off at the last minute, and when Paul arrived – his first Crapfest in a while – we began.

How Dave’s ribs tasted: artist’s representation

Well, first, we had some of those ribs. Let me say I am not a great fan of pork ribs, but Dave’s alchemy had wrought magical changes in this meat. The very last scene in Lynch’s Eraserhead, where Henry embraces the Girl in the Radiator in heaven, all white light and one sustained, heavenly note? That was the first bite into these ribs. And every subsequent bite thereafter.

Then we began.

At one of those Crapfests, in the faraway land of 2011, while we were watching 70s variety TV and watching Dave scream with horror, Paul had brought up the subject of Alice Cooper: The Nightmare, an ABC special done in the In Concert time slot. Basically, it’s Alice’s then-current album, Welcome to My Nightmare, done in long video form… in 1975. Well, I dug up a copy – it had ever only been released on VHS – and here is Vincent Price making damned sure the producers got their money’s worth:

(Or rather we would if the YouTube version of Scrooge hadn’t scoured any excerpt from that special off the Innernets. Somebody give me lots of money so I can start hosting videos on my site.)

Shorn of commercials, The Nightmare is only an hour long, and frankly, even then, it comes close to wearing out its welcome (and mind you, this is an Alice Cooper fan talking here). But just when it reaches that point, it ends, so the worst thing that can be said about it is I have been walking around with Alice Cooper music stuck in my head ever since. Not such a bad thing. (again – Alice Cooper fan)

But then, as Dave arose to change discs after the end credits rolled, something happened… somebody had put something on the disc after Alice Cooper. Something horrible. Who could have done such a thing?

*giggle*

Yes, it was the full infomercial for Harvey Sid Fisher’s Astrology Songs, shot with two cameras, a simple video switcher and probably two hours in a studio with three or maybe four interpretive dancers – we kept losing track. Mr. Fisher is still around, and still selling music – give him a shot.

You know, I was expecting the “stop” button to be hit after a couple of minutes, the joke told. But no, you guys surprised me: you stuck it out through the entire zodiac. Respect.

I also suspect that the desire to go through the whole thing was fueled by Dave’s heavy sighs and eye-rollings. And also when his wife, Ann got home and Dave was heard telling her, “No, we are not running it back so you can hear your sign!”

After that… well, the whole thing was so impromptu, we hadn’t really established a battle order. I had brought a stack of DVDs, and Dave had brutally gone through it and arranged them in order of *harrumph* quality (and totally dissed my copy of Wicked World, autographed by Barry “Things” Gillis!). When it was commanded we watch something with “lots of kicking”, it was time for The Magic Blade. Here, have a window-boxed, spoileriffic trailer:

Ti Lung plays Fu Hung-hsieh, a complete badass who may not have been based on The Man With No Name, but he is certainly wearing the only poncho in the World of Martial Arts. He also carries a remarkable custom sword that is a combination of a machete and a tonfa. If that isn’t enough for you, he’s come back to fight Lo Lieh’s character, Yen Nan-fei, a year after their first duel; the rematch gets postponed when somebody tries to kill Yen repeatedly, and Fu as well. As ever, somebody is trying to take over The World of Martial Arts, and is eliminating all competitors in his quest to obtain the legendary Peacock Dart, a sort of martial arts neutron bomb. And he’s doing it with a small army of colorful henchmen, with names like The Wood Devils and Devil Granny.

If, like me, your major exposure to old school Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks had been Chang Cheh’s blood-and-thunder exercises with the Venoms, the films of director Chor Yuen are a bracing breath of fresh air. Largely doing film adaptations of the pulpy wuxia novels by Ku Long, these are like detective novels infused with distilled Chinese martial arts flicks, and they are amazing. I started really getting into Hong Kong martial arts flicks with Chang’s Kid With the Golden Arm, when I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I was watching a comic book made flesh, all superhero battles and internecine conflict; Chor Yuen and Ku Long’s universe embraces that fully, right down to the colorful noms de guerre of the bad guys. Black Pearl, Iron Flute, The 5 Poison Kid, Serpent King… and in my limited time, I can’t find the exact reference, but I recall a villain translated as something like Venomous Eddie, the Stun-Dude.

I am thankful Image Entertainment put out a nice DVD of this using the Celestial Pictures restored print, but with the added option for the English dub. Those old, familiar voices I’ve heard for years. Best of all, if you want to severely injure your friends, use the “But still” drinking game. One of the phrases used by English dubs to fill up lip movement is “But still”, and The Magic Blade has a metric ton of them. Guaranteed alcohol poisoning by the end of the flick.

We had our second wind now, and while Rick warmed up the delicious pulled pork he had brought (which would be enriched by a variety of fruit salsas – amazing stuff) we filled the time with movie trailers from the 42nd Street Forever: Alamo Drafthouse Edition, wherein I discovered that Dave had never seen Message From Space, which I found astounding in someone who had been the Ultimate Star Wars Nerd until the prequels broke him of that behavior – and that Sonny Chiba’s The Bodyguard looks incredible:

Then, our bellies full and far too torpid to make a run for it, Dave decided it was time for his contribution. Keep in mind, now, that Dave is a vengeful monster, probably still smarting over Astrology Songs. Hell, probably still smarting over Things and Darktown Strutters. Therefore, he began the 1997 unsuccessful TV pilot for The Justice League of America. Never shown in America, it was instead shipped over to Europe, because we hate Europe.

(First, HD trailer, my ass, second of all… isn’t that the theme from the infinitely superior animated series?)

If you were smart enough to not click on that, here’s an overview, of sorts. Our licensed DC heroes are The Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, Fire, and Ice – all turned into young twenty-somethings, so it’s a sort of proto-Smallville, though I didn’t hate that series as much as I hate this idea. You see, they’re almost all sharing a house, and there are, therefore, pseudo-Big Brother interludes where the heroes, in their civvies, talk humorously about being superheroes.

Besides the obvious – who are these guys, who supposedly guard their secret identities jealously, making these interview tapes for… well, there’s a plethora of things wrong. The Flash here is Barry Allen, supposedly dead for twelve years in continuity, and chronically unemployed. We never see his origin because that took place on his freaking job as a police forensic scientist. And well, also because they stole his origin for Ice’s origin. A guy trying to get a date with Fire’s secret identity recognizes her as the heroine on TV largely because all she does is smear some makeup under her eyes. Dave, when he wasn’t giggling like the Riddler at our pain, was complaining about the off-model costumes or moaning that Green Lantern was being a dick. That, at least was to expected, because it was Guy Gardner.

Well, not all of us were too stuffed to run away, because Paul and Alan, who are always our designated wusses, slinked out during this. If you are not a Designated Wuss, you can check out the whole heavy-sigh-inducing thing on YouTube. I do not recommend it.

So we remaining three needed a bit of fresh air afterwards, and I convinced Dave to put on Point Blank, because Lee Marvin being a badass can heal many wounds.

I’ll be frank: since the last time I’d seen Point Blank,I’d read the source novel, The Hunter, by Richard Stark aka Donald E. Westlake, and I’d conflated the two; the movie is quite definitely drawn from the book, but the novel is leaner, meaner, more tense. John Boorman directed the movie, and there’s quite a bit of Boorman angst and psychedelic melancholy at play here, way more than I remembered. But it’s a good flick, a good way to decompress, and man, Lee Marvin really does want his money, which became our riff for what was left of the evening. “That guy must really want his money.”

It was late, we started packing up, and Dave found a showing of Mortal Kombat on cable. Rick said goodnight, but I remained through the end. Hey, it was Mortal Kombat, and if you can’t understand that, then I’m afraid you can’t understand Crapfest, either.