Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 33: "Anatomy of a Psycho" (1961)

Anatomy of a Psycho has an extremely opportunistic title, wouldn't you say?

"I walked down the alley and through the door of this little studio, and there behind a desk in this very dingy, small office sat Boris Petroff, who wanted me to write an ad. I said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Petroff,' and did all the bullshit that you usually do when you're trying to get as many ads out of somebody as you possibly can so that you can make a little more commission."
-writer and director John D.F. Black

Tor Johnson as Lobo in The Unearthly.
Boris Petroff. Yes, we've heard that name before around here, though it doesn't show up until page 207 (out of 231) in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and even then makes only a fleeting appearance.  Both low-budget independent filmmakers trying to make a dollar and a cent in the brutal business we call show, Petroff and Wood crossed paths several times in the late 1950s and early 1960s, perhaps more often than has been documented.

Let's refresh ourselves on the most obvious connections between these two men. On his 1970s writing resume, Eddie proudly credited himself with the screenplay for the Petroff-directed Shotgun Wedding (1963), along with another supposed Petroff production called Talk Sexy, Y'all, which Grey speculates is merely an alternate title for Shotgun Wedding. Moreover, Boris' infamous non-shocker, The Unearthly (1957), features Wood regular Tor Johnson as a lumbering henchman named Lobo, the very same character name Johnson used in Ed's films Bride of the Monster (1955) and Night of the Ghouls (1959). The only difference between the Lobo in Petroff's movie and the Lobo in Ed's movies is that the former can (sort of) talk. No true fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will ever forget Johnson's immortal line, "Time for go to bed!" Otherwise, the characters are nearly identical, and Johnson never played Lobo in any other films.

According to its credits, The Unearthly was co-written by "Geoffrey Dennis" -- a pseudonym for erstwhile Star Trek scribe John D.F. Black -- and Boris Petroff's wife, Jane Mann. Jane was the one who, along with the elusive and likely nonexistent "Larry Lee," a man with no other titles in his filmography, got onscreen credit for writing Shotgun Wedding. Since Ed Wood was only too eager to claim authorship of that film, it is possible that Jane Mann was given a vanity credit by virtue of being the director's wife. As for her supposed contributions to The Unearthly, here's what John D.F. Black had to say on the subject in an interview with author Tom Weaver in a book called Science Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and Filmmakers (McFarland, 2002):
I was working on the script [for The Unearthly], delivering pages, and then I realized it would become a nightmare if I kept doing it that way. So I just didn't show up for ten days, and finished it. I delivered it to Mr. Petroff, who gave it to Jane, his wife, who typed it. I can't type. [...] And then it was time for the picture to be edited and for credits to be discussed, and it turns out that Jane Mann, who was the one who typed the script last, put her name on it. And Mr. Petroff was not gonna pay me.
Writer-actor Don Devlin
Very interesting, wouldn't you say? John D.F. Black has an extensive, thirty-year career as a writer in film (Shaft) and television (everything from Charlie's Angels to Murder She Wrote), while Jane Mann has only three movies to her name... all of them directed by her husband. If Black is to be believed, Mann was nothing more than a typist on The Unearthly. And if Ed Wood is to be believed, Shotgun Wedding's script was all his doing. So if Jane Mann didn't really write The Unearthly or Shotgun Wedding, it is reasonable to assume that she didn't write Anatomy of a Psycho either. Then who did? Well, one obvious answer is the film's credited co-writer, Don Devlin (1930-2000), who has an interesting and varied filmography as an actor, including a pivotal role in Anatomy of a Psycho, along with credits as a producer (The Witches of Eastwick) and a screenwriter (Thunder Island, which he co-wrote with Jack Nicholson). But a dark horse candidate is Edward D. Wood, Jr.

The IMDb doesn't list Anatomy of a Psycho among Eddie's writing credits, and neither Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy nor Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius include it in their coverage of Wood's career. But Philip R. Frey's invaluable website Ed Wood Online does include Anatomy in its filmography section, and the film isn't even shunted off to the "Apocrypha" there but instead is nestled between Shotgun Wedding and Married Too Young (1962), the film I'll be covering next week. Incidentally, if you are at all curious about the career of the Russian-born director Boris Petroff, who almost always worked under the pseudonym "Brooke L. Peters," I'd highly recommend that you locate a copy of Tom Weaver's Science Fiction Confidential. In its chapter about The Unearthly, John D.F. Black comments in more detail about Petroff's appearance and personality than I was able to find anywhere else.

After poking a little fun at Petroff's heavy Russian accent, Black recalls, "He was a charming man, I would guess somewhere between five-ten and six feet; on the heavy side but not fat." Black also supplies an intriguing little anecdote about actor Tor Johnson:
He was playing Lobo... and he was sick of playing characters named Lobo. [...] He asked, "Why did you name me Lobo?" and I said, "I didn't. Boris did!" He had his "Lobo suit," which was slightly adapted, and that's what you see in the picture [The Unearthly]. That was his own wardrobe. He was a sweetheart. 
Again, let me say that I can find no record of Tor Johnson playing Lobo in anything other than the two Ed Wood movies and the one Boris Petroff movie. Apparently for Tor, those were more than enough.

ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO (1961)

A misleadingly racy lobby card for Anatomy of a Psycho.

The best DVD of the film.

Alternate titles: This film's title is its best selling point. Why give it any other name? In South America, though, the title translated as Young People Without Conscience.

Availability: As a public domain movie, Anatomy of a Psycho is widely and freely available. You can stream or download it from Archive.org if you so desire, for instance. It's also been included in any number of boxed sets, including Psycho-Rama (St. Clair Entertainment, 2009), Pure Terror (Mill Creek, 2010) and Psychos (BCI/Eclipse, 2003). It's available alongside Mario Bava's Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) on a DVD called Killer Creature Double Feature (Madacy Records, 2001), which also contains some extra cartoons. In addition, Anatomy of a Psycho has been released as a standalone disc (Alpha Video, 2006). By all accounts, however, the DVD which offers the clearest, sharpest print of the film is a double-feature Drive-In Collection disc (Vinegar Syndrome, 2013) which pairs it with Richard Hilliard's The Lonely Sex (1959). Although the disc is light on special features, its picture quality far surpasses that of the public domain versions floating around out there.

The backstory: Why am I including this movie in my survey of Ed Wood's career when both Rudolph Grey and Rob Craig skipped right past it in theirs? The culprit is probably writer David C. Hayes, who included this speculative passage about Anatomy of a Psycho in his book, Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. in a chapter temptingly titled "The 'Lost' Films":

The onscreen writing credits for Anatomy of a Psycho.
This film has been on the tail end of drive in double bills for years. It contains juvenile delinquency (what else) and has the patented crazy Wood characters, senseless violence, and an ambiguous moral. For novelty effect, Ronnie Burns stars as the delinquent (he is the real-life son of George Burns and Gracie Allen). Directed by Boris Petroff (for whom Ed had worked previously), the writing is credited to Larry Lee. Poor Larry must have been shunned in Hollywood after Anatomy because he has written nothing since. Unless... yes! Larry Lee is another Ed Wood pseudonym! Here is the evidence: there is a character named Duke (after Wood's friend, Duke Moore), there is a character named Marco (after Wood's friend Paul Marco), there is a character named Shirlee (because Wood loves that name), the film uses the same music as Plan 9 from Outer Space and the characters and dialogue is [sic] really awful and strange. Besides, Rudolph Gray [sic] (a noted Wood expert) also believes that Ed Wood wrote Anatomy of a Psycho.
That's a densely-layered paragraph, so let me address some of the salient points individually:

  • Since Anatomy was a cheaply-available exploitation film, the assertion that it played for years on the drive-in circuit seems quite plausible.
  • Like many of the writers and directors of his era, Wood did tackle the issue of juvenile delinquency in such films as Jail Bait, The Violent Years, The Sinister Urge, Night of the Ghouls, and the unfinished Hellborn, as well as such pulp novels as Devil Girls and Hell Chicks.
  • It's a matter of personal taste whether the "crazy characters" and "senseless violence" in Anatomy of a Psycho are particularly Wood-ian in nature. We'll discuss that in the "viewing experience" section. As for the issue of morals, Ed Wood was in many ways a very conservative man, and he had no tolerance whatsoever for juvenile delinquency. His films and novels, therefore, often employ a no-nonsense brand of justice with severe penalties for wrongdoers.
George & Ronnie Burns
  • Ronald Jon "Ronnie" Burns (1935-2007), the adopted son of George and Gracie, is the top-billed actor in the film, but his character is the wholesome hero, not a delinquent. Although a rather uninspiring presence onscreen, Burns is nevertheless an intriguing pop culture footnote. He may have been one of the first high-profile examples of a child being adopted by celebrities, thus making him a role model or icon to other adopted children. Ronnie, who according to his wife "lived a pretty charmed life growing up," is probably best known for appearing as a fictionalized version of himself on his parents' 1950s TV show. Anatomy was one of his few film roles, but he worked in television into the 1960s, including his own short-lived vehicle called Happy, then ditched acting to pursue boat racing and real estate.
  • Anatomy of a Psycho was released two years before the first documented Wood/Petroff collaboration, i.e. Shotgun Wedding. The Unearthly predates them both, but there is no evidence that Wood had any direct involvement in that film. So the assertion that Eddie had worked for Boris Petroff previously is dubious.
  • One-and-done screenwriter Larry Lee is the credited co-author of Shotgun Wedding, not Anatomy of a Psycho. Jane Mann and Don Devlin are the writers whose names appear at the end of the film.
  • The movie does have a character named Duke Marco (played by William Salzwedel) as well as Duke's two siblings: Pat (Pamela Lincoln) and Chet (Darrell Howe). There's no Shirlee or Shirley in the film, however. The closest is a duplicitous girl named Sandra, whom the IMDb calls "Sandy." However, the fact that the character Patricia shortens her girly-sounding first name to the androgynous nickname "Pat" is reminiscent of the female characters in The Violent Years.
  • Though the film has a credited composer, Manuel Francisco (aka Michael Terr), there is some unmistakable stock/library music on the soundtrack, including "Grip of the Law" by Trevor Duncan, which also served as the title music in Plan 9. Furthermore, a party scene in Anatomy of a Psycho uses some of the same gushy romantic music heard at the home of Jeff and Paula Trent in Plan 9. Elsewhere in the film, it's possible to hear some of the same music Ed Wood used in Final Curtain (1957). So Petroff and Wood were definitely drawing from the same musical well, so to speak, but I think these directors generally delegated such responsibilities to their respective music supervisors.
  • Again, it's up to the individual viewer to decide whether the plot and characters of Anatomy of a Psycho are "awful and strange" in the Ed Wood tradition. I'm more comfortable with the second adjective than the first.
  • If Rudolph Grey (whose last name is spelled with an e) is convinced of Ed Wood's authorship of Anatomy of a Psycho, he doesn't bring it up in Nightmare of Ecstasy. Like I said, Boris Petroff himself barely merits a mention there. Perhaps Hayes is referring to a printed interview or even a personal conversation with Mr. Grey.

Pamela Lincoln
Make of all that what you will. In any case, while Ronnie Burns is the most notable member of the cast of Anatomy of a Psycho, there are others in the film worth mentioning as well. I've already alerted you to the fact that the film's co-screenwriter, Don Devlin, gave himself a good-sized role as an ex-Marine turned thug named Moe. Resident "good girl" Pamela Lincoln  (b. 1937) was once the sister-in-law of TV's Dobie Gillis, Dwayne Hickman, and made sporadic film and television appearances from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. Readers of this blog will probably be most interested to know that she was in William Castle's The Tingler.

Resident "bad girl" Judy Howard had a less-impressive film and TV career, the highlight of which is probably a one-off role on The Monkees. She dropped off the Hollywood radar sometime during Richard Nixon's first term. Ruddy-faced, barrel-chested Michael Granger (1923-1981), who portrays a streetwise but good-hearted police lieutenant here, spent most of his 25-year career on the small screen and seems to have played an awful lot of cops during that time.

The titular psycho is played by Darrell Howe, for whom this movie is most certainly the highlight of his largely-undistinguished career. Anatomy is the first and last of his theatrically-released feature films. His only other big shot at stardom came in the form of an unsold pilot (directed by Ida Lupino, no less!) called Teenage Idol in 1958, a year when the pop charts were dominated by the likes of Fabian and Frankie Avalon, i.e pretty boys with pompadours. This failed, forgotten attempt at a rock 'n' roll sitcom would have featured Howe as the awesomely-named Swivelhips Jackson, but it never got past one episode. Apart from that and a few scattered TV guest shots in the 1960s, Howe's cupboard is bare, daddy-o.

A tale of two anatomies. 
The viewing experience: Though its title obviously evokes both Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Anatomy of a Psycho has very little in common with either of those films, which at the time were recent and controversial hits. About the closest this rather quaint movie comes to those groundbreaking classics is the "jazzy" lettering of the main title, which is vaguely similar to the Saul Bass title sequence from Anatomy of a Murder. Okay, while we're being extremely generous, let's point out that Boris Petroff's film does have a sensational murder trial, like the Preminger film, and features a thin, dark-haired young man who holds a knife at least once, just as in the Hitchcock film. But, really, drawing any other connections between them would be stretching it.

At heart, you see, Anatomy of a Psycho is not a courtroom drama, nor is it a psycho-sexual horror film. This is a pretty straightforward, revenge-themed juvenile delinquent film, and until the last reel, its central character is more of a brooding, sullen young antihero in the Brando/Dean/Mineo mold than he is a psychotic maniac. Anatomy of a Psycho is technically a youth-oriented film, but neither Petroff nor his screenwriters have much of a feel for American teenage culture. The actors, as you might guess, are largely too old for their parts, and there is only the barest hint that rock 'n' roll music exists. We hear one rock tune -- a catchy number called "Round Round Round" -- in the background at an otherwise quite square party. But more importantly, the film is old-fashioned, even reactionary, at the genetic level.

Hitchcock's Psycho gave audiences a glimpse of the future and might thus be termed the first "modern" horror film. Petroff's Psycho, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the past, its stodgy storytelling style lifted from the chintzy, second-tier noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. This is one of those pictures in which much of the narrative heavy lifting is done by screaming newspaper headlines and blaring radio announcers. Want to show that time is passing? Easy. Just have one of those montages with the flipping calendar pages. Want to establish that a character is in prison? No sweat. Just rig up one of those lighting effects which casts a big striped shadow across the actors' faces.

After a few viewings, I can't really agree with David C. Hayes' assessment that the film is "really awful and strange." Apart from a couple of wonky process shots and some stilted line readings by secondary characters (particularly two little kids who run away from danger), Anatomy of a Psycho is a perfunctory, almost anonymous, by-the-numbers JD flick. Its one big concession to the youth audience is its lingering focus on violence, which as usual is nominally "justified" through a lot of preaching from adult authority figures and the unsubtle message that breaking the law has serious consequences.

Our main character gets his face cut up pretty badly a few minutes into the proceedings and goes through the rest of the movie with a nasty scar on his face as he commits a few brutish if commonplace acts -- one deliberate beating, a few messy scuffles, one debatable act of arson, and a single, semi-intentional stabbing. Hardly the kind of numbers which get you into the Hall of Fame, so to speak. If this is the "pornography of violence," it's strictly softcore. And if you're thinking of that other kind of pornography, forget it. Anatomy of a Psycho is studiously sexless.

I won't waste much of your time or mine with a rehashing of the frankly not-that-interesting plot. The basic setup is not a million miles away from the more serious entries in the East Side Kids franchise. We have a lot of the common ingredients of those films here, including (but not limited to):

  • An at-risk youth who has a bunch of loyal friends and hangs out with them in a sort of clubhouse atmosphere, in this case a dilapidated residence called "the Shack."
  • A brother in the death house for a crime he says he didn't commit.
  • A morally-upright older sister who frets over the at-risk youth and is romantically involved with a very moral and very dull man.
  • A cop who is unusually involved in the lives of the youngsters on his beat and is able to banter back and forth with them.
The obvious difference is that Petroff's film takes these elements and tells a pessimistic, consequence-heavy story with them (it's no coincidence that one character name checks Crime & Punishment), while the ESK films preached redemption and rehabilitation.  In Anatomy of a Psycho, a career hoodlum named Duke Marco (William Salzwedel), who stole to support his siblings after the death of their parents, is now on death row awaiting execution for murder.

Back on the homefront, straight-laced sister Pat Marco (Pamela Lincoln) -- who is convinced Duke is guilty and deserves to die -- tries in vain to keep her wild-card younger brother, Chet Marco (Darrell Howe), in line. Against Pat's wishes, Chet visits his older brother right before he's sent to the gas chamber, and Duke swears that he's innocent. (The movie never really does come right out and say whether or not Duke was lying, but all of the movie's most "respectable" characters say that he is.) After the execution, Chet vows revenge on everyone who sent poor Duke to a premature grave, including the judge, the District Attorney, and the trial's star witness.

But here's the catch: Pat is first dating and then engaged to Mickey (Ronnie Burns), the star witness's son! And here's the other catch: Chet's social-climbing, materialistic girlfriend Sandra (Judy Howard) has just ditched him in favor of sleazy rich kid Arthur (Pat McMahon), the son of the judge! You sometimes get the sense that maybe there are only about twelve people in this town. Considering how intermingled their lives are, the characters are remarkably clueless about the true nature of their own relationships. The situation is exacerbated by a script which requires them to withhold information for no good reason, then reveal shocking truths at very inconvenient moments. Mickey, for instance, tells fiancee Pat about his father's involvement at Duke's trial while the couple is attending a fancy party at the home of a judge!

Anyway, vengeance-hungry Chet beats the living snot out of the DA's son, puts Arthur's head through a mirror, and starts a fire at the home of the judge. Mickey, Pat, and local beat cop Mac (Michael Granger) all suspect that Chet is committing these antisocial acts, but nobody can prove nothin', see? Things get too hot to handle when Chet's best friend, Moe (Don Devlin), winds up on the wrong end of a knife, and pure-as-the-driven-snow Mickey goes on trial for his murder.

The film's third act is of particular interest because this is the point in the film at which Chet finally strips his gears and goes into histrionic, pseudo-Brando ("Steeeellllaaaaaaa!") mode. You have to slog through a lot of workaday exposition to get there, though. After 73 or so minutes, all of these story threads are either resolved or abandoned, and the audience is allowed to leave.

Chet, Sandra, and a soon-to-be-broken mirror.
But you don't care about any of that, do you? What you want to know is whether or not Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s influence can be felt in Anatomy of a Psycho. Though the dialogue and plot aren't nearly as baroque or ornate as prime Wood, there is a hint of the master's touch here. Most obviously, the film is a good companion or twin to Ed Wood's Jail Bait (1954). Just like Clancy Malone's Don Gregor in the earlier film, Darrell Howe's character, Chet Marco, leads a restless, haunted existence and spends a lot of time wandering the dark, shadowy streets of an unnamed city, unsure of what to do next.

The relationship between the Marco siblings in Anatomy is very similar to that of brother and sister Clancy Malone and Dolores Fuller in Jail Bait. The older sister worries, but the younger brother just won't toe the line. Like Fuller, who falls for cop Steve Reeves, Pamela Lincoln's "responsible older sister" character is also romantically linked to the squarest, dullest character in her movie, in this case Ronnie Burns' colorless dullard. Anatomy concerns a young man who avenges the death of his criminal brother who became a substitute father to him. In so doing, he takes out his anger on the sons of the men responsible for his older sibling's death. This is another iteration of the "sins of the father" theme which popped up in both Jail Bait and Son of the Renegade (1953).

The film's most deliriously Wood-ian creation is the money-crazed, status-seeking blonde Sandra, who throws Chet over for wealthy cad Arthur because he has "class -- something you wouldn't know anything about!" Sandra, easily the film's most fun (and underused) character is an obvious cognate of the gold-seeking women in both Revenge of the Virgins (1959) and Orgy of the Dead (1965). If Eddie has an onscreen surrogate in Anatomy of a Psycho, it's Sandra.

Other Wood-ian touches pop up here and there. Like Eddie himself, Don Devlin's character is described as an ex-Marine, for instance, and it's noteworthy that psycho-boy Chet takes solace in alcohol in his lowest moments. The District Attorney in Mickey's trial makes a textbook Wood-ian demand for "the facts!"

And I'd like to think that it was Ed Wood who crafted the film's single most memorable line of dialogue. When Pat Marco is trying to convince Chet that he should return to school, her reasoning is airtight: "I'm a girl. I don't need to go."

Next week: Another week, another disputed Ed Wood movie starring the son of a famous screen comedian! What can I tell you, folks? It's an awfully small world. And to make things even more confusing, the movie I'm about to review has a title nearly identical to that of a completely different Ed Wood movie which was made a full decade later! Are you still following me? No? Don't worry. In seven short days, this will all make sense. I promise. That's when you and I will travel back in time to the magical year of 1962, when in order to have sex with your girlfriend, you had to marry her. No, really. That's how it worked back then. Bras literally would not open unless you had a marriage certificate. Those were tough times for horny guys, and you can read all about them when I cover Married Too Young (1962).

Monday, February 24, 2014

I somehow sold a story to the Onion A.V. Club

See the picture in the lower right hand corner? That's my story!

Quick update: I managed to sell a story to my favorite entertainment website, The A.V. Club, aka the pop-culture-reviewing spinoff of the satirical newspaper The Onion. It's a goofy little item about child actor Mason Reese. While I realize this is a modest accomplishment indeed, I'm completely psyched about being in the AVC, a site which has been a heavy influence on this blog. Here's a link to the article. I hope you will enjoy it. This was so much fun to write, and I hope I get the chance to write more for them in the future.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Joe vs. The 2014 Best Picture Nominees (Round 1)

I spent all day Saturday at a place called the Northbrook Court, a million-square-foot shopping plaza about 19 minutes from my apartment.

Wikipedia calls it "a very large, upscale super-regional mall in Northbrook, Illinois" and "one of the most upscale collection[s] of shops in the United States." I guess that's about right. The description makes the place sound a little more hoity-toity than it really is. I mean, a mall is a mall is a mall, upscale or not. A little marble, a tasteful color scheme and some parquet flooring won't turn your shopping center into the Guggenheim. Bottom line: malls are tacky. That's why they merit an entry in Jane and Michael Stern's The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (HarperCollins, 1990) between "Macrame" and "Mansfield, Jayne." Trying to build the world's classiest mall is like trying to see who can fart the quietest. Northbrook looks huge from the outside, stretching on and on forever like the bad guys' ship in the opening shot of Spaceballs. But once you get inside, where everything is smooth and shiny, you'll feel as closed-in and claustrophobic as you would at any other mall. The dump has some history, though. Some scenes from Ordinary People were filmed there, as was this deathless moment from Weird Science:



Slumdog was my ticket to Hell. Who knew?
Who knows? Perhaps at some point during my many circumnavigations of the Northbrook Court yesterday, I may have unknowingly trodden over the same ground as Robert Downey, Jr. or Anthony Michael Hall. The heart races. The mind reels. Anyway, I was at the Northbrook Court for Day One of the AMC theater chain's annual Best Picture Showcase, a marathon of all the movies nominated for the top prize at the Oscars this year. In years past, when there were only five nominees, you could watch 'em all in a single, exhausting day. Now that there are nine flicks up for the statuette, the event takes two non-consecutive days to complete. The second and final day of the 2014 BPS is this Saturday, March 1, 2014. I've been doing the Showcase since 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire took home the prize. Goddamn, this is my sixth time through the process! I'm not sure exactly why I started or why I've continued. Maybe I thought it would be a convenient way to catch up on all the critically-lauded movies I should have seen by the end of the previous calendar year. Maybe I'm a pop culture masochist and just like the idea of subjecting myself to a cinematic endurance test. However you slice it, the Best Picture Showcase is a great big hunk of what I'd call Middlebrow Respectability. These are flicks that critics and audiences can feel comfortable praising -- not too crude, not too artsy, and usually with some kind of socially redeeming value. From having watched a bunch of them, I can tell you a few things about Best Picture nominees. Almost all dramas, they tend to be longish (somewhere between 2-3 hours is the sweet spot), stately (read: a little dull), and preachy, commenting on the great issues of our time (and of all time) with lots of heartfelt speeches and crying. These films are attractively, carefully photographed and usually feature a lot of syrupy, manipulative music on the soundtrack. An inordinate amount are based on true stories and end with those captions telling you whatever happened to the characters in real life. Most of the plots conform to a simple formula: "____________ is bad." You know, war is bad, racism is bad, slavery is bad, greed is bad, politicians are bad, alcoholism is bad, the Catholic Church is bad, corporations are bad, etc., etc. South Park's Mr. Mackey would have no trouble churning out Oscar-winning screenplays.

So how is this year's crop of nominees? Eh, pretty typical, I'd say. Maybe a little better than usual. Here's my recap of Day One:

PHILOMENA

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan fly the friendly skies in Philomena.

Director: Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen)

Based on a true story: Yes, specifically Martin Sixmith's The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

These things are bad, m'kay: The Catholic Church (duh), mean nuns, old-timey Irish orphanages and workhouses, British politics, a value system which demonizes female sexuality, having your children taken from you, Republicans, homophobia, AIDS.

My take: Basically, an odd couple/road movie with Steve Coogan as a disgraced spin doctor who comes crawling back to journalism and finds an intriguing "human interest story" in the form of a retired Irish nurse named Philomena (Dench), who was forced to give up her out-of-wedlock child decades ago and now wants to find him. The movie has a sort of Rain Man-type feel, except that it comes slathered in Catholic guilt. Where Dustin Hoffman was wowed by Kmart and Judge Wapner, Philomena rhapsodizes about Big Momma's House, romance paperbacks, and hotel breakfast buffets. Coogan is the snarky, sarcastic one, and they have a few squabbles over religion and God. Philomena is a lot like a Payday candy bar. Coogan is salty, and Dench is sweet and nutty. This is the kind of movie you can feel safe recommending to just about anyone, even elderly relatives, unless they're really offended by profanity (both Coogan and Dench cuss on occasion). It seems like every Best Picture Showcase starts with a well-made "little" movie that has no chance at winning the prize. In years past, it was Milk, Amour, and An Education. This year, it's Philomena. Tell your grandmother about it. She'll love it.

My grade: B

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are unlikely partners in Dallas Buyers Club.

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria; C.R.A.Z.Y.; this is by far his best-known film)

Based on a true story: Yes. Various Hollywood types have been trying to turn Ron Woodroof's life into a film since the mid-1990s.

These things are bad, m'kay: AIDS (again), homophobia (again), the FDA, the pharmaceutical industry, the medical establishment, sexual promiscuity, cocaine, processed foods, and the overuse of AZT.

My take: This was more my speed, though if I'd been the one at the helm of this motion picture, I'd have made it less sentimental, corny, and obvious. It's still pretty good, though. Matthew McConaughey, rail-thin and dressed up like a cowboy pimp, is Ron Woodroof, a hard-living no-account rodeo hustler and electrician who finds out he has the HIV virus and only enough T-cells left to last him another month. He responds to this sobering news at first by scoffing at the diagnosis and partying even more heartily, but he quickly jumps from Denial to Bargaining and spends most of the rest of the movie there. A quick study in AIDS research, Woodroof stumbles onto a business opportunity as he provides other HIV-positive Texans with experimental, non-FDA-approved treatment, thereby rankling the stuffy medical community and the corrupt pharmaceutical industry. Along the way, he forms unlikely partnerships with a cross-dresser named Rayon (Jared Leto), who lives even less responsibly than Woodroof, and a legitimate physician (Jennifer Garner), who is wary of Woodroof's rogue actions but is undeniably impressed by his courage and efficacy. The very best stuff in this movie is the interplay between McConaughey and Leto, both surprisingly excellent, and I kind of wish the movie had not tried so hard to mold their story into an inspirational tearjerker. Like I said, though, it's quality stuff.

My grade: B+


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Leonardo DiCaprio knows how to spend his dough in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Director: Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver)

Based on a true story: Yes. It's based on Jordan Belfort's similarly-titled 1998 autobiography. Belfort himself plays a small role in this film.

These things are bad, m'kay: Wall Street, stock brokers, greed, materialism, cocaine (again), expired Quaaludes, the American legal system, having your children taken from you (again).

My take: "Heaven...  I'm in Heaven!" Occasionally, I like to pretend that certain movies were made specifically for me because they so closely conform to my interests or sensibilities. The Wolf of Wall Street is such a film. Martin Scorsese has given us another heaping slab of sleazy sex, brain-scrambling drugs, and raw, bluesy, primordial rock & roll. I think this was the only movie of the day which didn't have that "serious Oscar movie" music in it. You have no idea how much that helps its case. Just look at the artists on the soundtrack: Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Romeo Void, Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, Jimmy Castor, and so much more! That's what I'm talking about! Jesus Christ, there's even a marching band in this thing! And Popeye -- my favorite cartoon character ever -- is here, too! Of the four films I saw on Saturday, this is the only one I'd ever want to see again. I kind of wish I were watching it right now. Let's not kid ourselves about one major point, though: The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely Goodfellas version 2.0. Anyone who tells you differently, even Scorsese, is bullshitting you. And, yeah, it's three hours. Think of it as shotgunning an entire season of a premium cable TV show in one sitting. Someday, I may have to write an essay about a prominent motif in many of the male-female relationships in Scorsese's movies. I call it "the princess and the guttersnipe" plot, and it goes all the way back to Marty's debut, Who's That Knocking at My Door? with Zina Bethune as the princess and Harvey Keitel as the guttersnipe. You can find versions of this theme in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and even Hugo. Anyway, I'm drifting away from the main point, which is that I give my highest recommendation possible to The Wolf of Wall Street. See it, ya fuggin' bagadonuts!

My grade: A+


12 YEARS A SLAVE

Chiweti Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender get up close and creepy in 12 Years a Slave.

Director: Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger)

Based on a true story: Yes, the film is an adaptation of Solomon Northrup's 1853 autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave.

These things are bad, m'kay: Slavery (duh), racism (double duh), rape, the Old South in general, whippings, lynchings, dehumanization, crazy white people, having your children taken away from you (yet again!)

My take: Okay, class, let's have a show of hands. Who here didn't know that slavery was evil and degrading and cruel and violent and morally unjustifiable? Anyone? No hands? Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave strikes me as the kind of film everyone admires and no one enjoys. File it alongside Gandhi and Schindler's List among the movies that people will feel obligated to sit through once and then never revisit. But don't we need an occasional reminder about the visceral horrors of slavery? Don't we need to see the blood and the welts and hear the anguished screams? Well, yeah, I suppose so...if maybe you were thinking of starting up a plantation next week. Under those circumstances, you might see Steve McQueen's film and think, "Oh, right! Slavery is bad! I nearly forgot!" The movie's artfulness works against it. The cinematography is often postcard-pretty, and the compositions have a fastidious, fussed-over quality to them. The dialogue, likewise, is stilted and poetic rather than naturalistic and conversational. Maybe that's just how people talked back in the mid-1800s, but even then, I doubt that they would address the issues of slavery so directly, as if they knew they were elucidating certain points for the benefit of a listening audience. Much like Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave is altogether too concerned with providing "teachable moments" for the viewer. Without them, the movie would be little more than gourmet torture porn. Thanks largely to the actors inhabiting the roles, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, and Alfre Woodard (whose scene is a stunner), several of the film's African-American characters are vivid and memorable. The film's white characters are largely muddled non-entities, like Brad Pitt's liberal do-gooder, or grotesque cartoons, like Michael Fassbender's sadistic plantation owner, yet another iteration of black-hatted, mustache-twirling Simon Legree. And thanks to composer Hans Zimmer's heavy-handed score, we're never in doubt as to how we're supposed to feel... as if we couldn't just arrive at that conclusion on our own. The film's most effective passages occur when McQueen shows rather than tells, especially a nerve-jangling scene in which Ejiofor must stand on his tiptoes with a noose around his neck for what seems like an eternity. What makes the moment so effective is all the background activity, with extras going about their business as if nothing horrific were occurring.

My grade: B

Next week: Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Wordplay: a brief comic by Joe Blevins


I have a lot of time to sit and think when I'm taking the train to and from work. What do I think about during that time? Well, frankly, stuff like this.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 32: "Scare Tactics" (October 1992)

Ed Wood film festival organizer Dennis Ferrara in his office. Photo by Eric Larned.
Note the flier for the film festival in the background with the picture of Tor and Vampira.

Note: The promised review of Anatomy of a Psycho (1961) will be posted on February 26, 2014. I trust you can live without it for seven days. As a change of pace this week, I decided to look back at my very earliest experiences as a fan of Edward D. Wood, Jr. In 1992, when I was a 17-year-old high school senior, I wrote an article for the student newspaper about a local Ed Wood film festival and the eccentric professor who organized it. I recently discovered a copy of this article among some personal effects, and it spurred a lot of memories of my youth. I'm including the entire article for your perusal, preceded by a reminiscence about how and why I came to write it.
Oh, god, it was over half a lifetime ago.

Michael Moore's Flint-umentary.
From the age of six to my late twenties, I lived in a small town in mid-Michigan called Flushing. Go ahead and laugh at the name. You think I haven't heard every "Flushing" joke already? I resided there for longer than I've stayed anywhere else, but I've not been back in over a decade. Maybe I'll never return. Why should I? There's not much to Flushing, honestly. It's what you'd call a bedroom community. Other than a few small businesses and the usual smattering of shops and restaurants, Flushing is principally a place of residence for folks who work somewhere else.

In fact, most of Flushing's identity comes from its status as a suburb of Flint, a grungy, mid-sized factory town whose economy and population were already badly waning by the time I grew up due to the drastic decline of the city's one-and-only industry, the manufacture of automobiles. For a heavily biased, chronologically dubious yet entertaining take on the long, slow death of Flint, see Michael Moore's rabble-rousing documentary Roger & Me (1989). Short version: Flint put all of its economic eggs in a basket marked "General Motors," then discovered to its horror and befuddlement that the basket had a hole in the bottom.

I was largely shielded from this, since my parents both had steady employment which was only indirectly reliant on GM. Dad taught high school history, and Mom ran a discount children's clothing store before becoming a professor at a nearby community college. We were comfortable. We didn't live in luxury, but money was never a concern. Flushing was located at the exact cusp where urban met rural, but instead of giving the town a delightful sense of diversity, this just meant that many of my schoolmates fell into two categories: mean rednecks with chips on their shoulders and (even worse) snotty, over-privileged brats with a fearsome sense of entitlement. Lord help me, I hated living there. I wanted Flushing to be wiped off the map by a meteor, erasing me along with it.

A vintage issue of The Blazer.
Perhaps to overcome my painful, almost-debilitating adolescent shyness, I was in quite a few extracurricular activities during high school -- the marching band, the quiz bowl team, National Honor Society, that kind of thing. But none of them meant even half as much to me as being a member of the editorial staff of the school newspaper, The Blazer, which advertised itself as "Flushing High School's Independent Voice." How independent it truly was, I don't know. I think the slogan referred to the fact that the cost of the publication was paid for through advertising and not by the local school system, so we were (theoretically) not beholden to the administration.

We didn't have complete artistic freedom, though. There were certainly limits to what we could publish, and, being a wiseass, I ran up against them all the time. As institutions go, schools have notoriously poor senses of humor and inordinately delicate sensibilities. One must therefore be political in such a situation. For me, though, the compromise was definitely worth it. Because of the newspaper, I had a forum in which I could write abut things that mattered to me, namely films and music and comedy. This was before there really was such a thing as the Internet, but not much before. I had no sense of what was coming, technologically, other than the vague awareness that there was some way to receive pornography through the computer.

The Blazer might just have saved my life. One-hundred percent of the credit for that goes to the paper's staff advisor, Ms. Sharrow, who ran The Blazer in a half-strict, half-indulgent way that I found very conducive to writing. She was, hands down, the best teacher I ever had -- not just because she encouraged me to pursue all my arcane pop culture interests (though she did this) and looked the other way when I reviewed R-rated movies like Blue Velvet and Andy Warhol's Dracula (she did this, too), but because she treated me like... well, not like an equal or a peer, but not like a clueless kid either. I mean, I was a clueless kid, but she didn't let on. Students gravitated to Ms. Sharrow. The newspaper office, which during the school day was her classroom, became a hangout for me and several of my closest friends. We took as many classes from Ms. Sharrow as we could and spent our lunches there, too. After school, the room became kind of a clubhouse within the bland, cinder-block confines of our otherwise-unwelcoming and utterly unremarkable suburban high school.

A book that changed my life.
Somewhere in my mid-teens, which would have been the late 1980s or early 1990s, I found Edward D. Wood, Jr. the way other people find Jesus. Eddie died when I was three, and his movies started to catch on when I was in kindergarten, so I can't say I got in on the ground floor of the Ed Wood cult. Well, I could say that, but I'd be lying like hell. The truth is that I didn't even see a frame of his work until I was 17 years old. I knew the name well before that, though. It had been my habit since childhood to flip through video and movie guides -- which back then were brick-sized paperbacks you actually purchased in a bookstore -- and scrutinize all the zero- and one-star reviews. Perhaps that's where titles like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? first entered my conscience.

But around my freshman or sophomore year, two seminal "film nerd" books took up permanent residence in my brain: Cult Movies by Danny Peary, which included a lengthy, informative, and humorous essay on Plan 9; and Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, which devoted a few pages of its "Drag" section to Glen or Glenda?, including the story -- which I've never encountered anywhere else -- of how Glenda was almost re-released by Paramount Pictures in March 1981. According to Midnight Movies, Paramount even placed an ad for the film in the New York Times, but backed out "at the last minute" and "cancelled the opening, apparently citing the attempted assassination of President Reagan as their reason."

Interestingly, though Midnight Movies does not mention it, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd actually recreated Glenda's infamous "angora sweater hand-off" scene in It Came from Hollywood (1982). The film, which contains clips from both Plan 9 and Glenda, was released by -- you guessed it -- Paramount Pictures. In any event, I was just starting to learn about "underground" and "cult" cinema as an adolescent, and the books by Peary and Hoberman/Rosenbaum became my de facto bibles. It's amazing what a seismic and permanent impact those two volumes had on my moviegoing tastes. Of all the strange, out-of-the-mainstream movies they discussed and dissected, the ones I was most curious to see were the ones directed by Ed Wood. The trouble was, I had no idea how to go about finding them. The local video stores didn't carry these flicks, and the Internet was in its larval stage back then. This was a couple of years before Tim Burton's Ed Wood, so information about Eddie was not so easily located by a Midwestern kid. If Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy existed, it hadn't come to our town yet.

Dennis Ferrara in 2007, essentially unchanged.
Then, in the fall of 1992, a miracle! Flint's Mott Community College, where my mother worked as an English teacher, announced that it was hosting a Tribute to Edward D. Wood, Jr., featuring four of his notorious films, including the Holy Grail itself, Plan 9 from Outer Space. I can scarcely explain to you how incongruous and unexpected this event truly was back then. Ed Wood was far from a household name in 1992, and even if he had been, Flint is not exactly the kind of town to put on a film festival devoted to a cross-dressing "B"-moviemaker from the 1950s. For me, it was like winning the lottery.

Overcome with enthusiasm, I asked my mother to arrange an interview with the festival's organizer, Dennis Ferrara. She and Dennis got along well, so this was easily accomplished. I pitched the idea as a double-page spread to Ms. Sharrow, and of course she said yes, too. I can still remember driving over to MCC with Eric Larned, a classmate of mine who was gracious enough to serve as the photographer for the piece. (I doubt he had any interest in the topic, so thanks for being a good sport, Eric.) We met Dennis in his office on campus, and I think it was Eric's idea to have him pose in front of a huge poster of Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster.

Technically, half of Mott's film festival was devoted to James Whale, who directed two Frankenstein films, but at that age, I didn't give two damns about either Whale or Frankenstein. I wanted to talk about Ed Wood, and Dennis was happy to oblige. He was a witty, chatty guy. If you want to picture him, try imagining a cross between George Costanza and Niles Crane. Dennis seems to have worked at Mott until about 2010. He'd be in his mid-60s by now. The most recent tidbit about him I could find was this article about his participation in the Michigan chapter of the Organ Historical Society. I distinctly remember being especially pleased with this article, even though (acting as my own editor) I didn't put a great deal of thought into the layout or presentation of the material.

Besides the interview with Dennis, I included a schedule of events for the festival and a sidebar piece called "Edward D. Wood: A beginner's guide." And "beginner" is truly the word, friends. I based this whole piece based on second-hand information before ever watching any of Eddie's movies. Looking back on it now, I cringe at a few of the factual errors (most of the release dates for the movies are wrong, for instance) and the fact that I merely regurgitated some of the urban myths about Wood (like the ubiquitous "paper plates as flying saucers" canard). Overall, though, I was happy to see that my writing style was still recognizable (to me, at least), even in a story I'd written 20+ years ago. I'm still no Mike Wallace when it comes to interviewing people, so I'm glad I was able to cobble together a coherent, readable article from my conversation with Dennis Ferrara.

Post-mortem: The Ed Wood festival was successful enough to continue for several years in Flint. The print edition of The Blazer folded a couple of years back. Ms. Sharrow has since retired as well. I feel badly for the students at Flushing who will not get to have her as a teacher. My beloved high school newspaper seems to have continued as a blog for a while, but this has not been updated in nearly a year. In a real-world, physical sense, "Flushing High School's Independent Voice" exists only as back issues in the file cabinets, desk drawers, and hall closets of graduates like myself.

UPDATE: The Blazer is back as a website and Twitter account. Joy!

Click on the images below to see full-sized scans of the original "Scare Tactics" article from October 1992. Beneath that is the complete text of the piece. Enjoy.


S c a r e   T a c t i c s
MCC Horror Film Festival offers terror for all tastes
For many, the Halloween season isn't complete without the annual viewing of scary movies. Dennis Ferrara, a teacher at Mott Community College, hopes these film fanatics will turn out for MCC's First Annual Horror Film Marathon, a two day celebration of the best and worst of Hollywood's ghoulish past. The marathon begins on Friday, October 30, with a loving tribute to notoriously inept director Edward D. Wood, Jr, including Plan 9 from Outer Space and the transvestite epic Glen or Glenda?, which will last from 6 p.m. until midnight. The second night, a much more serious tribute to English director James Whale, including The Bride of Frankenstein, will also last from 6 p.m. until midnight. I talked recently with Mr. Ferrara about the festival and the state of Flint entertainment in general.  
What do you think is the big attraction to Edward D. Wood's films?  
On the West Coast and East Coast, Edward D. Wood has seen a resurgence. Here [in Flint], I'm sure most people don't know who Ed Wood is. Ed Wood was nicknamed "Hollywood's Worst Film Director." He was just as bizarre as the entourage that followed him: Bela Lugosi as a dried-out, alcoholic druggie; Tor Johnson, the 400-pound Swede ex-wrestler known as "Hollywood's Most Beloved Swede"; the great Criswell, who would sleep in a casket at night and predict very bad predictions, and none of them came true; Vampira; Paul Marcos... Ed Wood was truly a unique phenomenon. He loved wearing women's clothing under his own. He loved angora. 
So, then, Glen or Glenda? was slightly autobiographical? 
Yes, quite. In fact, Ed Wood appears as Glen... [Ed Wood's films] are a phenomenon of poor cinematography, poor lighting, poor everything, poor direction... He's so bad he's good. 
Are there any other film festivals in the works? 
Some want to do foreign film, but foreign film would die in this town. No, we've got to have "schlock" film. I produce a TV series on Cable 18 called Forgotten Feature Flicks on Wednesday evenings starting October 27 from 6:00 in the evening until 9:00 and the specialty is bad 'B" serials, " "B" featurettes, "B" features, cartoons, and interviews... I would like us to have a John Waters film festival, but we have to be very careful how our persona is perceived... Showing stuff like Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living would be in poor taste... People ask, "Why are you choosing 'B' movies?" But why not "B" movies? They're popular. 
Are you expecting the first night to draw a bigger audience than the second night? 
The second night is really sophisticated. I don't know... We will have wonderful projection... We have rear view projection. It will be superior. I'm looking forward to it. I've been working hard for the last four months on it. And we're getting ready for April 2, which will be the Second Annual Horror Film Festival with a gourmet meal that will precede it... a six-course meal... If this was another town, we'd have the place packed. 
Would Ed Wood enjoy festivals like this? 
Oh, he'd love it! The interviews that we will be showing, the 45-minute documentary, people would definitely say Ed Wood would've loved what we are doing here. It's the first Ed Wood festival in Michigan to my knowledge... in fact, in the Midwest.

E d w a r d   D .   W o o d :
A beginner's guide

Dudley Manlove, Joanna Lee, and Duke Moore
do their bit for bad acting in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Embraced by many as the worst films ever made, Ed Wood's work has long been a popular attraction at film festivals across the country. An entire episode of Seinfeld centered on Jerry's failed efforts to attend a showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood's masterpiece. Wood's popularity soared when a popular series of books called The Golden Turkey Awards named him as the worst director of all time. Since many people in the Flint area have never heard of Ed Wood or his films, here's a crash course in what makes them so popular.
  • Bad sets: To simulate an airplane cockpit, Ed Wood might use two chairs and a blanket. He made graves out of lightweight cardboard that frequently toppled over on camera! The same crummy furniture often turned up in multiple rooms. In Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood actually used paper plates as his flying saucers.
  • Ridiculous dialogue: Wood forced his actors to recite such  memorable lines as "Inspector Clay's dead... and somebody's responsible!" Bela Lugosi's narration of Glen or Glenda, which contained references to "snips and snails" made little sense in relation to the plot.
  • Bad acting: No one expected 400-pound Swede Tor Johnson or Lily Munster look-alike Vampira to equal Sir Laurence Olivier, but their performances are worse than they should be. Moreover, the understudy hired to replace Bela Lugosi on Plan 9 after Lugosi's death might have been the only person in Hollywood who couldn't imitate Lugosi's famous accent.
  • Weak plots: Glen or Glenda? centered around a confused man who wanted to wear his fiancee's sweater. Plan 9 has aliens bringing the dead back to life and flying through the San Fernando valley, including a cruise down Hollywood Boulevard.
  • A complete lack of ethics: Ed Wood knew no shame. He wouldn't hesitate to "borrow" footage from his other films. His films also ran under various titles, possibly to confuse the public into seeing them twice. Plan 9, for instance, became Grave Robbers from Outer Space. Glen or Glenda?, likewise, was shown as Man or Woman? I Led 2 Lives, I Changed My Sex, He or She? and Transvestite.
  • Bela Lugosi as you've never seen him before: The actor who became synonymous with Dracula was at the lowest point of his career by the time he met Ed Wood. His roles as The Spirit in Glen or Glenda? and The Ghoul Man in Plan 9 are two of his most unforgettable.

S c h e d u l e   o f   E v e n t s

What: MCC's First Annual Halloween Horror Film Marathon
When: October 30 and 31
Where: Room 1211 of the Mott Building
Cost: $5.00 general admission per evening, $4.00 for students with ID, $8.00 for both nights.

PROGRAM
Friday evening, October 30, 1992 - A Tribute to Edward D. Wood, Jr. 
Introductory Remarks - Dr. Mary Pine, Dean of Arts and Humanities
Historical Remarks - Dennis Ferrara, Speech/Film Faculty
Film Presentation - Glen or Glenda? (1952 - 67 minutes)
Bride of the Monster (1953 - 69 minutes)
Intermission - 10 minutes
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959 - 78 minutes)
Night of the Ghouls (1960 - 79 minutes) 
Saturday evening, October 31, 1992 - A Tribute to James Whale 
Introductory Remarks - Dr. David Sam, Vice President, Academic Affairs
Historical remarks - Dennis Ferrara
Film Presentation - Frankenstein (1931 - 70 minutes)
The Old Dark House (1932 - 90 minutes)
Intermission - 10 minutes
The Invisible Man (1933 - 70 minutes)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935 - 70 minutes)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Beauty got a bad rap. Airplanes totally killed that beast.


The last line of King Kong (1933) has never made sense to me. Carl Denham, the man responsible for transplanting a gigantic gorilla from distant, obscure Skull Island to heavily populated New York City, has just watched airplanes shoot and kill the beast. Lives have been lost. Property has been destroyed. Thousands are suffering because of this man's irresponsible actions. And what does he have to say about the situation?

"It was beauty killed the beast."

Yeah, sure, Carl. Whatever you say. Cherchez la femme. That's your angle, right? Blame Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) for this fiasco. Not only have you trashed New York, Carl, you've learned absolutely nothing from this experience.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 31: "Revenge of the Virgins" (1959)

"Savage Maidens Without Men!": Another Western thought to be written by Edward D. Wood, Jr.

"This is the revenge of the virgins. Once again, the trespassers have paid the penalty, and the legend continues. Beware the savage guardians of the Golden Horde."
-narrator Kenne Duncan, Revenge of the Virgins
  
"The power of men is illusory... The power of women is real."
-author Salman Rushdie

One of Pete Perry's sexploitation classics.
This week, we turn our attention to two men named Pete, one real and the other (most likely) imaginary. The real one is Peter "Pete" Perry, Jr., yet another of schlock cinema's "utility infielders," who managed to keep his career in Hollywood alive for almost 30 years by diversifying his resumé. A little editing here, a little producing-directing there, maybe some writing and acting from time to time, etc. In that sense, his filmography resembles that of multifarious B-movie contemporaries like Ronald V. Ashcroft, Don Davis, and Edward D. Wood, Jr. But Pete's career in exploitation filmmaking is obscured by clouds of doubt and ambiguity. Biographical information about the man is frustratingly rare.

Most of the writing about Pete Perry has been in the form of reviews of the movies he made. The magnificently-named blog Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot has this career overview, which calls Perry "a pioneer of the sexploitation genre." And Goregirl's Dungeon has a nicely-illustrated feature about one of Perry's films, too. You'd think there would be an interview with this man or at least a few scattered anecdotes about him, but if they exist, I cannot locate them.

The most specific detail I can find about Perry from an official source is this one-sentence biography on the website of Something Weird Video, a company which now distributes several of his films: "Director Peter Perry," says SWV's Lisa Petrucci, "often worked with [adult film producers] David F. Friedman and Harry Novak during the 1960s under a number of aliases." Oh, man, did Pete Perry have aliases. Over the years, he was Dick Crane, A.J. Gaylord, Arthur P. Stootsberry, and Seymour Tuchus (my personal favorite). He seems to have gotten his start working for other filmmakers with Ed Wood connections. For instance, he wrote The Flesh Merchant (1956), which was directed by W. Merle Connell, i.e. the man whose bondage footage had been clumsily edited into Glen or Glenda? back in 1953. Then, Pete Perry worked for Ronnie Ashcroft as a writer-actor on the potboiler Girl with an Itch (1958).

The very next year, Pete directed his own first feature, a "nudie Western" novelty called Revenge of the Virgins (1959). This film was distributed by a company called Radio Voice of America or RVA. Critic Rob Craig has cleverly noted that these are also the initials of Ronnie V. Ashcroft, hinting at another possible connection between the two men. After Virgins, Perry would go on to direct a dozen more flicks over the next 20 years, almost always in softcore, with such rather well-remembered titles as The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966), My Tale is Hot (1964), and Kiss Me Quick! (also 1964).

The Notorious Cleopatra, credited to
"A.P. Stootsberry" (aka Pete Perry, Jr.)
But directing was not Pete's only gig! As an editor, Pete Perry was employed several times by the notorious anti-auteur Al Adamson (1929-1995), who combined sex and violence in such ensanguined films as Blood of Dracula's Castle (1969), Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970), and Five Bloody Graves (1970), all three of which featured John Carradine. Meanwhile, the Internet rumor mill asserts that Pete Perry is the same person as Bethel Buckalew, who worked extensively as a writer, director, producer, and production manager in softcore sex films of the 1970s. Perry and Bucklalew do have several films in common, including The Notorious Cleopatra (1970) and Mag Wheels aka Summer School (1978). But Perry himself disputed that claim in a brief statement he gave to the Temple of Schlock blog in 2008. While he distributed My Boys Are Good Boys (1978), a comedy directed by Buckalew, he had no part in the making of that film. According to Perry, Buckalew "is a real person. I used to use him in the early days as my production manager, but then he went off on his own and did those other things."

Pete's company, Peter Perry Productions, indeed has a few late-1970s titles to its name, including Good Boys. In his own personal writing resumé from the '70s, Ed Wood claims to have penned a screenplay for "Pete Perry Prod." called Bed Time Talk. No other record of this film exists, and I have no evidence that it was ever produced. Considering Eddie's talent for churning out screenplays in a hurry, I have little doubt that he wrote something called Bed Time Talk once upon a time, but it doesn't seem to have gotten past the screenplay stage. By the end of his directing career, like Ed Wood before him, Pete Perry attempted to transition from soft to hardcore with A Woman's Dream (1980), whose cast includes at least a few actors with names I recognize, mainly from the invaluable Rialto Report podcast, namely Jamie Gillis and Herschel Savage.

As for Pete himself, he seems to have retired from the business after editing Chris Warfield's Sounds of Sex in 1985. My Internet sources informally tell me that Perry is alive and living out West, possibly in Nevada, these days. I wish him well.

Pete LaRoche's Outlaw Queen
But now, friends, it's time to discuss the career of another Pete, specifically Pete LaRoche, a writer who just may have been our very own Edward D. Wood, Jr. working under a pseudonym. Here is what the Internet's best Ed Wood fan site, The Hunt for Edward D. Wood, Jr., has to say about him:
The issue of Pete LaRoche is an interesting one. The name (and a variant, "Peter La Roche") appears on only three movies in the IMDb, all with some sort of connection to Ed. Outlaw Queen and The Wetbacks both feature involvement by Ed's friend and protege, Ronnie Ashcroft (see The Astounding She-Monster). Revenge of the Virgins features narration by Ed's best friend Kenne Duncan, also features Nona Carver (whose only other work is Take It Out In Trade) and uses the same music used in The Beast of Yucca Flats, which stars Tor Johnson and features Conrad Brooks. All of this is quite interesting, of course, but doesn't really point directly to Ed. The only problem is, I can find absolutley no information about Pete LaRoche anywhere else. So, for now, my suspicion is that "Pete LaRoche" might just be Ed, and his films will be listed here [in a separate section of the site], with the most apocryphal of the apocryphal films.
In his book, Ed Wood, Mad Genius, critic Rob Craig chooses to include Revenge of the Virgins in his survey of Eddie's career and gives it a full write-up, which he prefaces thusly:
Ed Wood's participation in this low-budget film is disputed; it is included on the assumption that Wood wrote, or contributed to the screenplay, which is credited to a "Pete LaRoche." The only other screenplays credited to LaRoche are Wetbacks (1959) and Outlaw Queen (1957), but there are at least two magazine articles during the time period with a similar by-line, dealing with Western movie stars William S. "Bill" Hart and Tim McCoy. Pete LaRoche may in fact be a separate individual, or one of Wood's many pen names, as Wood was an avid fan of the Western film genre, and could have easily been the author of all extant "LaRoche" pieces.
One of Pete LaRoche's fact-based Western articles from the 1970s.
It is interesting to note that Craig covers neither The Beach Bunnies (1976) nor The Snow Bunnies (1972) in his book, despite the fact that both are clearly and unambiguously credited to Edward D. Wood, Jr. And yet Revenge of the Virgins does make his cut! This movie, then, must have struck Rob Craig as genuine enough to merit taking up space in his book. One connection that neither of these writers seems to make is that all of LaRoche's screenplays are Westerns, a factor which ties it to the LaRoche-written magazine articles. The Hunt for Edward D. Wood, Jr. actually links to the piece about William S. Hart, so I've had a chance to peruse it. Craig asserts that these articles were written "during the time period" that LaRoche was working as a screenwriter, but this is not strictly true. The LaRoche movie scripts stretch from 1956 to 1959.

The two known LaRoche articles, however, appeared in 1971 --  not coincidentally, when Ed Wood was working quite frequently as a magazine writer. And, yes, he did occasionally pen fact-based Western articles during that time. (See: "Pearl Hart & The Last Stage" from week 9 of this series.) Pete LaRoche's biographical sketch of Western actor-director William S. Hart appeared in the June 1971 issue of True West magazine. The other known LaRoche piece, "Colonel Tim McCoy -- Army Man, Movie Star," also surfaced in June 1971, this time in a publication known simply as The West. What's truly fascinating, at least to dedicated Wood-ologists, is that "Army Man, Movie Star" was reprinted in August 1974 in a magazine called Golden West, Vol. 10., No. 9. But here, it was credited to "Glenn Shirley." Draw your own conclusions.

Hart's manliness: above reproach.
I am still currently attempting to secure a copy of "Army Man, Movie Star" from a library in Arizona. But I have read the William S. Hart article, and I have no trouble believing it is Ed Wood's work. More specifically, this article could easily have been a chapter in Ed's book, Hollywood Rat Race, which devotes an inordinate amount of ink to the directors and actors of the cowboy pictures Wood so loved. Hart (1864-1946) was born in Newburgh, NY, a mere 17 miles from Ed's own birthplace of Poughkeepsie, and just like Ed, Hart first worked as a stage actor before getting into movies. The screen icon's acting-directing career, which was noted for its rugged manliness and realism, stretched from 1914 to 1925 when he was displaced by "showmen" like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson and retired to his ranch in Newhall, CA. Pete LaRoche seems especially impressed by the fact that Hart insisted upon doing his own stunts. Here, I must point out that Ed Wood's first-ever appearance in a movie was as a stuntman in the Sam Fuller-directed Western, The Baron of Arizona (1950), starring Vincent Price. When LaRoche writes of Hart's on-set derring-do, he makes this very Hollywood Rat Race-esque observation:
Today all of it would be filmed with a double while the studio's valuable property star would be sitting in the shade probably sipping a tall, cool one. This is not to say that all of today's stars are unable to perform the dangerous stunts which are written into the script. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Lee Marvin and a few others are fully capable of meeting any demands; but their studios wouldn't allow it if a double or trick photography could make a passable substitute.
Many of the hallmarks of Ed Wood's book are present in this one brief passage: alcohol consumption ("sipping a tall, cool one"), the phoniness of Hollywood, and the pampered nature of modern movie stars. Eye-catching lists of celebrity names, like the one seen above, are extremely common in Rat Race as well. Wood's typically byzantine gender politics are also on full display in this article. The author goes off on a longish digression about the nature of male-female relationships in Hart's movies, seemingly offering his own "frontier" version of Freud's Madonna-whore complex:

Louise Glaum
In most of his films, [Hart] was reformed by the "good" girl after having shown (in a time of crisis) that there was a basic goodness in his own character. As for sex in his films, Louise Glaum usually played the seductive gal who made no bones about what she was selling, and Hart paid for it, no questions asked. This was an authentic part of the frontier town, and Bill Hart did not leave it out. This was the era of the "man," and his wants were not denied or restricted. Hart made this plain in all his films. Saloons were there. Gambling went on around the clock, and the ever-present dancehall girls were around to please, entertain and satisfy. While women were a precious item on the frontier, they were not regarded as highly destructible and fragile as the women of today. 
Hart was truthful in the handling of his women. He was gentle to the gentlewoman who, in his films, represented what was fine in womanhood, but he was hard in dealing with the kind who aroused his wrath. A notable example of this treatment was vividly displayed in his film of 1916, Hell's Hinges. While he was against a young minister's establishing a church in the town of Hell's Hinges, he respected him for attempting to carry out his mission in the face of strong opposition. And when Louise Glaum, the town's foremost Lady of Joy, seduced the young minister after having plied him with whiskey, Hart broke in on her and thoroughly manhandled her.
So there you have it, ladies: Baffling and Unhelpful Gender Stereotypes of the Oooooooold West! Fool around with a man of the cloth and get the crap beaten out of you. And now, we turn our attention to a most curious late 1950s Western in which women hold all the true authority, while impotent and incompetent men strut around and peck at each other like addle-brained roosters in a cockfight. None of the women in this film are "highly destructible" or even remotely "fragile," and the closest thing this movie has to a "gentlewoman" is a rather weak-willed man.

REVENGE OF THE VIRGINS (1959)

Title screen from the film.

Alternate titles: None. Even the French title translates as Revenge of the Virgins.

Availability: Revenge of the Virgins is available as half of a DVD called Naughty West Double Feature (Something Weird Video, 2003), along with Van Guylder's The Ramrodder (1969), a movie whose cast features Marsha Jordan as well as Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil. (And, yes, it was filmed at the notorious Manson hangout, the Spahn Movie Ranch.) Something Weird also offers Revenge on its own as a download for ten bucks.

Russ Meyer's breakthrough.
The backstory: For about as long as motion picture cameras have existed (let's say the 1890s), people have been using them to record sexually explicit scenes and images. Watch any of those made-for-cable documentaries about the "history of sex in the movies," and you're bound to find grainy, flickering, black-and-white footage of people stripping off and doing all sorts of interesting things to themselves and each other, including bondage and S&M scenarios. But because of religious restrictions, moral concerns, and censorship laws, such potentially "objectionable" movies had to occupy a clandestine or subterranean place in our society for decades. Ultimately, by the 1950s, "stag films" and "loops" became part of the Twentieth Century way of life, though the only method to see them was by visiting out-of-the-way theaters or by renting them privately and projecting them on a bedsheet or small screen at a bachelor party or men's club meeting. Meanwhile, thanks to Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine, which debuted in 1953, (mild) female nudity became somewhat more acceptable as mainstream entertainment for heterosexual men. At least in print, that is. The movie world wasn't quite as accepting yet.

But in 1959, there appeared on the entertainment scene a new form of diversion: the "nudie cutie," a feature-length narrative film which incorporated female nudity into a storyline. With Lena Dunham now flashing her boobs regularly on HBO's Girls, this may not seem like such a big deal. But in the waning years of the Eisenhower Administration, this was a revelation! The father of the genre is widely considered to be writer-director Russ Meyer (1922-2004), who not coincidentally had been a photographer (and a damned good one) for Hefner's Playboy. Though he would go on to make better, more inventive movies, Meyer's game-changer was a modest "Frenchy comedy" called The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), starring Bill Teas, a combat photographer who had served alongside Meyer in the Marines in WWII. Produced on a modest $24,000 budget, the film attained a level of commercial success unheard of in the sex film market, with grosses in the low seven digits. (In today's money, imagine taking about $200,000 and turning it into $8 million.) A key to the film's success was the fact that its abundant nudity was completely removed from any sexual context. Teas merely imagined seeing naked women wherever he went, and the movie allowed us -- through the magic of cinema -- to see what he was seeing.

So The Immoral Mr. Teas is a sex film with no sex. Just what the doctor ordered! In its own way, Mr. Teas is as much a landmark in movie history as Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat (1972), a feature-length film which actually contained unsimulated sex acts as part of its story.

But just as Damiano's much-celebrated, much-hated film was preceded by producer Bill Osco's less-heralded, now-forgotten Mona: The Virgin Nymph (1970), there is some debate as to which director actually started the whole "nudie cutie" phenomenon in the late 1950s. Russ Meyer is the widely-acknowledged king of the genre, but it is worth pointing out that Pete Perry's Revenge of the Virgins appeared the very same year. It was critic Rob Craig who gave me the idea that perhaps Perry had beaten Meyer to the punch. Granted, both Teas and Virgins were quickly made, so it is entirely possible that Perry saw Meyer's film and rushed his own "nudie cutie" into production before the year was over. Or this could be one of those "great minds think alike" situations where both Meyer and Perry saw where the sex film industry was headed and started to work along similar paths. This could be a sexual-cinematic example of the "multiple discovery" theory, in which important breakthroughs are reached independently and simultaneously by different experimenters.

It's important to point out that The Immoral Mr. Teas and Revenge of the Virgins are not even vaguely alike, tonally or structurally. The one crucial element they have in common is the inclusion of female nudity in a storyline which contains no onscreen sex. Otherwise, these are very different movies! Meyer's full-color comedy is a lighthearted, rather drowsy little trifle of a film which plays more like a series of skits or vignettes. While the women in the film do not engage in any explicit sexual activity, Mr. Teas' fantasies are certainly fueled by male lust, hence the word "immoral" in the title. On the other hand, Perry's movie is a brisk, violent, no-nonsense Western in which the female nudity is never presented in a sexual manner at all. In fact, even though it's the film's selling point, the toplessness of the "Indian" characters is never once commented upon and now comes across as an almost surreal nonsequitir, like the random naked lady (played, no kidding, by Russ Meyer starlet/girlfriend Kitten Natividad) who makes an unexplained appearance in Airplane! (1980).

Ramona Rogers, aka Jean Nieto.
So Pete Perry may or may not have invented the "nudie cutie," but he was most definitely an early adapter and deserves to be called a pioneer in his field. And what kind of team did Mr. Perry assemble to create this groundbreaking film of his? Well, I alluded earlier in this article to Pete's possible connection to Ronnie Ashcroft, director of last week's film, The Astounding She-Creature. There is considerable overlap in the cast and crew between Virgins and She-Creature. Most obviously, the two films share a score: the jarring, Stravinsky-like compositions of Guenther "Gene" Kauer. The only examples of "new" music in Perry's film are the upright piano heard in an early saloon scene, plus the thudding "war drums" used to represent the Indians. (Both of these might be stock, as they are used more as sound effects than true background music.)

Elsewhere in the crew, one of the two credited cinematographers on Revenge of the Virgins is Gene Gropper, who did some reshoots on She-Creature for Ronnie Ashcroft. And the uncredited narrator is Ed Wood's good buddy, Western badman Kenne Duncan, who played one of the leads in She-Creature. Besides Duncan, the most interesting name in the cast for Wood-ologists is Nona Carver, who plays the blonde-haired "white goddess" who leads an all-female tribe of Native Americans. Carver, of course, is the stripper who played a madam in Ed Wood's Take It Out in Trade (1970).

The topless Indian maidens, the "Golden Horde," appear to be played by strippers and pinup models, none of whom amounted to much in the film industry. There are six altogether, none of them Native American in ancestry. Only one has even a second credit to her name. That would be Ms. Betty Shay, who appeared as a dancer in a filmed burlesque show called Merry Maids of the Gay Way (1954). Another member of the Golden Horde, Ramona Rogers, at least has a few extant glamour shots and seems to have also worked under the name Jean Nieto.

Charles Veltmann, Jr. and costar Jodean Lawrence.
As for the film's non-nude performers, there are a surprising many who went on to long, successful careers, and a few who... well, didn't. Among the latter group is milquetoast Charles Veltmann, Jr. (aka Charles Veltman), who booked at least one more Western, John Wayne's famously troubled The Alamo (1960), but nothing else. Ralph Cookson, a grubby barkeep here, didn't even get that far. Colorful character actor Stanton Pritchard has a brief filmography indeed, but it includes Ronnie Ashcroft's Like Wow! (1962). Louis Massad didn't get a great deal of film credits, but racked up plenty of TV gigs in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in Westerns (Gunsmoke, The Virginian) and action shows (Mission: Impossible, McCloud). Del Monroe has a similarly TV-heavy career, with the expected emphasis on shoot-'em-ups and manly fare (Mannix, The Rockford Files, The Fall Guy). The late Hugo Stanger (1901-1990) worked in films for 30 years, snagging some of his most plum assignments (Beetlejuice, Psycho III) near the end.

The actor listed in the credits of Revenge of the Vrgins as "Hank Delgado" has an almost-entirely undistinguished filmography... unless he's really Henry Darrow (birth name: Enrique Delgado), who has been getting steady TV and film work (including recurring roles on TV's Harry O, The Bold and the Beautiful, and at least three incarnations of Zorro) since the late 1950s. In that case, Revenge of the Virgins was the beginning of a lengthy Hollywood career.

By far, however, the best and most compelling performance in this film is given by feisty Jodean Lawrence (1932-2010), an actress who was still going by the name Jodean Russo back then. Lawrence was her maiden name, and she reverted to it after getting divorced. A Los Angeles stage performer of note, Lawrence's film and TV career didn't take off until the 1970s. She went on to appear in such prominent motion pictures as Airport (1970) and Johnny Got His Gun (1971), along with a slew of TV shows (Little House of the Prairie, The Streets of San Francisco, The Six Million Dollar Man). Her death  in 2010 merited an obituary in Variety. In case you were wondering, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was not likewise honored.

The viewing experience: Though conceived as a hybrid of the Western and burlesque genres, Revenge of the Virgins reminded me more of those 1970s horror movies, including Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), in which a group of "normal" people travel to a desolate, remote location, only to find themselves being cold-bloodedly picked off, one at a time, by a family of savage, feral strangers. In this film, however, the "victims" are depicted in an entirely unflattering way, so our sympathies are not aroused by their deaths. The "killers," on the other hand, are portrayed in a basically neutral manner and do not suffer any casualties, unlike the grotesque clans in the Hooper and Craven films. And while the horror films of the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond eventually winnow the pool of potential victims down to one last female survivor, the fabled "final girl," Revenge of the Virgins narrows down its "straight" cast to a single, rather effeminate man. The plot of this movie is extremely basic and straightforward, with very few digressions or distractions, so I think I'll let narrator Kenne Duncan -- who recites the prologue with the chummy, impersonal bonhomie normally reserved for Hawaiian travelogues -- set the scene for us:
Nona Carver as "Yellow Gold"
Out of the early days of our Western frontier have come many legends. Some of these stories are based on fact. Others, no doubt, were conceived in the minds of grizzled old prospectors, too long alone in the hot barren waste, consumed by their one dream -- the dream of finding gold. Each one convinced that he would one day hit the biggest bonanza of all. Many of these stories, as you know, concerned Indians. They were the large tribes or nations in Arizona, such as the Apache, the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Papago and many more. California's Indians were divided into smaller tribes. There were a good many of these groups who were all but extinct when the Spaniards landed. Most of them are far more primitive than their brothers in other territories. Their culture was that of the Stone Age. 
This story deals with the last days of one such tribe. Already small when Spain first claimed California as her own, their numbers steadily dwindled as they waged an unending war against the white man. They refused to be converted to Christianity by the padres of the mission. The white man was their mortal enemy, to be killed on sight. While their number was decreasing, the number of their enemy was increasing. The Anglo or Yankee had migrated West and was embarked upon the feverish search for gold. The remnants of this tribe had been driven back into the hills in an area which was thought to be rich in gold. Individual prospectors and parties of men had gone into these hills, never to return. There came a time when the only remaining members of this tribe were women. Their men had been all killed in their ceaseless battle with the white man or had died of pestilence. 
Ironically, the leader of these women was herself white. She had been captured as a baby, and the only reason she had been spared was the fact that heir hair was the color of yellow gold. To the superstitious minds of these primitive people, this was the symbol. She had been sent to them by the Sun God, and they treated her as a goddess as she grew to young womanhood. Since she had known nothing but the ways of these Indians, their enemy became her enemy, and she fought and killed her own people. 
This is the story of one party of white men and one white woman who, in their search for gold, encountered these Amazons of the West. 
A member of the Golden Horde fires an arrow.
The knowledgeable Wood-ologist will easily find numerous parallels here between Duncan's narration and the plot and dialogue of the Ed Wood-scripted Orgy of the Dead (1965). The very first sentence, for instance, is evocative of a line spoken by horror writer Bob (William Bates) in the later film: "All of my books are based on fact... or legend. That's perhaps why they're more interesting and sell in the top spots." An emphasis on "facts" is a key Wood-ian motif, as discussed in some detail in my review of The Beach Bunnies. Moreover, the theme of worshiping gold above all else is a major motif in Orgy as well, with Pat Barringer's character paying the ultimate price for her devotion to the precious metal.

Of all the movies in the Ed Wood canon, Orgy and Virgins are the two which feature a great deal of non-sexual female nudity, though the topless diving sequence from Venus Flytrap (1970) is another good example. You might remember that Orgy featured its own Native American character, the Indian maiden who was forced to dance for Emperor Criswell. Another Orgy character, the Princess of Darkness, described this young lady as "one who loved flames. Her lover was killed by flames. She died in flames." While Orgy's lone Indian character worshiped fire, the members of the Golden Horde in Revenge of the Virgins fiercely protect the gold on their land, for reasons that the non-Indian characters describe as some kind of primitive, indecipherable superstition. The white characters, of course, want the gold for selfish, practical reasons.

Whose side is the movie on? Clearly, not with the treasure seekers, as they exist mainly to die for our amusement. But the Golden Horde aren't very sporting either, shooting the white folks with arrows from a distance with no warning. "Well, that's the Apaches' idea of fair play," says Stanton Pritchard in disgust. The Indians only risk a close-range attack after the last survivor has been bitten by a snake* and is too weak to fight back. Besides, we never get to really know any of the Golden Horde as individuals. We are rarely left alone in their presence, apart from one ritualistic dance scene which again hearkens back to Orgy.

In other words, the Native American characters are rightfully protecting what is theirs, but they're doing so in a rather cowardly way, so morally they're kind of a wash. The film's final shot, with the female Indians swarming around a male victim, makes an interesting counterpoint to scenes from such other Wood-scripted "girl gang" flicks like The Violent Years and Fugitive Girls.
*Yes, Revenge is yet another (alleged) Ed Wood movie with a snake in it. See also: Bride of the Monster, Necromania, The Astounding She-Monster, and Orgy of the Dead.

Pan Taggart: Ed Wood's onscreen surrogate?
The basic plot of Revenge of the Virgins is extremely simple, and Kenne Duncan's introductory narration gives away most of what happens in this hour-long feature. Dandified city slicker Melvin Potter (Veltmann) and his greedy, domineering, sexy wife Ruby (Lawrence) have just arrived in a frontier town looking for a business investment with the small amount of cash Melvin has socked away. Ruby wants wussy, submissive Melvin to purchase the saloon, but he finds that it's simply out of his price range. (It seems Melvin's previous business ventures have not been too profitable.) But while he's checking out the place, Melvin encounters a local character: a hard-drinking old coot named "Pan" Taggart (Pritchard), whose wild stories about a mother lode of gold deep in Injun country are a source of great amusement to the snickering patrons of the tavern, who buy him drinks but don't believe any of what he says. Yet Melvin is somehow convinced by Taggart, and they make plans to gather a group of men and weapons and go after that gold.

Whether he knew it or not when he was writing this script, Ed Wood created a good onscreen surrogate for himself in the character of "Pan" Taggart, whose nickname is short for "panhandler." In his later years, when he was deep into alcoholism and working for Pendulum Publishing, Eddie would regale his much-younger coworkers with anecdotes about his glory days working in motion pictures with Bela Lugosi, and they treated him much like the bar patrons treat Taggart in Revenge of the Virgins, finding Ed amusing but giving little credence to his words.

Anyhow, when Melvin relates his new plans to Ruby, she reacts as if this were Jack and the Beanstalk, and her husband had just sold the family cow for a handful of magic beans. Their big scene together is classic Wood. The reversal of traditional gender roles is on full display here, as it is Ruby who clearly "wears the pants" in the relationship, even though she looks womanly and dresses in a very alluring and feminine manner. (Throughout the film, Ruby repeatedly tells Melvin to "shut up," a phrase she shares with macho Jail Bait gangster Vic Brady.)
Ruby: Who is Pan Taggart?! 
Melvin: He's that prospector I told you about, the one that knows about the gold. 
Ruby: I sent you out to try and talk a deal with the owner of the saloon, and you come back without talking to him? And have the gall to tell me you wasted your time talking to a stupid old fool? 
Melvin: But.. but, Ruby... 
Ruby: I want that saloon. Do you understand? For once in my life, I wanna be somebody! I wanna run that place and be the queen of the beehive. And have all the people come to me for things. I wanna make money. Big money! 
Melvin: Ruby, Ruby, you just said it! That's exactly what's been on my mind! Big money! 
Ruby: Well, then go out and buy the saloon! 
Melvin: Ruby, honey, forget about that saloon for a minute. That's not what I'm talking about! Besides, if... if you were to be the queen around a place like that, honey, I... I just couldn't stand it! All those men pawing at you! 
Ruby: Oh! 
Melvin: Ruby, honey, listen to me! Hear me out just this once. Now we both want big money, but I'm telling you again I just haven't got the wherewithal to buy a place like that! 
Ruby: Before you married me, you sold out a freighting business in Illinois! What did you do with the money? 
Melvin: Well, I... I sold out the place because I couldn't make a go of it. Now, now if you've got a place that isn't doing very well, you're not going to get very much for it, are you? Now, Ruby, listen... this Taggart swears up and down that the gold is there. And I believe him! 
Ruby: Why? 
Melvin: Well, if it wasn't there, say... say he made up this whole story just to mooch a bottle and some food, he wouldn't be willing to risk his life, now would he? Much less three months of hard work and a long trip. Oh, no, no. He can get a bottle and food a lot easier than that! 
Ruby: Where's this gold supposed to be? 
Melvin: At a place he calls Gold Creek. It's deep in Indian Territory. Now, honey, it's no picnic to get there, but we can be rich! Real stinking rich! And we won't have to sweat it out in that lousy saloon for the next 15 years! Listen, Ruby, all we have to do is bag it up! Bags of gold!
"Tell me about the rabbits, George!"
The only two men Melvin manages to convince to go in with him are a couple of no-good desperadoes (Delgado and Stanger) on the run from the law. These men immediately start scheming how to screw naive, too-trusting Melvin over; they also start making inappropriate sexual overtures toward Ruby. This ragtag party of five -- Taggart, the Potters, and the two crooks -- head out in search of Gold Creek. From this point on, Charles Veltmann, Jr. temporarily takes over the voiceover chores from Kenne Duncan, making Revenge of the Virgins another Ed Wood movie with multiple narrators. After a few minutes of screen time, there are two additions to the group -- a pair of Cavalry deserters (Massad and Monroe), who also do a lot of dastardly, sneaky plotting behind Melvin's back. Frankly, having two matching pairs of scumbags was overkill. The desperadoes and the deserters are difficult to tell apart, so these two "new" characters don't add a great deal of variety to the film. I guess their real purpose is to provide more victims for the Golden Horde to kill, and believe me, the archery-related deaths start early in the proceedings and don't let up.

The only real moment of pathos along the way is when Pan Taggart is killed. His death comes mere seconds after he finally gets his hand on the gold that he has been dreaming about for years. His last words before being struck by an arrow are: "Gold! Gold! Here it is! Gold!" The irony of this does not go unnoticed by the other characters. "Old coot tries for ten years to convince somebody that there's gold up here," says Delgado. "When he finally makes it back, he gets one minute to feel it between his fingers." That's life in a nutshell, ain't it? Later, when Ruby is struck down, Melvin insists on putting a marker at her gravesite. ("It seems kinda lonesome without a touch of somebody cared.")

As Rob Craig notes in his assessment of this film, graves and funerals are a common theme in Ed Wood's writing career. In the Pete LaRoche article about William S. Hart, he even devotes a few sentences to the final resting place of Hart's beloved pinto, Fritz. ("Fritz is buried at the William S. Hart Ranch in Newhall, Calif.," the article informs us, "his memory commemorated by a suitable monument.")

Ultimately, Revenge of the Virgins leads to a climax in which Hank Delgado plans to shoot Charles Veltmann, Jr. in the back while the latter prattles on obliviously about the saloon he'll buy with his share of the gold once he returns to town. The scene very much reminded me of the famous "rabbits" scene between George and Lenny in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. I don't know whether or not Ed Wood was thinking of that when he wrote this screenplay, but it seems likely. The difference here is that there's no undercurrent of tragedy in Revenge, since both characters -- the shooter and the shootee -- are almost entirely worthless.



All in all, this is a movie that Ed Wood fans in particular and seekers of strange entertainment in general will definitely want to check out, if only for its lost-era oddness and squeaky-clean brand of decadence. Revenge of the Virgins is easy to find in a variety of formats, and it's a quick, quirky, relatively painless viewing experience, even for rookies who may find themselves overmatched by the likes of Orgy of the Dead. Better yet, if you're an aspiring Wood-ologist but are a bit squeamish about pornography, this is an ideal "gateway drug." Revenge will allow you to check out the "naughty" side of Eddie's career without the potential embarrassment of seeing actors and actresses in sexual situations, either real or simulated.

Or if you're slightly put off by the prospect of sitting through a black-and-white Western from the 1950s, you may be put at ease to learn that this one is roughly 50% boobs, 40% people being shot with arrows, and 10% Ed Wood dialogue. That's a winning formula, I'd say. Moreover, this little movie is a museum artifact of cinematic sexploitation plus a statement (albeit a muddled one) on both the role of women in society and the treatment of the American Indians by white settlers. What more do you want from an hour of light entertainment?

In two weeks: One of the most talked-about, shocked-about motion pictures of 1959 was Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, a film so scandalous that even star Jimmy Stewart's father came out publicly against it. Of Hollywood's offerings the very next year, easily the most controversial was Alfred Hitchcock's now-seminal slasher Psycho. If you take Anatomy of a Murder and cross-pollinate it with Psycho, what do you get? I have no idea, but director Boris Petroff was hoping audiences would be curious enough to be lured into the movie theaters and drive-ins of America to see his latest creation, a sleazy crime thriller whose screenplay was credited to Petroff's wife, Jane Mann, and film/TV writer Don Devlin. But there are those who believe that a certain Edward Davis Wood, Jr. may have had a hand in the creation of this particular movie. Did he? We'll sort all this out in one short week as we examine Anatomy of a Psycho (1961).