Dillinger: His Story is Written in Bullets, Blood and Blondes!
By Ed Garea
Dillinger (Monogram, 1945) - Director: Max Nosseck. Screenplay: Philip Yordan. Cast: Lawrence Tierney, Edmund Lowe, Anne Jeffreys, Eduardo Ciannelli, Marc Lawrence, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ralph Lewis, Victor Kilian, Ludwig Stossel, & Constance Worth. B&W, 70 minutes.
John Dillinger was one of the most charismatic gangsters who ever lived. Because of his positive notoriety, the Hays Office banned any Hollywood studio from capitalizing on his name. This was well before Dillinger met his death outside in Biograph Theater in Chicago at the hands of the FBI. Adding strength to the ban, J. Edgar Hoover made it known to Hollywood that any studio making a Dillinger biopic would lose the cooperation of the FBI, which counted for a lot in those days. The studios, for their part, complied, even though a Dillinger-esque character might slip through every once in a while, such as Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936) and Bogart again in High Sierra (1940). Though Warner Brothers produced both films, the studio quickly disavowed any connection or resemblance between the characters and Dillinger.
But come the ‘40s, America was at war, fighting bigger gangsters. Independent producers Frank and Maurice King decided the time was right to take a chance, and secured the cooperation of Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Upon learning of this, the Hays Office sent Monogram a reminder to keep their film within the established guidelines that were set forth in the special regulations regarding crime in motion pictures. Thus, the script by Philip Yordan (with unbilled assistance from the young William Castle) steered a wide berth from many of the known facts of Dillinger’s life and career. In fact, it could be said that any resemblance between the Dillinger of the film and the real Dillinger was only coincidental. The Dillinger of the film is a cold-blooded killer, a highly unpleasant person. The real Dillinger, by contrast, was a bank robber who was not a killer by nature, a charismatic Jesse James type who stole from the hated banks.
The original thought of the producers was to tell the story from the point of view of Ana “Anna Sage” Cumpanas, the Romanian madam who sold Dillinger out to the FBI in return for a promise not to be deported - a promise the government did not keep. She is renowned in popular culture as The Woman in Red, for the red dress she wore so the FBI could pick out Dillinger. In reality, her dress was orange; it only looked red under the lights of the theater marquee. In this way, they didn’t have to mention Dillinger by name, and could thus escape any interference from the censors. But Yordan thought Dillinger was the compelling character, and that patrons would prefer his story instead of a disguised gangster yarn.
For the role of Dillinger, Monogram head Steve Broidy wanted Chester Morris. But the King brothers pointed out that Morris would be too expensive and, if Broidy wanted him so badly, Monogram should pony up the required salary separate from the film’s budget. So there went Chester Morris. The King brothers wanted Lawrence Tierney, an unknown contract player from RKO, to play the title role. He had been signed by RKO in 1943 and had gone through five films without being credited. His best known of the bunch was his performance as a sailor in producer Val Lewton’s Ghost Ship, where he plays a luckless sailor crushed to death in the coils of the ship’s anchor chain. He finally received ninth billing in Lewton’s JD epic for RKO, Youth Runs Wild (1944). As he wasn’t used much at RKO, Tierney began to spend his time at Monogram, looking for parts, and that was where the King brothers met him. They wanted him right away for the title role. They liked his swagger and his tough guy persona, already established this early in his career. Broidy nixed the choice, not wanting to give top billing to an unknown. But the King Brothers were persuasive: Tierney cost less than half the salary of Morris and, if Broidy didn’t accept the choice, they would take the production elsewhere. Broidy liked the script and didn’t want to lose the picture. On the other hand, he didn’t want to commit a lot of money to what could well be a hard film to sell, so he budgeted the project at $65,000, which was fine by the King brothers, as they had a deal for a percentage of the gross. As he saw the dailies, Broidy’s enthusiasm for the project grew and he raised the budget to a final number of around $192,000.
The film opens with the conclusion of a newsreel detailing Dillinger’s criminal exploits. Dillinger’s father talks to the movie’s audience about his son, describing his youth as uneventful, but noting that John was headstrong and ambitious.
Cut to a speakeasy in Indianapolis, where John is drinking with his date. She wants another drink and John tells the waiter that he’s short of cash but can write a check. The waiter, a hard-ass, tells him it’s a cash-only joint. John wants to leave, but his date insists on ordering another drink. John excuses himself, telling her he’ll be right back with some money. He heads to a nearby grocery store and robs the owner, fooling him into believing he has a gun. On the way out he runs into two cops, who arrest him and note that he only got $7.20 in the heist.
Sentenced to prison, John gets off on the wrong foot by trying to bully his cellmate, who knocks him cold. Later, John learns that his cellmate is none other than “Specs” Green (Lowe), one of the nation’s premier bank robbers, and quickly makes up to Specs, who in turn, introduces him to his gang: Marco Minnelli (Cianelli), Doc Madison (Lawrence) and Kirk Otto (Cook, Jr.). Talk about an all-star roster of B-movie criminals. John, whose sentence is much shorter, vows to help them escape once he’s paroled.
As soon as he is freed, John holds up a movie theater box office, after flirting with the ticket seller, Helen Rogers (Jeffreys). Although Helen recognizes him from a mug shot, she says she cannot identify him during a line-up, and Dillinger goes free. Afterward, Helen goes out with John. Several more successful robberies give Dillinger the wherewithal to carry out his escape plan, which involves sneaking in a barrel carrying firearms to the gang while they’re working in the quarry. They shoot their way to freedom, and with Dillinger, commit a series of daring bank robberies.
But the gang learns that all but John have been identified by one of their victims. Specs sends John out to case their next target, the Farmers Trust Bank. On the way, however, Dillinger stops in at the speakeasy where the waiter had given him such a hard time during the movie’s opening scenes. Dillinger invites him to sit down for a drink, then breaks a bottle and shoves the bottle into the man’s face.
Posing as a customer, John checks out the bank, reporting to the gang that it has a sophisticated security system. Specs wants to bring in outside help, given the security and John’s trigger-happy disposition, but John convinces the crew that he has a better plan. The gang uses gas bombs to rob the bank and flee to their hideout, where John takes over leadership of the gang from Specs, taking his double-cut as well. The group splits up for a couple of weeks, reuniting at a lodge run by the Ottos, Kirk’s foster parents. Learning the law is closing in, the gang heads to the West, robbing banks there. In Tucson, Dillinger visits a dentist to see about a toothache. As John is about to be put under, the police burst in and arrest him.
This leads to a scene in prison, where we see Dillinger whittle the wooden gun he later uses to make his escape. Reunited with the gang, Dillinger’s first order of business is to kill Specs, who he has figured out betrayed him in Tucson. He then shows the boys his plan to rob a train with a huge payout. But during the robbery, John is wounded and Kirk is killed. The gang, with new member Tony (Lewis), flees back to the Otto’s lodge, where Helen is staying. With Kirk dead, the Ottos have no qualms about turning the gang in, but as they are making the call, Dillinger overheads them and kills them both. John then stops Helen from sneaking off with Tony, and as the police close in on the lodge, he and Helen escape in a car. The rest of the gang surrenders, but John and Helen make it to Chicago, where they find a place to lay low.
It’s July 1934. John is Public Enemy Number One and the authorities are offering a reward of $15,000, dead or alive. John, feeling antsy, decides to go to a movie with Helen. However, he is unaware that, in the meantime, she has sold him out to the FBI. As they exit the theater, FBI agents spot Helen, who is wearing a red dress for easy identification. As they close in, Dillinger tries to shoot his way out, but is gunned down. In the final irony, the agents go through his pockets and discover he has only $7.20 on him.
I mentioned before that the film played loose with the facts about Dillinger’s life. The part in the beginning with Dillinger’s father was true, as mentioned earlier. Dillinger did live in Indianapolis, and prison is where he met the men he joined later. He did help them escape - however, the names are all wrong, as the men he met at Indiana State Prison were Harry “Pete” Pierpont, Charles Makley, Red Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter. There was no recognized leader. Dillinger was arrested with the gang in Tucson, but not while going to the dentist. The lodge in Wisconsin existed, but the people who owned it were not related to any of Dillinger’s gang. And it was Anna Sage, not Dillinger’s girlfriend (Polly Hamilton), who wore the “red” dress. The theater was the Biograph, which viewers of the film would not have known, as they instead substituted a generic theater located on the lot. Not even the Biograph’s marquee was duplicated. The film Dillinger saw that night? Manhattan Melodrama, a 1934 MGM film staring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy.
The strong part of Dillinger is its cast, especially in the supporting parts. The casting of Edmund Lowe, Marc Lawrence, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Elisha Cook, Jr. made for quite the formidable gang. Anne Jeffreys, essentially playing “The Lady in Red,” was borrowed from RKO. She turned in an original, thoughtful performance as Dillinger’s girlfriend, almost walking away with the film. Selmer Jackson (as the dentist) and Ludwig Stossel (as Elisha Cook’s father) were fine in bit parts. But it was Lawrence Tierney’s movie, as he snarled, growled and spat his way through without resorting to his hambone. He was nothing short of brilliant as he portrayed a man whose violent rage always was simmering beneath the surface, ready to explode. This was Tierney’s big break, and to say he was anxious was a helluva an understatement. His frequent anxiety attacks during filming necessitated having a port-a-potty nearby to cut down his time away from the camera.
After the success of the film and the reception afforded his performance, Tierney returned to RKO as a star. He played a very credible Jesse James in the Randolph Scott oater, Badman’s Territory, in 1946, before going on to become America’s favorite psychopath in such films as The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Born to Kill (1947), and The Hoodlum (1950). He would have been a major star if it weren’t for his rather raucous life off the set. Tierney seemed to be living up to his reputation in much publicized brawls, usually in bars and anywhere alcohol played a part. He found himself reduced to supporting status, and while jobs were available, they weren’t nearly as frequent or as substantial as before. Finding himself almost forgotten in the ‘80s, he had a reprieve when he was cast as Elaine Benes’s father in a memorable episode of Seinfeld. Plans were to make him a semi-regular character, but he so scared the producers with his ad-lib ideas (including one where he threatens Seinfeld with a knife), that the plans were quickly forgotten. In 1992, he engineered a comeback of sorts when he was cast in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs as the aging gangster, Joe Cabot. But, again, the filming was far from peaceful due to Tierney’s temper. When word of his antics on the set got around, especially his near-fisticuffs with Tarantino, ideas of starring roles in major productions faded once again and he continued to work supporting parts and television guest shots. After his death in 2002 at the age of 82, Tierney is remembered in film history as a case of tremendous talent sabotaged by a borderline personality whose worst side was brought out by alcohol.
Dillinger was directed with a close eye toward the budget by Max Nosseck, a German actor-director who left after Hitler came to power, with stops in France and Spain before coming to America in 1940. His first directorial assignment was a Yiddish film titled Der viler Shtot Khazn (The Vilna Town Cantor), eventually being released as Overture to Glory. From there he signed on with Columbia’s B unit, directing Girls Under 21 in 1940 before eventually finding his way to RKO after assignments on Poverty Row. He returned to Germany in 1956, where he spent the rest of his life directing and acting. He died in 1972. While at Eagle-Lion, after his stint at RKO, Nosseck had the distinction of directing Tierney in Kill or Be Killed and The Hoodlum. To say they disliked each other was putting it mildly. They argued frequently and vociferously, with Tierney walking off the set several times before returning.
Given the small budget on Dillinger, Nosseck used whatever resources came his way, including liberal use of stock footage during the chase scenes, even in prominent scenes, and lifting the bank robbery scene from Fritz Lang’s 1937 drama, You Only Live Once (look closely and you’ll see that film’s star, Henry Fonda, looking out of the back of the getaway car). He also used still-framed backdrops for tighter angles. He also used reduced lighting to hide the shabby sets and spinning newspapers with bold headlines to advance Dillinger’s progress, saving valuable dollars in the process. Nosseck also made good use of a score by none other than Dimitri Tiomkin. The result was a film that combined aspects of both documentary and noir, even though it looked firmly within its low budget. Over the years, though, it has aged well and still packs something of a punch, thanks to Tierney.
Yet, despite the dilution of the subject matter, Dillinger still received strong condemnations at the time of its initial release in March 1945, including from the War Department in Washington, which refused to screen it for the troops overseas, and the Chicago censorship board, which for reasons all too obvious, banned it for two years. Still, it brought in over $4,000,000 at the box office, a remarkable sum given its budget of $193,000. In addition, screenwriter Philip Yordan garnered a 1946 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay (losing out to Richard Schweizer for the Swiss import Marie-Louise). But most importantly, it proved that although Dillinger was dead and buried, he still retained the charisma he enjoyed during his brief lifetime.
During production, the film went through a slew of proposed titles, including John Dillinger, John Dillinger, Mobster and Killer D.
The film also marked the first appearance of John Dillinger in a Hollywood production. It would be followed by Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson in 1957, with Mickey Rooney as the star and Leo Gordon as Dillinger; Nick Adams as Young Dillinger (1965, with footage liberally lifted from Baby Face Nelson); Warren Oates in John Milius’ Dillinger (1973); Robert Conrad in The Lady in Red (1979, with script by John Sayles); and the most-recent effort by Johnny Depp in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). The best of the bunch? 1973’s Dillinger.
As for the real Dillinger, there is the classic account of his robbery of a bank. For the gang’s getaway, they placed customers as hostages on the getaway car’s running board to deter police pursuit. Dillinger assured the hostages they were in no danger and would be released once the gang reached the city limits. As they turned a corner onto a residential street, one of the hostages exclaimed she lived on the block. Dillinger, driving the car, asked where her residence was, stopped in front, releasing her, but not before she kissed him on the cheek and he gave her a $10 bill, saying that she would be able to tell her grandchildren she once rode with Dillinger. As the car sped away, he tipped his hat and smiled.
The Z Files: Night of the Lepus
By Ed Garea
Night of the Lepus (MGM, 1972) - Director: William F. Claxton. Writers: Don Holliday & Gene R. Kearney (s/p); Russell Braddon (novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit). Cast: Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Chris Morrell, Chuck Hayward, Henry Wills, Francesca Jarvis, William Elliott, Jerry Dunphy, Frank Kennedy, & Bob Hardy. Color, 88 minutes.
Be vewwwy, vewwy quiet, we’re hunting wabbits. Actually, in Night of the Lepus, the wabbits are hunting us. And they’re not your usual garden-variety rabbits, either. No, these are giants, created supposedly through a scientist’s mistake, but in actuality, created through a combination of miniature sets, bad editing, and weird and confusing camerawork.
To get the audience in the right mood (we have to figure they’re already rolling their eyes before the movie even starts), the movie opens with a faux television news report. An anchorman (Dunphy), with a bright “special report” graphic on the screen behind him, begins with a rambling narrative about the environment and how man can upset its delicate balance. He then shows footage shot in Australia circa 1954 concerning the plague of rabbits there, which are still a threat. The footage shows farmers trying to round up herds of the fuzzy little bastards using fences and nets and hacking at their little carcasses with machetes. He tries to explain the rabbit plague as being introduced to the country as a new food source. We know that wasn’t the reason, but wait, there’s more. Dunphy then goes on to note that a new plague of rabbits has broken out in the American Southwest, “as shown in these color films just received from our news team in Arizona!” We then cut to some of the bunnies coming out of hole as the credits begin to roll; too bad, for the introduction is easily the scariest part of this movie.
Rancher Cole Hillman (Calhoun) has some serious wabbit twouble on his hands. The reason why he’s up to his navel in the little pests is because their natural enemies, the coyotes, were all killed off (or out hunting road runners). Cole turns to his friend, college president Elgin Clark (Kelley - Bones McCoy to you - in a bad orange turtleneck and some really tight pants) of Wattsamatta U., for help. Clark, in turn, passes the buck to his top scientists, the husband and wife team of Roy and Gerry Bennett (Whitman and Leigh), who suggest altering the rabbits’ breeding cycle, grabbing some rabbits off the ranch for experimentation.
We don’t know what’s scarier: Bones’ mustache, his tight pants, or the fact he’s the president of the college.
Now here’s where it gets silly. First off, the Bennetts are referred to several times in the film as “the young scientist couple.” Whitman was 44 when Lepus was filmed, and Leigh 45, and what’s more, they looked it. Of course they’re saddled with a young bratty daughter. This one is named Amanda (Fullerton) and she is from a long tradition of incredibly annoying children in sci-fi and horror movies. Not only does she whine and pout throughout the movie, but, like all other children of her ilk in sci-fi situations, she turns out to be the cause of the problem.
Roy and Gerry find this rabbit thing is not as easy as it looked. After considering and dismissing an idea to introduce a rabbit-specific disease to the area, they next try a hormonal approach, hoping to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. They work while Amanda runs around the laboratory playing with the rabbits, sort of a “bring your daughter to work” type of thing, we guess. However, be it as it may, the process is taking too long. The Bennetts are racing against time, as the other ranchers plan a mass poisoning if a solution is not found soon. So Roy turns to something completely experimental in the hopes that it will work. He comes up with a secret formula he obtained from a Professor Dirkson (Hardy) in the Public Health Department. The serum is supposed create genetic mutations that will disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. Only one problem - it hasn’t been tested. But that’s no worry to old Roy. As he injects the serum into a test rabbit, Amanda whines “Not that one, Daddy! That’s my favorite!” Daddy ignores this heartfelt plea and injects the rabbit anyway, adding, “Gee, I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would be.” Is this meant to make us feel better? Maybe he could give them rabbititus.
Okay, that’s a bad idea on his part. But wait, it gets worse. While Roy and Gerry are on a teleconference with Cole, bratty Amanda switches the rabbit with another in a group not yet injected. After the conference is over, Roy notes that Cole said the rabbits are getting meaner and hungrier. It never occurs to our scientists that this could be a sign that their food supply is dwindling, and if left alone, the overpopulation will correct itself. (Nah, too easy.) Roy and Gerry return to the injected rabbits only to discover that Professor Dirkson’s magical, mystery serum is causing the rabbits to become larger.
Amanda, for her part, is whining about letting them give her one from the safe group as a pet. They agree - anything to shut her up. So what rabbit does she choose? You guessed it - the one she just placed in the group. Now our only concern is how long it will take until that rabbit gets loose - and bigger. Would you believe it happens in the very next scene? While visiting the Hillman’s farm, Hillman’s son, Jackie (Morrell) knocks the pet out of her arms and it scampers into a nearby hole.
A short while later (it’s never made clear how much time has elapsed), Hillman and the Bennetts are inspecting the rabbit’s old burrowing areas, and find a giant footprint. While they're out, Amanda and Jackie go to visit a nutty old codger named Billy, who’s working an old gold mine. However, Billy doesn’t seem to be home. Jackie finds more giant prints in Billy’s shed while Amanda goes into the mine to look for him. Once in the mine, she comes face to face with a humongous rabbit that’s busy feasting on what’s left of Billy. What’s more, he has blood on his face (or red coloring)! Amanda freaks out, going mute (the best thing that’s happened yet in the film). Jackie runs into the mine, picks her up and carries her back to the ranch.
A doctor is called in and diagnoses Amanda’s condition as mild shock. Billy is questioned as to what happened, but he says that it all happened so fast that he didn’t see anything. Later that night, a truck is driving on the highway near the ranch when it pulls over. The driver gets out and opens the back door. Why? So we can see that the truck is loaded with boxes labeled “carrots,” that’s why. And, as Elmer Fudd has told us, “Wabbits wove cawwots, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” Cut to a montage of rabbit faces. A low growling sound is heard. (Never mind the fact that rabbits have no vocal cords.) A rabbit (or the guy in the rabbit suit) leaps, the driver screams, we cut to the next morning, where the police find the truck, the empty boxes, and the dead driver. Enter Sheriff Cody (Fix). He has the trucker’s body removed for a postmortem to join the body of Billy, who was finally found in the mine.
The trucker’s body is sent to forensic scientist Dr. Leopold (Elliott), who finds that the damage was caused by something with a bite like a saber tooth tiger. Some help he is. Meanwhile, a radio call is received from a cop in a picnic ground. Seems a family of four has been killed and mutilated. Claxton pans slowly over the bodies, making sure we see the red paint on them.
Professor Dirkson reviews Leopold’s findings and concludes that one of the test rabbits must have escaped and spread himself among the general rabbit population. Clark (Kelley), worried about adverse publicity, suggests the rabbits be killed by any means necessary, so he, the Bennetts, and Cole, mosey on down to the mine, accompanied by Cole’s ranch hands, Jud and Frank. After checking for any other openings, they go into the mine to lay charges and to blow the mine’s entrance.
It’s then that Roy remembers something Dirkson said about getting one alive for study (another great idea), so he and Cole go down into the mine to see for themselves, and come upon the whole herd. We now see normal-sized rabbits jumping around on a miniature set. As Cole and Roy start to run, a guy in a bunny suit attacks Roy. Cole smacks the guy on the head with his rifle, and he and Roy just escape the mine before it blows.
But they’re not out of the woods, a short distance away, a giant rabbit burrows his way to the surface and looks around. (“I knew I should-a made that left turn at Albuquerque!”) He heads for the shack, where Jud is lunching on a sandwich. Gerry hears a scream and heads for the shack. It’s that guy in the bunny suit again, and he’s attacking Jud! Gerry starts shooting and the bunny-suited guy jumps out the window. Jud is bloodied, but alive.
A while later (we don’t know when as the filmmakers have a definite problem with time that occurs throughout the film), Roy, Gerry and Clark are examining the photos Roy took of the rabbits. (Why has no one asked how the infected rabbit got loose in the first place? Amanda isn’t talking.) They decide to tell the sheriff. (About time.) Roy has a brainstorm and tells Gerry to take the brat and get away to avoid the crowds, which will include hordes of the press. This leads to one of my favorite lines, as Gerry replies, “I suppose we’ll drive up to Wooddale and stay at the lodge.” I can almost hear her saying, “I know this little motel off the interstate run by some guy called Bates or something.”
Better move fast, because the rabbits have found their way out of the mine and are, as they say, hopping mad. Heading toward the Hillman ranch, they stop to attack a herd of horses on the way, smearing them with red food coloring. Jud takes a truck and makes tracks (can’t blame him), but drives right into the rabbits. He turns around and heads back with the rabbits in pursuit. Meanwhile, Hillman is getting everyone into the cellar, but as he tries to call out, Jud conveniently runs the truck into a telephone pole and knocks out the phone service. He runs out of the truck and the rabbits pounce on him - so much for Jud. Hillman fires his rifle at the rabbit mob, but it’s no good, as he’s firing at a process shot. He runs into the cellar as the bunnies break into his house and raid the fridge. As the kitchen is right above them, Hillman and Frank shoot through the ceiling at the rabbits, oblivious to the fact they may be weakening the ceiling enough so the rabbits will fall in on them.
The rabbits hit the road and head towards town, stopping at the general store on the way so they can kill Mildred (Jarvis), the owner. The guy in the bunny suit jumps on her and slathers her with red food coloring.
The next morning, Clark arrives to tell them that the sheriff is on his way back from the crime lab, where they finally determined that rabbits are doing the killing. Smart, all the way to the top. They meet the sheriff at the airport, where they have a confab. As both Kelley and Fix worked with William Shatner in Star Trek, they know all about creatures that chew huge amounts of scenery. They and Roy go up in a helicopter and head for the mine. Why? The rabbits have all left. When they arrive at the mine, they find - the rabbits have all left. Duh. The sheriff calls his office and asks for the National Guard. Hillman calls to tell the sheriff that the rabbits have killed Jud and Mildred, and are heading toward the sheriff, but only move at night.
Now they know there’s only one option left to them: kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits.
But how? Fighter-bombers? Call in Elmer Fudd? There’s not enough time for evacuation and they determine that the rabbits are moving in too wide a front for the Guardsmen to shoot them all. But Roy’s got an idea (uh-oh): they’ll moves the rabbits toward a stretch of railroad tracks connected to an electrical source, and when they get right in the middle, juice them. Why can’t they just shoot the beasts? Because it’s easier for the process shots to electrocute them, that’s why. But how do we get them there? Hmmm. A-ha! A solution. There’s a nearby drive-in crammed to the gills with cars. A cop pulls in and delivers not only the best line in this film, but one of the best lines in the history of bad movies: “Attention, attention. Ladies and gentlemen, attention. There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help.”
That no one laughs and everyone cooperates is one of the great mysteries in this film. The cop tells everyone to turn their headlights on and follow him. That they willingly do so is another mystery. Meanwhile, as Roy and the boys are running a power line to the tracks, Roy learns that Gerry and the brat never arrived at their destination. Roy grabs the helicopter and is off to the rescue. The cars from the drive-in arrive and are instructed to park in a straight line and shine their headlights. We cut to the rabbits, hopping around the miniature set that passes for the town. This shot will be used over and over again to save money.
Roy flies over to see that Gerry and the brat are stuck in the dirt and the rabbits are swarming all over. Gerry’s holding them off with a flare. Roy rescues the girls just in the nick of time as the rabbits swarm their RV. Whew. Roy flies back to see his plan in action, as the Guard fires on the rabbits and drives them towards the tracks. As they cross, the juice is turned on, and . . . hasenpfeffer is served!
Sometime later, when I don’t know, Hillman drops by the college to find Roy, Clark and the rest playing football. He tells Roy that he heard some coyotes, but the rabbits - normal sized this time, are still there, and invites Roy and the family out. As we fade to black, the brat and Jackie are playing as some normal-sized rabbits sit by and watch.
The original title of this turkey was “Rabbits,” but MGM figured that would scare no one, so they used the Latin name for Rabbit to make audiences think it was about something scary. Unfortunately, the publicity kits issued to theaters feature rabbits, and MGM obviously didn’t count on word-of-mouth.
After seeing this atrocity, you’re probably wondering why it was made in the first place. Lepus was the brainchild of producer A.C. Lyles, who toiled for many years at the same position for Paramount. In the ‘60s, he formed his own company and began producing a series of what were referred to as “geezer Westerns,” cheaply-shot Westerns using well-known actors who were now long in the tooth as stars. Lyles followed the same casting strategy for Lepus, using such faded stars as Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForrest Kelley, and Paul Fix, all of whom had seen better days - and movies.
A large part of the problem with the film is that the cast plays it straight; evidently laboring under the delusion they’re in a real movie. Whitman is the least charismatic sci-fi hero since Richard Travis in Missile to the Moon back in 1958. Leigh, who gave one of her reasons for appearing in this turkey being that it was shot close to home, is also wasted, playing a character that harkens back to the ‘50s, when women were looked upon as an unwanted novelty in sci-fi. In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, she said, “How can you make a bunny rabbit menacing, what can you do? It just didn't work." She also admitted that, "No one twisted my arm and said I had to do it. It didn't dawn on anyone until - it took about four or five days before we realized we didn't have the ideal director. I've forgotten as much as I could about that picture." Kelley and Calhoun were also wasted in their roles, playing underwritten parts that allowed neither the opportunity to do or say something interesting. Last - and certainly least, Melanie Fullerton as Amanda is supposed to be 10-years old, but plays her part as if she were half that age and no one ever fixed it. What is interesting about the performances is that we can see the resentment of the stars as the picture goes on, as if they realize they’ve been played.
William Claxton, the director, besides working for Lyles, worked mainly in television, usually in Western television series, which is why Night of the Lepus plays like a made-for-television movie. Claxton is also a devotee of Replaying The Same Shot Over and Over Again technique, giving the film an eerie feeling of watching in slow motion, and doing absolutely nothing for the fright factor. However, the laugh factor is another story entirely.
In March 1972, AIP released Frogs, a nature-goes-wild-and-gets-revenge film. Made for a pittance, the film did quite well at the box office and inspired a series of “eco-horror” films, all made cheaply and none of which did as well at the box office. Looking for material for a similar vehicle, someone at Lyles’ office came across a novel titled The Year of the Angry Rabbit, written by Australian satirist Russell Braddon in 1964.
Like most good satires, Braddon based his work on historical fact. A British officer brought rabbits to Australia in the mid-19th century thinking they would make for good shooting. Because he didn’t get them all, the survivors bred, and within 10 years, the rabbit population numbered in the millions. As the rabbits didn’t have natural enemies in their new land, they ran amok, wiping out other mammalian species and devastating farmland.
To fight this natural apocalypse, the Australian government introduced a virus called myxomatosis, among other viral plagues, to combat the furry invaders. Though successful at first, those rabbits that didn’t succumb bred generations of rabbits immune to the virus. Braddon’s novel takes the government’s eradication process one step further. Scientists bio-engineer a new strain of myxomatosis, called Super-Myx, to combat the rabbit plague. However, the new virus fails to kill the pests, instead turning them into savage and carnivorous predators. What Super-Myx does kill is humans and the power-mad Australian prime minister uses this new weapon to conquer the world and establish a new totalitarian Australian empire. But as he builds his new state, the infected rabbits mutate into deadly monsters that not only bring down his empire, but wipes out human civilization as well. (The novel is great reading, but out-of-print and difficult to obtain. Try the local library; that’s where I obtained my copy years ago.)
Writers Holliday and Kearney took this inspired tale and converted it into one of the silliest films ever made because there was no way, given the time constraint and budget, Lyles could make the novel into a film. He took the easy way out, constructing it along the usual eco-horror route and hoping that a plague of killer bunnies would somehow make for a suspenseful thriller. And it might have had a small chance if he had been able to use wild rabbits and had more money in the kitty. But most of his estimated $900,000 budget went toward the stars, and his production staff brought in domesticated rabbits, the cute little buggers kids love to have for pets. Those couldn’t scare anyone. Another bad decision was to play it completely seriously. The rabbits destroyed any chance the film had to be taken seriously.
As the gang from Rifftrax noted, “That Cadbury commercial where the rabbit clucks like a chicken is infinitely scarier. So is the mustache that DeForest Kelley sports in this movie.” I couldn’t agree more.
As the gang from Rifftrax noted, “That Cadbury commercial where the rabbit clucks like a chicken is infinitely scarier. So is the mustache that DeForest Kelley sports in this movie.” I couldn’t agree more.
The good news about Night of the Lepus is that it’s only 88 minutes long. The bad news is that it’s 88 minutes you’ll never get back again.
- Edited by Steve Herte, rabbit lover (He says they’re delicious.)
It's a Small World
By Ed Garea
It's a Small World (Eagle-Lion, 1950) - Director: William Castle. Writers: William Castle, Otto Schreiber. Cast: Paul Dale, Lorraine Miller, Will Geer, Nina Koshetz, Steve Brodie, Anne Sholter, Todd Karns, Margaret Field, Shirley Mills, Thomas Browne Henry, Harry Harvey, Jacqui Snyder, & Lora Lee Michel. B&W, 74 minutes.
William Castle directed many an offbeat film, usually accompanied by loads of ballyhoo. But this is a film we usually don’t find in his oeuvre unless we look carefully. It’s not mentioned in the wonderful documentary about him on TCM, and comes at a time when he decided to leave Columbia, tired of directing nothing but B’s while waiting for the “A” assignment that was promised, but never came.
And so he struck out on his own, pitching his talents to the ultra low-budget Eagle-Lion Films. Castle had a pretty good resume. He was a studio director for Columbia, turning out B-product such as The Whistler series and Boston Blackie films. But when a promised promotion to direct A-features failed to materialize, Castle bailed on his Columbia contract and signed with Universal-International. He was at large in the period between studios, so he pitched a couple of projects to Eagle-Lion. The studio, which was serving as the American distribution arm of England’s J. Arthur Rank Organization, produced B-features to accompany such noted British imports as Olivier’s Hamlet. Eagle-Lion established itself by absorbing the bankrupt Producers Releasing Corporation and its studio space on Gower Street.
Castle’s first pitch was for a science-fiction film along the lines of Destination Moon, basing the film on Robert Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Gibraltar, but Eagle-Lion honcho Arthur Krim turned it down, seeing the project as too expensive to mount. Castle’s next pitch was something along the lines of a epic Western, but that was rejected also as being too expensive for Eagle-Lion’s tastes and pocketbook, but Castle was not one to be deterred by rejection. Ever the salesman, he proposed a film in line with recent features such as Crossfire (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), and Home of the Brave (1949). Its plot would be about the life of a social “outsider” and stump for acceptance. Thus, It’s a Small World came into existence: a well-meaning look at a midget (Dale) and the problems he must overcome. An old saying is that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions, which is the case with this film. Castle made it as a serious commentary on the problems of little people in the world, but it comes off as an unintentional hoot.
To use the present PC parlance, “little people” have been employed as the subject of many an exploitation picture. It wasn’t always so, but finding a film that took such characters seriously is a difficult job. The best-known midget performer was Harry Earles, who had a substantial role in both the silent and sound versions of The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930), and a leading role in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Other than that he appeared in shorts, (mainly unbilled), and as one of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
As a matter of fact, The Wizard of Oz was one of the few films not to use smaller performers as an exploitation device. Most films featuring smaller performers were low-budget atrocities such as Sam Newfield’s all-midget Western, The Terror of Tiny Town (Jed Buell Productions/Columbia, 1938).
As time passed, smaller performers slowly moved from the cellar of exploitation films to roles in mainstream productions, though the occasional exploitation film still managed to creep in. But in 1950, exploitation was still the norm; a norm Castle wished to change.
Castle approaches his subject with all the necessary sincerity and gravity his budget will allow, but what does the film in is the performance of his leading man, Paul Dale (real name Dale Paullin). Dale, whose only other acting credit was in The Wizard of Oz as one of the Lollipop Guild, was working in Des Moines as a disc jockey when Castle tapped him to star in this movie. His problem is the whipped-dog look he carries through most of the picture. It’s so obvious and affected that the natural sympathy we should feel for our protagonist dissolves instead into laughter and snarky remarks. It doesn’t help Dale that he can’t act, either. There are way too many scenes where he looks at a complete loss as what to do. However, I blame this on Castle, who obviously wasn’t used to directing non-professionals.
The film is divided into three parts. Part 1 is entitled “The Boy,” and it’s where we meet our protagonist, Harry Musk (Dale) of Santa Clara, California. As we open, poor Harry is getting the snot knocked out of him by a group of neatly-dressed thugs with crew-cuts who are joyfully beating Harry because he’s trying to convince them he’s 12.
Harry’s home life isn’t that much better. (Home is a really cheap set with fake trees outside.) Harry’s widower father (Geer) is a well-meaning clod who, when Harry comes into the kitchen looking as if he’s been through the wringer, artfully concludes that he’s been fighting and asks Harry why he never fights back. The answer should be obvious. There are four of them and Harry’s a midget. His eight-year old sister, Susan (Snyder), tells Dad that it wasn’t Harry’s fault; the other kids are just bigger than he is. This flummoxes Dad. “I can’t figure it out,” he says. “I’ve beat him and I’ve pampered him and he just says nothing.” Father of the Year he’s not.
Dad then hauls Harry off, standing him up against the wall, where we see a clearly marked pencil line. Measuring Harry again, Dad realizes that he still hasn’t grown, despite the beatings and pamperings. Dad takes Harry to the family’s doctor. “All I can say is your boy will grow no bigger than he is right now.” Some help he is. What the doc does prescribe is a thick book titled Medical Almanac “that will help you understand it.” So Harry reads about his condition, arriving at the conclusion that the only way he will get taller is to stand on the book.
Dad now gets another brainstorm: he pulls Harry out of school, over the objections of Harry’s teacher. It’s better if no one sees you, he tells the lad. After all, they’ll only make fun of him. That night, Castle tries to get arty. Harry has tormenting dreams, which show themselves as shadows on his bedroom wall. It’s great that the shadow also has Harry’s squeaky, comical voice. It’s also wonderful that the shadow also takes delight in tormenting Harry, asking sarcastically if his condition also means that his shadow won’t grow, either. “You gotta grow,” the shadow tells him, “I won’t stay small.” Great, even the schlemiel’s shadow picks on him.
Harry now spends his days helping Dad on the farm. From the swelling crescendo, we come to believe that Harry and Dad are growing closer, or that Harry has found happiness. Or whatever.
But not everyone hates or makes fun of Harry. A young girl, Janie (Michel), comes by and plays with Harry and his farm animals. One arty montage of young animals later, we see Harry and Janie again. Only this time Janie is older, a teenager, though the actress playing her seems to be at least in her mid-20s (Field was 28 at the time of filming). She’s also taller than Harry. It seems they read together, and today she is reading to him a passage from Gulliver’s Travels. Subtle, huh? At any rate, Harry falls asleep. Maybe he’s bored. Perhaps he only likes short stories.
Later, she gives him a belated birthday present - a watch with “To My Best Friend” inscribed on the back. But before Harry can surmise that there’s something more to this, Janie cuts him to the quick by saying that she’s engaged to be married and will be moving away with her bridegroom. Harry is crushed; she’s the only friend he has. Her absence only makes life at home that much more intolerable. Dad is hiding him away, and Sis is really getting on his nerves, complaining that she can’t ask any of her dates over after they take her home. (This being a small community, they surely must have heard of Harry somewhere.)
Harry concludes that life on the family farm isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as he’s 21 years old, he tells Dad that it’s time he went out on his own. There’s not much he can do on the farm other than sit around due to his small stature. Harry sends a letter to a small-time carny named Jackson (Henry). Jackson takes the bait and pays Harry a visit. He’s pleased by Harry’s potential and agrees to take him on. This necessitates a sloppy goodbye scene between Harry and Dad. Dad goes so far as to hug his son and tell him that, if things go wrong, he can always come back home. For her part, Sis apologizes to Harry for the way she has treated him. Neither, however, tells Harry that they don’t want him leave.
Cut to Harry and Jackson on the road. By the look on his face, Harry is obviously regretting his decision. When they enter a diner, Jackson tries to get his new employee to perform for the customers. Harry begs off and heads for the bathroom. Locking the door, he opens the window and takes it on the lam. As Harry runs through the nighttime countryside, Castle entertains us with a trick he will use in his later horror films. No matter where Harry runs or turns, he is confronted with the superimposed image of Jackson’s laughing face. Reaching the highway, Harry thumbs a ride with a trucker who thinks Harry is a runaway child, and Harry accompanies the trucker to a vegetable market in the big city, where he disembarks and walks around the big city.
We have now reached Part Two of our story: “The Woman.” We quickly know where this is going thanks to a drawing of a woman standing under a streetlamp accompanying the title. But first, Harry has things to do. After leaving the market he walks around, allowing Castle to provide us with some location shooting. He ends up on a park bench, where he meets Sam (Karns). Sam, a hell of a nice guy, informs Harry that he’s an ex-serviceman who’s looking to live “free and easy” for a while. He makes his living shining shoes and, as he has an extra shoeshine kit, Harry can come in as his partner. Harry accepts and the next morning the two are busily shining shoes in the park. Because of his height, Harry proves something of a novelty; he quickly attracts a line of customers while Sam is ignored. “It’s a good thing we’re partners and not competitors,” Sam tells him as they pack up for the day.
In the meantime, Harry has rented a small room. Things are finally looking good for him, but we know this can’t go on forever. One night, Harry hears a noise in the hall. Looking out, he sees it's the woman who lives across the hall being smacked around by a man (obviously meant as a john). Harry tries to rescue her, but is knocked aside for his efforts. The man scrams and the woman, who introduces herself as Buttons (from the many buttons on her dress), joins Harry in his room, letting him play paramedic as he applies a damp cloth to her brand new shiner. Harry has never met anyone like her; his gaze travels up from her F-me shoes to her tight skirt to her cheap hairdo. For her part, she looks at him like a bird of prey looking at its next meal, sizing him up as easy pickings. They go to the sleazy neighborhood bar, where she introduces him to booze and beer. The next day is Sunday and Harry is heading out to work when Buttons tells him to take the day off - she knows how to spend it better. They go off on a date, strolling hand in hand as she helps Harry lavish his earnings on her. All the while, she’s talking about some plans she has for her and her little beau. Harry is totally smitten. We quickly surmise from Harry’s besotted persona that, even though it’s kept strictly off-camera, Buttons has been inducting him in the art of bedroom wrestling as well.
But all is not sunshine and roses. Harry is getting increasingly frustrated with her habit of keeping company with other men. (Doesn’t it dawn on him by now?) When she ditches their date in favor of another guy, Harry is mad. He looks out the window to the shadowy bar across the street. Failing to heed the all-too-obvious symbolism of Castle’s attempt at expressionism, Harry toddles there to drown his sorrows with a liquid dinner, chugging down beers, getting blotto. His resentment toward his erstwhile girlfriend grows as he sees a couple making out in the next booth. Worse, he sees the superimposed image of Buttons no matter where he turns. He climbs on top of a piano, trying to emulate Dietrich. When a female souse points out what a cute midget he is he throws his beer in the woman’s face.
The next morning, still nursing his wounds, plus a possible hangover, he’s back on the job, but surly as all get out. Sam asks Harry what’s wrong, but all he gets is hostility and surly silence. Sam presses for an answer. Harry’s answer is to walk away. He arrives back home after dark to find Buttons waiting for him. After buttering him up, she tells him she has found a “good job” for him, handing him a card. All he has to do is go to the address on the card. When he does so the next evening, it’s in a dingy apartment. He knocks and is met by a woman so fat Haystacks Calhoun looks skinny by comparison. She takes one look at him and laughs. He points at her and laughs. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship . . . well, maybe not.
Inviting him inside, she quickly gets down to business. Her name is Rose (Koshetz), and she’s the leader of a gang of pickpockets. Harry is the newest trainee; he will learn the art of picking pockets, and will delve into crowds disguised as a child. Buttons arrives, along with a guy named Charlie (Brodie) whose idea of camaraderie is to address Harry as “Shorty.” Here’s the plan: Buttons and Charlie will stroll around like a couple, and Harry will pose as their kid to ward off suspicion.
Sounds good, but Harry’s hesitant because this is a crooked scheme. The gang works on him to change his mind, with Buttons in the lead. She hits Harry with the classic “look at all I’ve done for you and this is how you repay me?” line. Harry’s still not won over, so Buttons dismisses Charlie and Rose from the room and turns on the charm - such as it is. She quickly turns the little guy’s head and he joins the gang. Rose trains him in what he needs to know in his new profession and Harry picks it up quickly (He’d better, there’s only 74 minutes in this film.), and soon the gang is on the street. We know this because Castle once more gives us an arty-farty montage of the four of them superimposed over various crowds. Hey, it saves both time and money (hiring extras), not to mentions lots of pages of script.
At any rate, the gang is successful, parlaying Harry’s smooth little digits into oodles of bucks. Harry's back at his place, hiding the loot as Sam visits and ask Harry why he hasn’t been around. Harry puts him off with a weak spiel. Who needs Sam and the bench when he’s got big bucks and a girl? However, unbeknownst to the little guy, he and Buttons are heading for the rocks. Having got what she wanted from the little guy, Buttons is losing interest. After Harry catches her making out with Charlie, he’s moved to declare his love and intention to marry. Her reaction is peals of derisive laughter accompanied by the question of why she should want a midget.
Harry finally realizes he’s been played and goes to Rose to announce that he’s giving his two-week notice. Furthermore, he’s going to the cops to make a clean break of everything. Rose’s answer to this announcement is to wrap her big fat mitts around Harry’s little neck, telling him to forget about quitting, and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll show at the next gang meeting.
Harry gets the message and shows for the gang’s meeting, but not before calling the cops and tipping them off. Seems the gang is planning a really big job this time - the filching of a payroll. (How a gang of pickpockets is going to pull this one off is laughingly preposterous to start.) As Rose outlines the plan, Charlie notices that Harry keeps looking at the door. Charlie smells a rat - a little one at that. Things are about to become rough for our little hero when, lo and behold, a couple of cops - including Castle himself in a cameo - break down the door and arrest everyone in the dump.
Harry, with the ever-loyal Sam at his side, is pleading his case with the judge. Since Harry ratted out the gang, and seeing that he’s not a hardened criminal, the judge decides to remand Harry to the custody of someone else, handing him a ticket to Miami. Sam offers to go along on the ride, telling Harry that he can shine shoes just as well in Florida as he can here, but Harry pulls a Garbo - he vants to be alone.
This brings us to part three: The Circus. Yes, that’s where the judge decided to send Harry: he’s ordered to the winter camp of the Cole Bros. Circus. This is a real circus. It’s still around, and obviously Castle decided to use it to save big bucks. The circus, in return, is under the belief that it will get free publicity from the throngs that come out to see Mr. Castle’s movie. Suckers. Harry is introduced to the manager, Mr. Winters. He’s soft-spoken and pleasant, almost the anti-Jackson of the carny. Harry’s not so sure he wants to stick around. Mr. Winters asks him to take a look around before making his decision, and Harry agrees.
As he makes the rounds, he sees that the circus is a close-knit family, where everyone has a place and everyone pitches in. The capper for Harry is when he’s introduced to Dolly (Sholter), a blonde midget who works a pony act. As time passes they grow closer. She presents him with a watch for his birthday. Why, it’s inscribed “To My Best Friend,” just like the one Janie gave him. Will wonders ever cease? The moral? Bad girls (Buttons) take your presents, while good girls like Janie and Dolly give you presents.
Later, Harry tells Dolly he has a surprise for her. He plays her a record to which he’s made up lyrics. The title of his tune? “It’s a Small World,” as if you didn’t know. Harry belts it out in a fashion that tells us Sinatra has nothing to worry about. But Dolly is tickled pink. After he finishes, he takes her in his arms and plants a manly kiss on her lips. The film ends with Harry and Dolly getting married. Yes, Harry’s going to stay with the circus, because they accept him for who he is rather than castigating him for what he can’t help. And the world has become so much the better for it.
-- Will Geer (Dad) was a stage and film actor whose film performances were few and of a supporting nature. The biggest thing in his life was being blacklisted in 1951 for refusing to name names. He survived by forming the “Theatricum Botanicum,” a repertory theater in Topanga Canyon, California, where he coached actors. He returned to Hollywood in 1962 with a supporting part in Advise and Consent. Geer kept busy with supporting roles in movies and guest shots on television before landing the role of Grandfather Walton, in The Waltons, the role he is best known for today.
-- Shirley Mills, who played Harry’s 16-year old sister, Susan, was best known for her starring role in the 1938 exploitation film, Child Bride, in which, at the age of 12, she played a blooming sexpot who is the object of leering by several creepy hillbillies. The “highlight” of the film was her extended skinny dipping scene - at the age of 12, yet. Despite having this on her resume, she was able to land a plum role as one of the Joad children in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. She also appeared (mostly unbilled) in movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Allen Dwan, and George Cukor. By 1956, parts dried up and her last film was 1961’s Twist Around the Clock.
-- Lora Lee Michel, who played the 8-year old Janie, also played the younger version of heroine Jill Young (Terry Moore) in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. Her career never lasted beyond the child stage.
-- Margaret Field, who played the 16-year old Janie, languished in B-moviedom before switching to television. She is most famous, however, as the mother of actress Sally Field.
-- The carny pro Jackson was played by Thomas Browne Henry. He went on to work mainly in television. His credited movie resume was mostly B to Z productions such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Blood of Dracula (1957), The Beginning of the End (1957), and The Brain From Planet Arous (1957).
-- Those who recognize Harry’s buddy, Sam, played by Todd Karns, probably remember him from his most famous role: that of George Bailey’s brother in Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. He was never able to match the promise of that film and was out of Hollywood by 1956. He moved to Ajijic, Mexico in 1971 and started a English language theater called The Lakeside Little Theater, where he produced and directed shows up to his death in 2000.
-- Nina Koshetz (Rose) was a famous opera singer in her native Russia. She came to America in 1920, having fled the Communists. Besides becoming a highly respected vocal coach, she also appeared in a few films. Her most famous role was in 1938’s Algiers, with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr.
-- Steve Brodie was the sleazy gangster Charlie. He went on to a long career as a guest star on television. His best movie roles were as Private Judson in A Walk in the Sun (1945), Floyd in 1947’s Crossfire, and as Chief Budge in The Caine Mutiny (1954). He also appeared in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and the camp classics The Wild World of Batwoman (1966), The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and the incredible Frankenstein Island (1981).
The Scarlet Clue
By Ed Garea
The Scarlet Clue (Monogram, 1945) - Director: Phil Rosen. Writers: George Callahan (s/p). Based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers. Cast: Sidney Toler, Mantin Moreland, Ben Carter, Benson Fong, Virginia Brissac, Robert Homans, Jack Norton, Janet Shaw, Helen Devereaux, Victoria Faust, I. Stanford Jolley, & Charles Wagenheim. B&W, 65 minutes.
In 1942, 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on its long-running Charlie Chan films. A combination of below-par scripts and falling box office returns combined to convince studio execs to discontinue the once highly popular series. But Charlie Chan wasn’t done - not quite yet. Sidney Toler, who inherited the role of Chan after Warner Oland’s death in 1938, shopped the property around until he found a taker in Monogram Pictures. Beginning with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service in 1944, Toler would play Chan 11 times for Monogram before his death in 1947. Roland Winters would then take over the role of Chan for six additional films until the series finally ended in 1949.
While Fox regarded the Chan series as inexpensive “B” features, they nevertheless took a certain amount of care with their production. The plots may have been silly, but the direction (mainly by H. Bruce Humberston) was excellent, the pacing was sharp, the dialogue crisp and witty, and a most featured a good cast, including such actors as Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, Ricardo Cortez, and Cesar Romero. The result was a charming, comfortable series of films that go down in Hollywood history as one of the best “B” series, along with MGM’s Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare films, and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series.
Monogram, however, was a different story entirely. The studio had neither the time nor the finances to polish the Chan films. They were simply B-movies, average at best, nearly unwatchable at worst. The only change Monogram did make to the existing formula was to provide Charlie Chan with a chauffeur. Moreland was assigned the role of Birmingham Brown, Chan’s driver and added comic relief for Number Three son, Tommy (Fong).
This film opens with Chan now working for the federal government and on the trail of a spy ring after secret government radar plans, aided by Captain Flynn (Homans) of the NYPD. Unfortunately, Flynn tails Chan’s one lead to the ring, a scientist named Rausch (Wagenheim), a little too closely; the result being that Rausch’s mysterious, unknown boss has him knocked off.
Chan discovers that the killer has given the police the slip and escaped in a car. Getting the license plate number, he traces it to owner Diane Hall (Devereaux), a radio performer who had reported it stolen earlier that evening. Accompanied by assistants Birmingham Brown and son Tommy, Chan visits the Cosmo Radio Center, where he finds a bloody heelprint identical to that left at the crime scene. Meanwhile, studio manager Ralph Brett (Jolley) telephones the spies’ ringleader, who uses the Western Union telegram service to advise Brett to be more careful, lest he meet the same fate as Rausch.
Later, Chan visits the Hamilton Laboratory, located in the same building as the radio center. He is told of numerous failed attempts to break in and steal the radar plans from the laboratory’s safe. Chan informs then that he had placed phony radar plans in the safe, just in case the spies should succeed.
Meanwhile, actress Gloria Bayne (Shaw), having found Brett’s matches in the stolen car, deduces he’s the killer the police are looking for and tries to blackmail him into giving her better parts in the future. Shortly afterward, she is dispatched in front of witnesses, including Chan; her cause of death unknown. Realizing that Chan is onto him, Brett asks his boss for help in escaping. He is directed to a service elevator, where the spy kills him by activating a trap door. Upon finding Brett’s body on an upper floor (a nice touch, considering the trap door would send him right down to the basement), Chan has an impersonator call the spy leader. Thinking Brett is still alive, the leader once again directs him to the service elevator, where Chan discovers the trap door.
Chan goes on to question the people who worked with Brett and Gloria, including Diane, who is acting in a dreadful soap opera at the studio. The sponsor of the show, Mrs. Marsh (Brissac) resents Chan’s intrusions and lets him and the police know in no uncertain terms. She also spends her time giving the producers a hard time about the quality of the show, proving to be an obstacle to Chan because of her obstinacy.
Diane is the next to go, killed in the same mysterious way as Gloria. She is followed by performer Willie Rand (Norton), who is killed while taping a television show after telling Chan that he may have uncovered some information crucial to the case. Investigating further, Chan discovers that a poisonous gas, activated by nicotine when the victim lights a cigarette, is the cause of death for Gloria, Diane and Willie.
After a thorough search of the building, the spy leader's office is found. When the leader returns, Chan, Tommy, Birmingham and the police chase him through the radio studio, only to see the leader meet death by the trap door when trying to use the elevator to escape. In the basement of the building, they discover the dead body of Mrs. Marsh, the ruthless radio sponsor, who turns out to be the spy leader. Chan declares the case solved.
The Scarlet Clue is one of the better Chan films from Monogram, with a steady hand from director Rosen. The director simply used the sets from the previous Chan film, The Jade Mask (the weather chamber was used as a gas chamber in the earlier film). Rosen, who began his directorial career in 1915, worked mainly for independent studios such as Invincible, Mascot, and Republic before settling in at Monogram. In the ‘30s he directed good films like Dangerous Corner (1934) for RKO, and The President’s Mystery (1936) for Republic, with a story by FDR himself (!). Now he was directing B-level assembly line features for the bottom of the bill. His last feature was The Secret of St. Ives in 1949 for Columbia. He passed away in 1951.
George Callahan was a screenwriter who never graduated beyond the B’s before going into television. He wrote several other Monogram Chans in addition to this one. The rather unusual murder method - a toxic gas in a thin glass tube or (as here) a plastic capsule that kills the victim when the vessel is broken and the gas inhaled - goes back to Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), although Callahan probably took the concept from Monogram’s 1938 Mr. Wong - Detective. However, he gives it a neat little twist in that the gas is harmless until the victim decides to smoke, in which case it interacts with nicotine to become fatal. Since practically everyone smoked back in the ‘40s, it was not out of the ordinary. But there are potential ideas in the script that go unrealized. Case in point is the charwoman Hulda Swenson (Faust, with a really rotten Swedish accent) for the radio station, who always seems to be around when something is going down. Is she the killer, or even a suspect? No, at the end it’s lamely revealed that in fact she is a British agent working with Chan to uncover the spy ring.
Another case in point is going to all the trouble to build a prop-laden laboratory and a studio with both a radio and television station that end up as merely background scenery. Much could have been done with these settings, but Monogram is content to use them merely as window dressing.
What it lacks in plot, it must make for with characters. Toler is his usual phlegmatic self, slower than in his Fox days, but not yet reaching the level when the intestinal cancer that killed him took hold, and he gets off his aphorisms with his usual verve. One of his best lines, courtesy of screenwriter Callahan, comes when son Tommy says he had an idea, “but it’s gone now.” Toler replies, “Possibly could not stand solitary confinement.” He also comes up with a quick ad lib after accidentally being shocked by the electrical equipment in the laboratory.
Fong, for his part, is adequate as Tommy, getting into trouble as he tries to solve the case for his father. He began his film career as in extra in 1936’s Charlie Chan at the Opera. Although he would play the role of Tommy Chan six times in the Monogram series, Fong also appeared in such notable films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Flower Drum Song (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (with Elvis Presley, 1962), Our Man Flint (1966), and S.O.B. (1981) in addition to innumerable guest appearances on television.
It’s Moreland, however, who walks away with this movie; not that there’s much to walk away with. He steals every scene he’s in, as his quick, witty repartee keeps us in the movie, especially when it begins to lag, which is to say, often. He also has a couple of splendid scenes with nightclub partner Carter, as the two of them perform a hilarious double-talk routine where one finishes the other’s sentence. It’s every bit as good as Abbott and Costello’s ”Who’s on First?” routine, and the tragedy is that we can only see it in a B-picture from a Poverty Row studio. Moreland, who appeared in all 15 Monogram Chans, saw his move career end when the series concluded in 1949. The emerging civil rights movement and its subsequent shift in America’s consciousness caused Moreland’s humor to be assigned to the trash bin as stereotyping and demeaning. It wasn’t until the 60s that he began to work regularly, appearing with such artists as Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles.
All in all, The Scarlet Clue is a decent time-passer, especially for hardcore Charlie Chan fans. It tends to be rather slow and dull at times, but there are some exciting moments and plot devices that should keep our interest. An entertaining chapter in the Chan saga, though well below the level of the Fox Chan movies.
By Ed Garea
The Ape (Monogram, 1940) – Director: William Nigh. Writers: Adam Shirk (play). Curt Siodmak (adaptation and s/p), Richard Carroll (s/p). Cast: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gene O’Donnell, Dorothy Vaughn, Gertrude Hoffman, Henry Hall, Selmer Jackson, & Philo McCollough. B&W, 62 minutes.
“And you thought only Bela Lugosi made movies this dumb.” – Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.
In 1938, Boris Karloff signed a six-film deal with Monogram Studios. The Ape was the final picture under the contract, and possibly the worst of Karloff’s career. The screenplay was co-written by Curt Siodmak, adapted from Adam Shirk’s 1927 play of the same name. We have one first-rate actor and screenwriter working on the film. So what went wrong? Simple, it was made by Monogram.
Karloff is Dr. Bernard Adrian, a kindly doctor in the town of Red Creek. But though he’s a very kindly doctor, he keeps to himself, immersed in research for a cure for polio. Because of his reclusive ways, the good folk of the town distrust him. Some proclaim that he should be run out of town and circulate rumors that he used his patients as guinea pigs for his experiments. In one scene, the good doctor is at a shop where the shopkeeper warns him that a mob is forming because of the missing dogs in the neighborhood and the constant rumors about his experiments. This is a scene from which we’re expecting some sort of action against the good doctor, but it just stops there and goes no further. The Ape is full of scenes such as this, which promise much and deliver nothing. Could it have been an editing of the original script, or just plain laziness? Who knows?
Even the kids in town despise the doc, throwing rocks through his windows when he’s not home. Now the doc doesn’t have many patients, but he does have one special patient. She’s Frances Clifford (Wrixon) and she’s suffering from polio, which the Doc has vowed to cure. He takes special interest in Frances, as she reminds him of his late daughter. On his latest visit, he gives her a jewelry case that belonged to his daughter, remarking that she would have turned 18 this very day and the jewelry case was to have been her birthday gift. Dr. Adrian lost both his wife and daughter to polio, hence his determination. Talking with both Frances and her mother (Vaughn), Adrian suggests that Frances get out more. A circus has recently come to town, and that would be perfect entertainment. At that moment, Frances’s boyfriend, Danny Foster (O’Donnell) shows and Frances suggests the excursion to him.
From the opening credits suggesting a circus, we are led to believe this is a film about a circus, but no such luck, as we’ll see. Actually, the real reason for the circus is to introduce our other main player. While Danny and Frances are enjoying the acts, we cut to another section, where we see a gorilla in a cage. It’s in the process of being taunted by its handler (the unbilled I. Stanford Jolley). Seems he hates the beast because it killed his father. As the handler is also drunk, we can quickly figure where this is going. You guessed it – the ape reaches through the bars and returns the favor. The cigar in the handler’s mouth drops into the nearby hay, starting a fire and enabling the gorilla to escape.
The injured handler is brought to the doctor’s place. Dr. Adrian has his maid, Jane (Hoffman), help him bring the wounded man back to his laboratory. After everyone else has left, the doc gets to work. While his patient is begging Doc not to let him die, Doc gives him a spiel about how he’s about to make history. Adrian then sticks a syringe into the man’s spine and draws out his spinal fluid, and that’s that for our handler. The next day, Adrian visits Frances, telling her that he has developed a radical new form of treatment. It’ll be painful, he warns, but when it’s all over she’ll be able once more to walk. She’s all for it and he injects her in the back.
Less than a day later, Frances tells Adrian that she feels heaviness in her legs, in which she never had any feeling since becoming ill years before. Adrian is ecstatic, and rejoices later in his lab. Unfortunately, in the midst of his reveries, the vial with the magic fluid rolls off the table and shatters on the floor. Uh-oh.
What to do? In such a film as this I need not remind anyone of the next twist in the plot. Of course – the ape, being hunted by Sheriff Halliday (Hall) and his posse, breaks into Adrian’s lab, probably looking for his ex-handler. In one of the great preposterous scenes in B-dom (or B-Dumb), the Doctor, who looks as if he’d have trouble punching his way out of a wet paper bag manages to outwrestle the ape, crack him on the noggin with a bottle of anesthetic, and when the monkey is three sheets to the wind, knife him in the heart from behind. Now, lest that seem unbelievable, what happens next will really boggle the mind. Adrian skins the ape and uses both the ape’s skin and head as a disguise in order to obtain more spinal fluid. Again, to quote Weldon, “What a brilliant idea! Nobody would notice a gorilla killing people!”
The first victim of the “ape” is an adulterous banker. Before his untimely demise we were introduced to him in what seems to be an attempt at a sub-plot. His villainy is played up during a scene with his wife, where he turns down her dinner of lamb stew and dumplings, telling her he’ll eat out. “I wish you wouldn’t keep on going here where we live,” she whines, knowing full well what he’s up to. She then tells him that she doesn’t want to be pitied; she has no one but him, no folks and nowhere to go – all of it falling on deaf ears. Of course, after his body is found, the townsfolk are saying how sorry they feel for his widow. The townsfolk also learn that the ape must be prowling nocturnally.
Meanwhile, Adrian gives Frances another shot of his newly obtained serum. But he has some problems. The first is Frances’s boyfriend, Danny. It seems he can’t get it through his thick skull how anything that causes Frances such pain could be helping her. "I don't like things I don't understand," he tells Frances. A bigger problem is another doctor from out of town, a Dr. McNulty (Jackson), who Sheriff Halliday has brought in as coroner and medical examiner in the gorilla case. McNulty notices the syringe marks on the backs of the victims. This gets him to thinking, and we learn that he and Adrian go way back together – back to a research foundation that expelled Adrian years ago for his questionable experiments. Even back then Adrian was consumed by the idea that spinal fluid from healthy people might just result in a cure, and it seems he was no more discerning where he obtained it than he is now.
So, is the jig up for Adrian? Of course not: this is a B-movie made by Monogram, so when shown evidence in the person of Frances, who can now move her foot slightly, that such a controversial experiment did work, McNulty just doesn’t back off. No, he offers to let Adrian return to his old job with the foundation, but Adrian blows him off, saying it’s too late.
However, there now arises one problem Adrian has failed to anticipate. It seems that the sheriff, despite all his dimwittedness, has figured out that his bloodhounds go nutzoid whenever they come near Adrian or his domicile. Adrian had earlier deflected the hounds’ suspicions by claiming they were sniffing his insect repellent, the late handler’s coat, it was that time of the month, yada, yada, yada. Nevertheless, the sheriff is certain that something is going on around Adrian’s house, so he stations his deputies where they can both keep a close watch on the house and the surrounding woods.
Adrian tries one more attack, but only gets knifed for his efforts. While running back to his house, he is shot on the doorstep, and everyone now learns it was Dr. Adrian in the ape suit all the time. Adrian raises his head to see Frances take her first steps and then dies. Frances and Danny share the final scene, as Frances can now walk and has burned her wheelchair.
As we have seen, the plot is nothing short of idiotic. So how about the acting? Considering the leads, Gene O’Donnell comes off as entirely wooden. Maris Wrixon is good, considering she doesn’t have much to do. But it’s Karloff who shines and makes this worth watching. It seems that no matter how lousy the film is, how utterly worthless, Karloff always gives his all. Were it John Carradine or Bela Lugosi trapped in such a mess, they would have mugged their way through, but not Karloff; he always gives a dignified performance and nothing less than 100%, even if the vehicle he’s in isn’t worth his time. And it’s the case here – Karloff plays Dr. Adrian not as mad, but with as single-minded with the best of intentions. He wants to cure Frances no matter what, and the people he kills along the way were not of the best moral fiber, not that it excuses killing, but the way the film positions its characters, it relieves Karloff of real malicious intent, instead presenting us with a totally misguided altruism.
The supporting roles are filled with Poverty Row veterans like Henry Hall (Kid Dynamite with the East Side Kids, The Ape Man, Girls in Chains, The Return of the Rangers, and Voodoo Man among his appearances) and Selmer Jackson (Bowery Boy, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc., Paper Bullets, Dillinger, and Black Market Babies, among others). These were actors who gave average performances in below-average films. The man in the ape suit is none other than Ray “Crash” Corrigan, here in an unbilled role as both the ape and Dr. Adrian in the ape suit (it was too heavy for the slightly-built Karloff to don). Corrigan was both an actor, not famed for his Westerns, and a stuntman that owned his own ape suit. Other stuntmen famous for playing apes were Charles Gemora (Road to Zanzibar, Charlie Chan at the Circus, The Monster and the Girl, and Africa Screams) and George Barrows (Gorilla at Large, and the unforgettable Robot Monster), who owned a gorilla costume which he rented to producers.
William Nigh, Monogram’s house director, helmed The Ape. To say he was prolific is somewhat of an understatement, as he directed 121 features in his career, which began with Salomy Jane in 1914 and ended with Stage Struck in 1948 (his retirement), mostly for Poverty Row studios. He was renowned for his assembly-line approach to film-making, and made movies in almost every genre, whether action, Westerns, musicals, comedies, dramas, war films, mysteries, and even film noir. (So much for auteur theory.) His films with Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids have become cult classics, and he was familiar to Karloff as the only director the actor worked with while at Monogram. Ironically, his 1918 feature, My Four Years in Germany, was such a hit that it established Warner Brothers as a major player in Hollywood.
Faces In The Crowd: Maris Wrixon
Born Mary Alice Wrixon on December 28, 1916, in Pasco, Washington, Wrixon has 64 film and television credits to her name, yet she’s practically unknown today.
With only a bit of theatrical background, she signed with Warner Brothers in 1939. She had the necessary endowments and beauty to take her to stardom, yet her career at Warner’s never got off the ground. She appeared in 13 films in ’39, and 12 in ’40, mostly as an unbilled background character or given a line or two at best. When not in the studio, she modeled for numerous women’s magazines, such as Vogue, where she appeared on the cover. She was reportedly a favorite of George Hurrell, Sr., Hollywood’s premier glamour photographer.
Wrixon did eventually move up playing leads in such B-movies as The Case of the Black Parrot (1941, opposite William Lundigan) and Bullets for O’Hara (1941, with Roger Pryor and Anthony Quinn). She also had good roles in features such as Footsteps in the Dark (1941, starring Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall) and Million Dollar Baby (1941, starring Priscilla Lane and Jeffrey Lynn). When not working at Warner Bros., she found herself loaned to Republic, where she worked with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Weavers, and Monogram, which she described as “being in a foxhole.”
Warner Bros. released her in 1942, and except for a couple of films at Universal, she worked on Poverty Row. Her last film, As You Were, with William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, was made for R&L Productions and distributed by Lippert in 1951. She then worked guest spots in such television shows as The Cisco Kid, Boston Blackie, Sea Hunt, and The Untouchables until her retirement in 1963. Her personal life was more of a success: from January 28, 1940, until her death on October 6, 1999, from heart failure, she was married to German émigré film editor Rudi Fehr.
Trivia: Nigh had previously directed a version of The Ape as House of Mystery in 1934 (again for Monogram).
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter
By Ed Garea
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (Circle Prod./Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (original story and s/p). Cast: John Lupton, Narda Onyx, Cal Bolder, Estelita Rodriguez, Jim Davis, Steven Geray, Nestor Paiva, Rayford Barnes, Roger Creed, Nestor Paiva, & William Fawcett. Color, 88 minutes.
This is it, the companion piece to Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, which played the drive-ins and second-run theaters. Billed as the first “Horror-Western,” it really wasn’t. The first “Horror-Western” was the 1926 silent, The Haunted Range, with Glenn Strange and Max Terhune. Other entries in the field include the 1932 John Wayne cheapie, Haunted Gold, and the 1938 Republic “Three Mesqueteers” film, Riders of the Whistling Skull. However, in all three films, the supernatural forces turn out to be quite natural, like something from a Scooby-Doo mystery. There’s also Gene Autry’s 1935 Republic serial, The Phantom Empire, which is concerned with a long lost underground civilization armed with ray guns and other superior technology, but perhaps that’s more in the realm of science fiction rather than horror.
In 1956, the Nassour Brothers released the low-budget Beast of Hollow Mountain. Rancher Guy Madison is being plagued with a slew of missing cattle. When he goes into the nearby mountains to investigate, he gets more than he bargained for in the form of an animated stop-motion Allosaurus. This, then, may be considered as the first legitimate Horror-Western.
Besides not being historically accurate, the title of the movie itself is a misnomer. The villainess of the piece, Maria Frankenstein, is actually Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter. However, as is the case with these sorts of films, the titles are dreamed up in advance and the screenplays fit in. Also, this is not exactly the sort of movie where critics would take the producers to task for this “mistake.” They were just grateful to see the words “The End” flashing on the screen.
Along with Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, this was the last film in the long career of 73-year old director William “One Shot” Beaudine. Beaudine’s name has become synonymous over the years with low-budget stinkers, but he was actually a director of merit in the silent days (such as Mary Pickford’s 1926 Sparrows). Virtually wiped out by the Crash of 1929, he found work directing B’s for Warner Brothers and other majors, but in 1937 he began a long association with Poverty Row for such studios as Monogram and PRC. His work in television in the ‘50s allowed him to set aside a nest egg, but the Depression ingrained in him a fear of retirement, lest his savings once again be wiped out. After helming these two turkeys, however, he realized there are worse things than retirement and handed over his director’s chair to son William Beaudine, Jr.
Produced by Carroll Case for Joe Levine’s Circle Productions, both films were envisioned as a package for the drive-in crowd. Like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was shot at the ranch of former Western star Ray Corrigan in Simi Valley, California. While it doesn’t quite have the star power of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (John Carradine), it can boast something better for aficionados of bad movies: Narda Onyx. Ms. Onyx is quite possibly the hammiest actor I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching in action. She gives an entirely new meaning to the term “over the top” with the way she spews every line of dialogue with a look of wild-eyed abandon and anticipation.
As the film opens, we are treated to a view of a small village with what has to be on the phoniest matte paintings of a rustic-style monastery. We then find ourselves in the house of the Lopez family as they take part in a family whine. It seems that many of the townspeople are fleeing, depressing real estate values in the town. They note that nothing but death and sorrow has come to their town since the two doctors moved into the phony matte painting on the hill. Daughter Juanita (Rodriguez) is especially perturbed about the deaths of the village children and the disappearance of her brother. Well, there goes the neighborhood.
Cut to an especially cheesy laboratory in the house on the hill. Doctors Maria and Rudolph Frankenstein (Onyx and Geray) are prepping for their latest experiment. Maria is the granddaughter of the Old Baron and Rudolph is her brother, though he looks old enough to be her father. Oh well, I guess these experiments can take a lot out of anyone. They get the audience up to speed on just why they’re here in the Southwest. Seems they got into a bit of trouble with the authorities in Vienna for their experiments and had to beat it out of town fast. Most people choose an area for the scenic view, the close availability of the railroad, but the Frankensteins chose this area for the strength of its thunderstorms, the electricity of which is needed to run their equipment. Looking around the lab we see an anatomical chart, electrical equipment (supplied by Ken Strickfadden, who designed the electrical equipment in the old Universal horror films), the ever-necessary medicine chest, and, of course, an operating table.
Now, it’s back to their experiment. Starring today on the operating table is none other than Francisco, Juanita’s brother. They strap on what looks to be a World War II helmet adorned in colorful bright thick stripes of red, yellow, and green, looking as if they use it as a piñata when they not performing an experiment. Protruding from the sides of the helmet are two plastic-looking antenna. Maria zaps Francisco, who sits up, but suddenly collapses. She tells Rudolph to inject him with digitalis, but unbeknownst to her, he injects the poor slob with poison. What went wrong? Maria is beside herself, hamming it up to the limit: "What a fool I've been! I've allowed the duothermic pulsator to be attached only to the body!" She decides to consult the only reference book that can help at a time like this: her grandfather’s account. (How I Did It?) She miraculously turns to just the right page (this is One-Shot Beaudine, after all) and reads. So, that’s it. Her eyes turn bright and she gets a funny look on her face – and it’s not gas. Duothermic pulsators aside, Grandpa’s notes clearly state that a living brain is required for the hook-up. (She didn’t know that? How long have they been experimenting?) Then they can have a servant “to do our bidding.” Good help is clearly hard to get. Rudolph protests, but Maria brushes him aside, calling him weak as she yanks out the last artificial brain Gramps has created. Apparently, either the secret died with him, or Maria and Rudolph are really incompetent.
Cut to a saloon, where two men are engaging in an improvised MMA contest, which is won by a shirtless man with a great physique and a really stupid look on his face. We learn this is Hank Tracy (Bolder), sidekick to none other than Jess James (Lupton) himself. Seems Jesse has won the bet placed on Hank but the saloon owner (Paiva) doesn’t want to pay up. Hank tells him that he’s welching on none other than Jesse James himself. Why, I thought you were killed at Northridge, says the saloon owner. Oh no, replies Jesse. The man’s at large with a price on his head, so what does he do? Why he broadcasts his presence, of course. Smart.
Jesse and Hank are in town to meet up with Butch (Creed) and brother Lonnie (Barnes), two of the last three Wild Bunch members left (the others have all been killed). Butch and Lonnie are having a disagreement over inviting the James Gang and the proposed cut of the loot: Lonnie still wants his third, but Butch demurs. When Butch discovers that only Jesse and Hank remain from the gang, he’s naturally disappointed, but a job is a job. The disgruntled Lonnie runs to the Marshal (Davis) to dime out everyone in the plot, and the Marshal, with Lonnie in tow, rounds up a posse to ambush the baddies. During the firefight, the two Wild Bunch boys are killed and Hank is wounded. On the run, Jesse and Hank come upon the Lopez camp, where Juanita looks over Hank's wound. The hospital is far away, she says, but I know of two doctors in the area. Great, just great. She was accusing the Frankensteins of murder, but is okay with taking the wound Hank to see them. What scriptwriting! On the way, an Indian comes from nowhere to capture Juanita. He attacks Jesse when he rides to the rescue, but Jesse turns the attacker’s knife against him, and no more Indian. My Hero, says the look in Juanita’s eyes as they embrace. Jesse works fast.
Over at the Frankenstein place, Jesse meets Maria: “You’re the doctor?” He gives her the tried and true “Hank shot himself while cleaning his gun” excuse, but Maria’s not buying it. Not that it matters – Maria is overjoyed, for she figures they have to be running from the law and are stuck. As for Hank, well, “what a brute he’ll make!” Indeed. The Marshal, meanwhile, is questioning the Lopez family at their campsite. They claim ignorance; after all, Jesse identified himself to them as “Mr. Howard.” Juanita reports the Marshal’s questioning to Jesse back at the Frankenstein ranch. They engage in as deep as “stay,” “no, I must go” scene as the film will allow, which ends with another embrace. After Juanita leaves, Maria makes her move on Jesse, telling him the reason the villagers all moved out is because they are ignorant and do not understand. She tells Jesse that she needs his strength and plants a big kiss on his lips. But Jesse is unmoved, which sends Maria right into a jealous snit. She gives a note to Rudolph, telling him to hand it to Jesse. It’s a prescription for Hank, who has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. In reality, the note tells the recipient that the bearer is none other than the notorious outlaw Jesse James. Amazingly, Jesse complies, taking the note to the town druggist without ever stopping to read it. Rudolph, for his part, thinks the whole thing hilarious. He accuses Maria of being jealous and has a good laugh at her “being human after all.” For his trouble, he gets smacked across the face.
Juanita, for her part, does not trust this “errand” her “Yesse” has been sent on for Hank, and decides to snoop over at the Frankenstein place. She’s just in time, for Maria is about to carve into Hank, despite Rudolph’s obligatory admonition that no one should tamper with the laws of God. She’s shaved his head, has his magic helmet affixed, and has swapped her grandfather’s artificial brain for Hank’s. It’s okay; he wasn’t using his, anyway. Now she puts on a duplicate helmet so he doesn’t look silly all by himself. She intones into a portable microphone that from now on, Hank, “You are Igor. You are Igor.” Hank/Igor begins to sit up, but collapses. Rudolph is quick to label this yet another failure and gets out the “digitalis.” But Maria insists that she should administer the shot, and while they jockey for control of the syringe, she cops a quick peek at the medicine chest and sees there, right on the shelf, is a flask labeled “Poison.” What kind of poison we don’t know; all we know is that it’s poison. She now goes berserk, accusing Rudolph of sabotaging her experiments from the beginning. They wrestle for the syringe; Rudolph gets the upper hand. Maria cries out, “Igor, Help me!” Igor dutifully arises from the table and puts the kibosh on Rudolph, while Juanita, who has witnessed the whole shebang, turns tail and gets the heck out of there.
Jesse, meanwhile, has arrived at the pharmacy, and hands the druggist the “prescription.” The druggist takes one look at it, claims that it’s a special mixture and ducks out the back to the marshal’s office, where he finds only Lonnie. Lonnie tries to ambush Jesse, but Jesse draws first and there’s no more Lonnie. Jesse reads the “prescription” and figures out that he’s been double-crossed. So, it’s back to the Frankenstein place – with a vengeance. (While this is going on, Juanita runs into the real Marshal and spills the beans, figuring it’s better than leaving him to the mercies of the Frankensteins.) Jesse enters the lab and gets a good view of what’s been happening while he was away. Maria blames her brother, distracting Jesse until Igor can conk him and lay him on the operating table. She straps him in with some bon mots, “We have something in common: we’re both outside the law.” She injects Jesse to knock him out as the Marshal comes in. Maria sics Igor on the Marshal, who crushes the Marshal out cold, or dead, and drags him into the back room. Juanita revives Jesse. Maria then tells Igor to kill Juanita. As Igor goes to do his duty he begins to mumble Juanita’s name. Then he turns on Maria, chanting “kill, kill,” and strangling her. He then goes after Jesse, but Juanita grabs Jesse’s gun and shoots Igor twice in the back, ending his short career as a monster.
In the film’s final scene, Jesse and Juanita are standing over Hank’s grave. Juanita pleads with him to stay with her, but Jesse’s a fugitive and rides off with the Marshal, who wasn’t killed after all. Over his career, William Beaudine directed 199 movies, including this one.
What makes Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter watchable is the miserable quality of the acting added to a ludicrous script. John Lupton, as Jesse James, is so wooden he should’ve been checked annually for termites. It’s difficult to fathom the attraction he has for the opposite sex, much less have two women fawning over him to the point of distraction. His film career began in 1951 with Edgar G. Ulmer’s St. Benny the Dip. Lupton’s career was mainly one of supporting roles. He may be best known among cinephiles for his portrayal of upright Marine Corporal Marion ‘Sister Mary’ Hotchkiss in 1955's Battle Cry. His few lead roles came in low-budget B’s and Z’s. Otherwise he kept busy guest-starring on television.
Cal Bolder (real name Earl C. Craver) played football at Wichita University and fought in the Korean War. After the war he settled in Southern California, where he joined the LAPD. The story goes that a talent agent whom he pulled over for speeding spotted him and convinced him to change careers. Bolder worked mainly in television; the only other film he acted in was George Cukor’s 1960 comedy-romance, Heller in Pink Tights, with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren. He retired at the end of the 1960s and moved to Washington, where he pursued a vocation as a novelist. He published “Last Reunion,” a novel about a serial killer, under the name E.C. Craven. (It’s available on Amazon for those who care.) As Hank Tracy, Cal wanders around as if he doesn’t have a clue – which he doesn’t.
Veteran actor Jim Davis somehow survived this turkey to go on to play Jock Ewing in Dallas. It was said Beaudine hired him because they worked together in television. At any rate, Davis practically sleepwalks through the film, looking disinterested to boot. Rayford Barnes was another supporting actor who worked mainly television and Westerns. Ironically, while in our film he played the last of the Wild Bunch, three years later he actually had a small part in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. He also had a small role in the 1973 psychotronic classic, Little Cigars, about a troupe of circus midgets whose sideline is robbing banks.
If anyone in the cast could be said to give a halfway passable performance, it would be Estelita Rodriguez as Juanita. Born in Cuba, she specialized in Hispanic “spitfires” at Republic Pictures, most notably with Roy Rogers. She also had a part in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) as Consuelo, who, along with husband Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and no that's not a typo), runs the town’s hotel. Rodriguez was married four times; one of her husbands, actor Grant Withers, committed suicide a few years after their divorce. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was Estelita’s last film. She reportedly died of influenza while prepping to star in the life story of Lupe Velez.
But as I said before, it’s the completely over-the-top performance of second-billed Narda Onyx that makes this a Z-classic. She also appears to be the only one in the damn movie who’s excited to be there. Without her, this could easily sink to the level of Manos: The Hands of Fate, needing a MST 3000 treatment to make it watchable.
Onyx was a child actor in Estonia who fled with her family to Sweden in 1944, but was intercepted by the Germans and brought to Danzig. During the last months of the war, the Onyx family made their way to the American lines at Bonn and sought refuge with the Swedish Red Cross. After the war the family moved to Sweden, where Narda resumed her acting career. She later traveled to England, where she worked for the Old Vic Company, and later moved to Canada, where she worked on stage and television and married fellow Estonian refugee George Virand in 1961. The couple left for Hollywood shortly thereafter. This was Maria’s last credit – she turned to writing and penned a biography of Johnny Weissmuller titled Water, World and Weissmuller. (It can be found on Amazon.)
Rudolph: Maria, you've already caused the death of three children and violated the graves of others just to make the experiments.
Maria: My, you're a humanitarian! You should have stayed in Europe and given pink pills to sweet old ladies.
Maria (to Jesse): You have refused me, Maria Von Frankenstein, granddaughter of the count.
Maria: Igor, go to your room!
This was the last film shot at the Corrigan Ranch. Right after filming ended, Ray Corrigan sold his ranch to Bob Hope . . . Screenwriter Carl K. Hittleman had been associated with two previous films featuring Jesse James as the main character: I Shot Jesse James (Lippert, 1949) which Hittleman produced for director Sam Fuller, and The Return of Jesse James (Lippert, 1950), based on a story idea by Hittleman.
2-Headed Shark Attack
By Ed Garea
2-Headed Shark Attack (The Asylum, 2012) – Director: Christopher Ray. Writers: Edward DeRuiter (story), H. Perry Horton (s/p). Cast: Carmen Electra, Charlie O’Connell, Brooke Hogan, Christina Bach, Morgan Thompson, Anthony E. Valentin, Gerald Webb, David Gallegos, Geoff Ward, Ashley Bissing, & Mercedes Young. Color, 88 minutes.
There are good movies and there are bad movies. And then, there’s this atrocity, released direct to video for reasons that become obvious when one watches it. It seems the company that made this gem is in competition with the SyFy Channel to see who can make the worst shark movie, and, based on the terrifically cheesy graphics, I can say this one takes the cake (such as it is).
We know we’re in for a bad movie experience once we see the cast. With stalwarts such as Carmen Electra (the ex-Mrs. Dennis Rodman), Charlie O’Connell (brother of Jerry and whose career is pockmarked with other works of art on this level), and Brooke Hogan (who is every bit as good an actress and her father, Hulk, was a wrestler), all we need is a bad script and lousy direction. But wait! Included in this movie are some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen.
As for direction, behind the camera is Christopher Ray, son of legendary Z-movie director Fred Olen Ray, and living proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. The screenwriter, Horton, received an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University’s (Colorado) Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, whatever that means. He could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he simply took a correspondence course in screenwriting instead.
We open with a group of young people wakeboarding (a combination of water skiing and snowboarding). Soon they become a tasty meal for our title creature. Cut to a boat called The Sea King, where a group of students, led by married professors Franklin and Anne Babish (Carmen and Charlie), are studying marine biology. Electra as a marine biologist. Now this is science fiction. From the dialogue she spouts in the movie one would surmise that Carmen thinks marine biology is studying the private parts of Marines. Not to worry, for this collection of students is even more brain dead than she.
The gang is cruising along merrily; Jerry points out the local sights in the ocean and the girls and guys relax on deck, showing off their abs and silicone. Suddenly, Anne, driving the ship, hits an object in the water. Professor Jerry spots it as a Megamouth shark. Wait a minute, he tells the students, Megamouths are deep-water sharks. Not only that, he’s also dead. This is an attempt, and a poor one, at creating some sort of early tension. They try to bring the shark carcass on board, but it drifts back and is sucked into the boat’s propeller, damaging the hull and causing the boat to take on water. (Things happen fast in a Z-movie.) This is where the cheesy special effects come into play. We do not actually see the shark torn apart, but rather something akin to a shadow cutout of a shark in front of the propeller and a lot of red water gushing forth.
Jerry ponders why all this is happening. Suddenly, our two-headed hero appears and attacks the boat as well, conveniently breaking the ship’s radio antenna. Co-captain Laura (Thompson) is prevented from summoning help. The group then spots a deserted atoll nearby, so Laura and Anne pilot the boat close enough to the shore as to allow Franklin to take the student to the atoll via a dinghy while Anne and Laura remain on the Sea King, along with the ships crew, Han (Webb) and Dikilla (Valentin).
While the Prof and the gang explore the atoll, looking for scrap metal with which to repair the hull, Laura enters the water to see if she can make repairs. This gives the shark an instant meal and a taste for silicone. Now, for reasons known only to the writer and director, three of the students decide to take a break and go skinny-dipping, giving our shark even more of a meal. Meanwhile, the group finds and repairs two small speedboats as an earthquake strikes the atoll, injuring the Prof, who is brought back to the Sea King by students who are later devoured.
After a few more students are eaten, Anne, the Prof and the crew leave the Sea King for the atoll. Suddenly, another earthquake hits, and Anne and the Prof begin to suspect that the island is collapsing on itself. What a plot device. In the meantime, Kate (Hogan) and Cole (Ward) return to the Sea King and fix the hull. Cole, a thoroughly disreputable sort, drives off in the Sea King, forcing Kate to swim back to the atoll. The two-headed shark attacks the Sea King and sinks it, causing it to send an automatic distress signal. Cole attempts to escape in a lifeboat, but the ringing of his cell phone attracts the shark, and exit Cole. Helping the atoll to rapidly sink is our shark, who is eating the atoll from below. The Prof and Anne then spot a small tsunami coming (What else?), which overtakes the atoll and leaves the Prof and Anne as a meal for the hungry fish. After all, he has two mouths to feed.
The survivors flee on the shrinking atoll to an abandoned hut, but the shark breaks in and devours another four. Now only three are left: Kate (Hogan), the nerdish Paul (Gallegos) and Kirsten (Bissing). By using a gasoline tank they found earlier, they manage to blow their visitor to kingdom come, but not before losing Kirsten. A helicopter rescues Kate and Paul, the only survivors in a group of 23 people, as the movie mercifully ends.
The only reason for a bad movie fanatic to want to see this is for camp value, but there’s precious little of that. Simply stated, it’s a movie that’s so bad, it’s bad. I’ve seen better special effects made with an Etch A Sketch; although most of the cast is devoured, it’s done in the same fashion as when the Megamouth hit the propeller. We never actually see the shark eat anyone. All we do see is their bodies in front of the shark, accompanied by a lot of blood fogging the water, and later perhaps a totally unconvincing hand or a leg. As for the shark, it’s predictably ridiculous, and seems to increase and decrease in size during the movie: one minute, the cast is being attacked in shallow water, while later they are safe because they are in shallow water. At one point the shark is big enough to smash against and sink the atoll, while in the next scene he’s small enough to fit in the tiny hut along with the surviving students.
As for the plot, it has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese. Students wander off and on, doing the dumbest things. The writers seem to have collected every obvious plot device and even a few more that defy logic. For instance, at the end, the gasoline bomb has a wet t-shirt for a fuse and Kate manages to light it anyway. Earlier, a crowd is standing in the water wondering what to do. “Why not climb the rocks behind you?” I say to myself. After all, even this shark cannot climb rocks. But no, they decide to swim for it instead. If your idea of dialogue is “Wait a minute! What was that?” or “Hurry up! Go, go, go!” then this is the movie for you.
The Z Files: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula
By Ed Garea
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (story & s/p). Cast: John Carradine, Chuck Courtney, Melinda Plowman, Virginia Christine, Harry Carey Jr., Walter Janovitz, Hannie Landman, Bing Russell, Olive Carey, Roy Barcroft, Marjorie Bennett, William Forrest, George Cisar, & Charlita. Color, 73 minutes.
Wow. A vampire Western! Now there’s a genre. And yet, it’s not the first. Universal’s Curse of the Undead beat it to movie screens by eight years (and it’s a better film to boot). But the producers of this can take some comfort in the fact that this film is worse. Much worse.
In fact, for a film dependent on action, out of its 73-minute running time, only about two, or three at most, of those minutes contain any action. The rest of the time is spent building up to the action with some great establishing scenes that fall flat on their face, really crummy dialogue, a leading man with all the appeal of imitation lime Jello, and a villain who appears clearly swacked in most of his scenes.
The film was reputedly shot in about 5 days and looks like it. It was filmed at Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s spread in Simi Valley, the scene of many a B Western. In fact, look closely and you’ll notice the ranch house was the same house used in the Buster Crabbe/Al “Fuzzy” St. John Westerns for PRC. For those who like their acting bad and their vampire bats fake, this is one to see. Those who like their movies at least making a little sense would be wise to skip this one, if for no other reason than taste.
Our film opens with a really terrible day-for-night shot of a rubber bat, compete with wires, flying around. Cut to an obvious German immigrant family camping out for the night. By the look of their covered wagon we can tell this is the Old West. Mom and Dad Oster (Christine and Janovitz) are sleeping on one side of the camp while daughter Lisa (Landman) is asleep on the other. Suddenly, Lisa is awakened by the chirp of the bat (Chirp??) and proclaims, “It’s here!” Father reassures her that she’s only having a nightmare, but Mother places a cross in her hand for safety and they go back to sleep.
The bat ducks behind the wagon and out comes Drac (Carradine). Although the film never mentions Dracula by name (probably for legal reasons), since it’s used in the title, we’ll refer to him as such. Obviously famished from all that flying about, Drac decides to stop at Lisa’s for a quick meal. He puts the bite on her, but her hand opens, revealing the cross, which scares Drac off. Looking at her neck later we can see that Drac left four bite marks. Must’ve been using his bottom fangs as well.
Cut to a stagecoach, which has stopped to take on Drac as a passenger. He’s traveling light – just himself and no luggage. The other passengers are Mary Ann Bentley (Bennett), her brother James Underhill (Forrest), and an aptly-named liquor salesman Joe Flake (Cisar). Making conversation, Mary explains that her husband has passed and she went to Boston to bring back her brother to help her run the ranch, the Double Bar B. She shows Drac a picture of her daughter, Elizabeth (Plowman). Drac is quite taken with the photo, telling from his hammy expression. (He also seems inebriated as well; perhaps he’s been into Joe’s sample case.) My favorite quote in this scene is when Mary Ann mentions to Drac that she shouldn’t be traveling at night. Night? Hell, it looks like late afternoon out there, that’s just how bad the optical filter is. (Later on Beaudine just decides to dispense with it altogether rather than continue the farce. So we’re treated to the sight of Drac walking around in broad daylight. Oh well, perhaps he’s using industrial strength sunscreen.) The stage stops for a rest at an Indian village where Drac departs and later that night puts the bite on a lovely and stacked Indian maiden (Charlita), who’s fetching water from the village’s well. All through the film when Drac is about to do something really diabolical, his eyes bug out and a red light shines on his face. He also has the power to disappear and reappear at will. Backstage, most of his disappearing came at lunchtime, when he hauled himself down the street each day in full costume to a bar where he would enjoy a hearty liquid lunch. Afterward he would return well-roasted, and it shows in his performance at several points in the picture.
When the group is about to leave the next day, neither hide nor hair of Drac can be found. So they decide to go on without him. Bad move, for the other Indians have found the body of the maiden and conclude it was the passengers in the stage what done it. (Watch closely and you’ll see they get a cue to rise up and ride off after the stage.) They hunt it down and kill everyone abroad. Soon after, Drac appears in his bat disguise (complete with strings), ducks behind the stage and reappears in human form. He searches the deceased, taking James’ identity papers and the photo of Elizabeth. We can easily guess where he's going.
Cut to his next destination, the Double Bar B ranch, where Elizabeth (or “Betty”) is being taught to shoot by a handsome young man, who we shortly learn is Billy the Kid (Courtney). It seems Billy has reformed by turning himself into a Casper Milquetoast type. He wants to marry Betty, but is worried people will find out he’s really Billy the Kid. “But that’s all behind you,” Betty reassures him. Oh sure, everyone will forget all the murders he committed because he’s now a nice guy. But as the scene ends we see that Billy and Betty are being spied upon. The voyeur is Dan Thorpe (Russell), along with a couple of toadies, who fill in the missing plot hole with just one line – very economical: “That guy Bonney sure moved in on you. First your foreman’s job, then your girlfriend.” So we now know two things: Thorpe will be out for revenge, and Billy will eventually kill him. Later we’re treated to a little tension, Beaudine style, when Billy tells Betty he’s found a lamb with its throat neatly sliced open. Billy tells her that Indian Jim said he saw a large bat kill the lamb. Cue the eerie theremin music.
Drac, meanwhile, is now in town posing as Betty’s dead uncle. He’s taken a room at the hotel, begging the question of why he just doesn’t go out to the ranch, since he’s now the dead uncle. Drac informs anyone who’ll listen that he came on ahead of the stage. About a minute after this the townsfolk are informed of the stage’s fate. Cut to the threesome sitting at a table in the hotel. Why, it’s the immigrants! And they quickly point out that Drac is a vampire. Drac feigns ignorance; just because he’s running around in that silly looking costume with a pointed goatee doesn’t mean he’s one of the undead. The townsfolk, having never seen a vampire before, tend to agree.
Drac graciously gives his room at the hotel to the immigrants and goes out to the ranch. Later that night he visits the hotel to finish the job on their daughter, but when he returns to the ranch he finds he has company. Yes, it’s those pesky immigrants, who Billy has hired as household help. Frau Oster is determined to protect Betty from Drac’s evil designs. (Several times throughout the film, Mrs. Oster is referred to as “Mrs. Olson,” as Virginia Christine was famous for playing the character in Folgers ads. I guess Beaudine thought it was a natural mistake by the townsfolk or just didn’t want to do another take to get things right. Would it have mattered, anyway?)
Frau Olsen now decides to decorate Betty’s bedroom in various shades of wolfsbane, the equivalent of a cold shower to an amorous vampire. (If she had all this to start, then why did her daughter get killed? Just asking.) Billy, meanwhile, brings his concerns about Uncle James to the wrong fellow – Uncle James. Carradine tactfully tells to him stop prying and believing those German immigrants, or get the pink slip. Later, Billy is conducting a meeting about good employee relations with Thorpe, the outcome of which sends Billy running to Doc Hull (Carey). While getting patched up, he tells her his suspicions about the newly arrived Uncle, and discovers that the doc just happens to have a couple of books on the subject. I’m sure that part of every good country doctor’s library has a book or two on vampirism. One never knows when it’ll be needed. Billy pours out his suspicions, “You know that lamb I told you about? Its throat was ripped wide open. At least that's what the boys told me." When the doc asks him if he thinks it could be the work of a vampire, Billy turns thoughtful: "I hate to think it could be true but, well, I . . . I don't know about things like that. You know, I . . . I ain't had too much schoolin’."
It’s at this point the doc whips out her book and opens it right in the middle, miraculously landing on the right passage to answer the question. She begins to read: “According to an old European superstition, a vampire is a ghost which leaves its resting place at night to suck the blood of living victims; humans, when possible. Sometimes it kills its victims, other times it keeps them alive. Sometimes a vampire takes one of his victims as a mate and eventually turns her into a vampire . . . Now you know as much about it as I do, Billy.” Billy is dumbfounded. “Gosh . . . Well, how do you know of a person is a vampire? How can you tell?” Yes, how can you tell? Not to worry, for the doc says, “Well, there’s some footnotes here in German. My German's pretty bad. But one thing I can make out: A vampire . . . does not cast . . . a reflection . . . in a mirror." (Vampires fur Dummkopfs)
When Billy tells the sheriff (Barcroft) about his newly obtained knowledge, it sets off a light bulb in the sheriff’s empty head. Earlier he dismissed Frau Oster’s explanation for her daughter’s death. Now he a fount of wisdom: “Ah yeah, vampires. Seems to me I recollect that she said that’s who done the killin’!”
We now cut to Thorpe, who’s trying to score some brownie points with Uncle James. He comes into the office and says he want to see Uncle James. Carradine rises from his chair. Now, this scene must have been shot after lunch, because Carradine weaves his way over to see Thorpe, who proceeds to dime out Billy over his accusations about Unk. That’s it – Billy is out and Thorpe is in. In addition, Drac tells his new foreman that he wants Billy clean out of town. Being a conscientious brown-noser, Thorpe runs into Billy at the hotel bar and informs Billy that he (Thorpe) has come to make sure Billy leaves town. A fight breaks out and Thorpe draws, but Billy is faster and Thorpe has played his last scene.
While this is going on, Betty is sharing doubts about Billy’s recent behavior with Eva: “Oh, it’s Billy. He's been acting so strangely lately. Now he wants me to try some, some experiment on Uncle James.” Eva asks what sort of experiment it is, to which Betty replies that it’s done with a mirror. “Oh God, the vampire test!” Eva exclaims. No, not that! Cue the organ.
As Betty by this time has foolishly removed the wolfsbane from her room (something about it clashing with the wallpaper, I believe), Drac now makes his move. He mesmerizes Betty through a combination of bugging his eyes out and having the red light shining in his face. (Though, honestly, that red light makes it seem as if he’s standing behind a rotisserie chicken cooker.) The next day Billy arrives at the ranch to find Betty zonked on the bed with two large hickeys on her neck. Eva tells him to take Betty to the doctor. Although the doc can’t make heads or tails about what’s wrong, she is sure that it’s the work of vampires. At this point the sheriff waltzes in to tell Billy that he has to drag him off to the hoosegow until the matter of Thorpe’s killing can be put to rest.
Now that Billy’s cooling his heels in the cooler, Drac makes his big move. He comes to the doc’s office to take Betty home. In one of the great nonsensical scenes in film history, the doc decides to put the vampire test to the test. She takes down the wall mirror, places it behind the vampire, and then calmly stares into the thing. Drac’s reaction is to turn around and stare at her until he can remember his next cue. (At this point Drac is clearly feeling no pain.) He then walks out carrying Betty, looks back at the doc and makes a noise not unlike that of a poodle in heat. The great thing is that the entire scene is done in such a relaxed manner that it almost seems like a rehearsal for the real scene yet to be shot.
As if that wasn’t enough, here comes another great scene. (In fact, the entire film now becomes one laughable scene after another, as if all seeming pretense to make a decent picture has been tossed out the window.) As Drac has come for Betty, the doc is in a panic. What to do? I know – I’ll get Billy. He’ll know what to do! She goes to the jail to try and spring Billy, but the sheriff is a party pooper: Billy has to stay put until the trial. At this point, and it’s done so nonchalantly, the doc – a little old aging and overweight lady – completely disarms the sheriff by taking his pistol from its holster with little effort and giving it to Billy, whereupon the sheriff reluctantly releases Billy on his own recognizance.
Before Billy leaves to have it out with Drac we are treated to some of the most inane dialogue in the picture. The doc offers her scapel to Billy to do Drac in: “Billy!” she says. “Take this! That gun will do you no good against him!” Billy, as stone-headed as ever, simply replies that he’s never see a man yet that a bullet won’t stop. “But he’s not a man!” replies the doc. Billy shrugs, fingers his gun and simply says, “This’ll do.”
Now it’s time for the final confrontation. After taking Betty home, Drac has now moved her to the abandoned silver mine. Earlier he had been scoping out the mine, and now we know why: it’s a honeymoon hotel. Drac has a double bed set up and ready to go. In a mine, yet. But here comes Billy, yelling out Betty’s name so Drac can hear him. What does Drac do? He hides. Perhaps he intends to jump out and yell “Surprise!” But a few seconds later he comes out of hiding to do battle. Drac is kicking Billy‘s ass, knocking him down. Billy draws and fires, but as the doc said, bullets have no effect. So what does Billy do now? He throws his gun at Drac, of course (as if he’s been paying attention to television episodes of Superman), and from the sound Drac makes Billy has hit his target. In fact, the gun hits Drac right on the schnozz and I think Drac’s cry wasn’t in the script. Drac falls down and out. The sheriff and the doc have been following closely behind, of course, and the doc now hands Billy her scalpel, which Billy uses to drive into Drac’s heart. We now suddenly cut to a shot of the rubber bat flapping around outside on its string. Suddenly, it falls to the ground – dead. Wait, isn’t Drac the bat? Is Beuadine trying to go metaphysical on us with this bit of symbolism, as if Drac’s soul were trying to escape? Why are we even discussing this, anyway? Right before the movie ends, we cut back to Drac, who is nothing more than a pile of bones. Guess he won’t be troubling us anymore.
This film plays rather fast and loose with the vampire legend. Carradine walks around in the daylight, a no-no for a vampire, but considering the almost nonexistent day-for-night shots, it was just as well, anyway. Carradine also carries no coffin around with him. He also sits down to dinner later in the film: vampires aren’t supposed to eat, other than drinking blood for nourishment. As for some who feel that driving a metal stake into Carradine violates the custom of a wooden stake, I would point out that several films in the past have employed metal stakes.
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is truly a laugh riot, but if it has one redeeming feature, it’s the plethora of good character actors that work in it. Besides the top-billed Carradine, we have Harry Carey Jr. as the stage driver and his mother, Olive, in her last film role as the doc. Virginia Christine, who gained undying fame as Mrs. Olsen in the Folger coffee commercials, is Eva Oster, and Walter Janovitz, best remembered by television fans for his turn as dog keeper Oscar Schnitzler in Hogan’s Heroes, is her husband Franz. Ex-foreman Thgrpe is played by Bing Russell, father of Kurt, and the sheriff is B-movie stalwart Roy Barcroft, famous for his appearance if the Republic serials of the ‘40s and early ‘50s. And Indian maiden Charlita Roeder (sometimes billed by just her first name) had previously worked for Beaudine in his 1952 classic, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
If anyone could be said to fail in this film, it’s Chuck Courtney, whose Billy the Kid comes off like bland Marshmallow Fluff instead of a tough guy trying to reform. Perhaps he simply lost interest in the film, because Courtney had a quite a career forbore this as a solid actor. He had previously worked for Beaudine, getting critical plaudits for his role in Born to the Saddle (Astor, 1953). He played Dan Reid, nephew to Clayton Moore on the long-running hit The Lone Ranger. He was also a favorite of both John Wayne and Robert Conrad, who employed him in many of their vehicles. In 1994, he received The Golden Boot award for his contribution to Western films. A series of strokes that left him totally debilitated led him to take his own life in 2000 at the age of 69.
Memorable Dialogue: Billy runs into Betty outside the abandoned silver mine and asks what’s going on.
Billy: Where’s your uncle?
Billy: What’s he doing in an abandoned mine?
Betty: That’s his business.
Billy: Maybe it’s my business, too.
Betty: (Breaks down) Oh, Billy, what’s happening to us? We’ve never quarreled like this before, ever!
Miscellany: This was Carradine’s first attempt at a vampire role since playing Dracula in Universal’s House of Dracula in 1945 . . . Billy the Kid vs. Dracula was originally slated to begin production in 1961 with Joe Breen as director . . . The film was shot in anywhere from 5 to 8 days . . . Interiors for the film were shot at The Producer's Studio in Hollywood and exteriors at Corriganville, Hollywood stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan's ranch in California's Simi Valley. The ranch was also used for King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), and Sam Fuller's The Baron of Arizona (1950) . . . In Universal’s The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), evil high priest Carradine stalks reincarnated Egyptian princess Ananka, played by none other than Virginia Christine.
The Z Files: Death by Invitation
By Ed Garea
This is the inaugural column dedicated to what are referred to by critics as “Z movies.” The Z movie is a product of the ‘50s (though the term wasn’t coined until the mid-‘60s), when the studio system collapsed and independent producers and newly-minted smaller studios jumped in to fill the market for what used to be known as “B” movies.
Television also helped kill off the B-movie proper, and the advent of the drive-in and the rise of the grindhouse in urban areas gave low-budget producers a market for their films. The Z movie is low budget, but that alone does not make it bad. The quality standard for such a film must be well below that for a B movie and the producers are those on the fringes of the film industry. In the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, films from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” could meet those standards, as they were poorly made, with shoddy scripts, decrepit sets and woeful acting, and marketed to independent theaters. Most Poverty Row productions focused on horror or mystery; the later Z movies first focused on horror and science friction, later going into the genres of gore, violence and soft-core pornography.
Television also helped kill off the B-movie proper, and the advent of the drive-in and the rise of the grindhouse in urban areas gave low-budget producers a market for their films. The Z movie is low budget, but that alone does not make it bad. The quality standard for such a film must be well below that for a B movie and the producers are those on the fringes of the film industry. In the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, films from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” could meet those standards, as they were poorly made, with shoddy scripts, decrepit sets and woeful acting, and marketed to independent theaters. Most Poverty Row productions focused on horror or mystery; the later Z movies first focused on horror and science friction, later going into the genres of gore, violence and soft-core pornography.
So what we get from all this is that Z movies are terrible. That is true, but it’s also why, in the vast majority of cases, they’re fun to watch. Otherwise, Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn’t even have come into existence.
Death by Invitation (Kirt Films, 1971) – Director: Ken Friedman. Writer: Ken Friedman. Cast: Shelby Leverington, Norman Paige, Aaron Phillips, Lesley Knight, Denver John Collins, Bruce Bentlinger, Tom Mahoney, Sarnell Ogus, Sylvia Pressler, & Rhonda Russell. Color, 81 minutes.
This low-budget slice of celluloid from producer Leornard Kirtman (Carnival of Blood – 1970 and Curse of the Headless Horseman – 1972) is so slow-moving it might as well be titled “Death by Boredom.” It works on the old horror standby of a centuries-old curse leading to modern-day revenge, but the execution is so poor and crudely done that it loses its audience. The plot execution is so poorly done that unless viewers have seen something like it before, they’re out of luck, for nothing is ever explained during the course of the movie.
We begin by being treated to a spectacularly clumsy opening where a group of villagers are about to burn a witch. Is this set in Salem, England, Holland? We’re not told. At any rate, it’s nice to see that the colonists of 17th century inhabitants lived in shingled houses with metal outdoor basement doors and concrete sidewalks. They’ve got their witch, but they don’t quite know what to do with her. Mainly they drag her around, dressed as one would at a low-budget Renaissance Festival. They tie her to a stake, but there’s no wood surrounding it, so they drag her to a basement where they slit her throat. But before dispatching her, she seems to place a curse on the family of the man that led the mob. All this is accompanied by some of the most annoying music I have ever heard in a picture.
Cut to the present day. We’re on Staten Island, I think, (it’s never made clear), and are dining with the Vroot family. Since that’s a Dutch name, one can assume our 17th century witch was dispatched either in New Amsterdam or Holland proper. The Vroot family, resided over by patriarch Peter (Phillips) is celebrating the engagement of daughter Carol (Russell) to Jake (Paige), whom Roger wants to join the family business. Among the invited guests is Lise (Leverington) who is a dead ringer for our dead witch. Uh-oh. Lise is late to the party and tries to make light by telling a story of how the cab gave her his number on the way over, but the strictly religious family won’t hear of it. However, no one seems to mind when Jake begins hitting on Lise right in front of everyone. Fiancée Carol just sits there in the background sporting a dress that looks like it was cut from the living room drapes.
Lise also seems to serve some sort of double duty as a visiting caregiver to Peter’s wife, Naomi (Ogus). At least I think this is the case; watching this film is like trying to solve a puzzle.
After Lise departs, son Roger (Collins), intrigued by her story (Why?) takes a cab ride to her place where she regales him with a monologue about how in a primitive tribe the women did the hunting and the men made them up and oiled them for the hunt. When the men try it themselves the women found out and killed them. All this is told at a pace that makes one want to cry out “Get to the point already!” But Roger is entranced by the speech, or bored out of his skull, I couldn’t tell. He takes off his top and kneels before Lise, and we think Roger is about to get lucky. But no, Lise proceeds to sink her nails into his throat and back, killing him as the stage blood oozes down.
Now, instead of celebrating an upcoming betrothal, the Vroot family is trying to find Roger. This leads to a very clumsy and contrived scene with a clueless detective who tries to steer the family into believing that Roger is probably somewhere pushing drugs. This must be Friedman’s attempt to ease the tension by inserting a comedy relief scene. The problem is that the cops merely come across as stupid and witless, and the Vroot family is left with just their hopes that Roger will eventually find his way home.
Two other scenes need mention here. One is where Jake visits Peter’s office to hear his offer of going into the family business. What is supposed to be a scene expanding and extending the plot turns into a cacophonous mess as the Muzak playing in the background at the office drowns out Peter and Jake’s dialogue. The scene just rambles on, leaving me with the impression that the director had decided to go to lunch and didn’t inform anyone else on the set. The other scene is where little Elly (Knight) is up in her room when we suddenly see Lise outside. Shortly after we learn that both Elly and sister Sara (Pressler) have been slain. The shot of Lise earlier seems to have been like an insert to let us know whatever it is that Friedman wants us to know. The only thing it has going for it is that it does come off as creepy and strangely effective – for once.
It’s been strongly telegraphed that Jake is hot for Lise and we know it’s just a matter of time before he gets his shot. We have already seen that, for someone who’s just gotten engaged, Jake spends as little time as possible with his future bride, who just remains in the background. He drops in on Lise at her place and she begins with the old monologue about the tribe of women who do the hunting while the men prepare them for the hunt, but Jake will have none of it; he’s horny. They proceed to have the required sex scene, although for a producer whose product includes a few softcore titles, the scene is somewhat muted. After the fun is over, Jake discovers blood dripping down. He follows the trail and discovers a hidden room Lise conveniently has in her apartment. Attached to the ceiling in that room is a bag with the chopped up remains of others in the Vroot family. Jake is horrified and the scene degenerates into a terrible fight scene with an ax-wielding Peter entering and accompanied by very poor sound. It ends here and we wonder what the point of the whole thing was to start.
What keeps the film from being totally unwatchable, besides the unintentionally hilarious script, is the performances of the leads, in particular Leverington and Paige. Both, unbelievably, went on to decent careers, mostly in television. This was actually the first film for Leverington, who also went on to strong roles in both The Long Riders (1980) and Cloak and Dagger (1984). Paige, later known as Norman Parker, has also appeared in Prince of the City (1981), Turk 182 (1985), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and television series such as Family Ties, Falcon Crest, and the soap As the World Turns.
Death by Invitation actually opened on October 21, 1971, at the Esquire Theater in St. Louis, which may have been chosen because of its proximity to Leverington’s alma mater of Southeast Missouri State. For his part, Friedman would only direct one more feature, Made in U.S.A. (1987), but made his mark as a screenwriter, with films such as White Line Fever (1975), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Johnny Handsome (1989), and Cadillac Man (1990).
Although not a full-blown train wreck, Death By Invitation is more like a shaggy dog exercise, with great expectations and a zero payoff. It’s for late night viewing when anything will do, as long as it’s accompanied with a snack and some wine before hitting the hay.