Thursday, August 29, 2013

Happy (Belated ??) Birthday To Uschi Digard (And Some Cool Uschi News !!)

 Some time back it was (allegedly) Uschi's 65th birthday as it had been widely reported for years to be Aug. 15 1948. As it turned out this bit of bio info was wrong - as has been bunches of other stuff floating around on her. Even her birthplace was widely disputed as it ranged everywhere from the sorta believable (Sweden) to the really outlandish such as Bismarck (!?) N.D. - this most likely just wishful thinking on Bismarck's part.
    Always a very private & reclusive person (in spite of her screen persona), she's given very few interviews. All that's changed now, however, as the guys over at The Rialto Report have scored a really major & cool coup - a 67 minute (!!) interview with the queen of softcore porn & sexploitation. This is FASCINATING listening and a must for anyone interested in the history of drive-in movies, men's magazines & the dawning of the golden years of adult entertainment. Starting with her childhood (Switzerland is her birthplace-and although she coyly doesn't reveal the date - she does shoot down that reported one), taking us thru her early employment & travels in Europe & Mideast (she never worked at the U.N. as reported, but really does speak nine languages), 50 year (!!) marriage and eventual move to Los Angeles in the mid 60's and her initial work in men's magazines.       Along the way, we get Russ Meyer stories, background stories on her photoshoots and of course her career in films. She relates a funny story on how she never had a driver's license so her husband had to drive her all over L.A. to her various film & photo locations. Basically what you have here is a 60 min + history of the classic era of sexploitation (and plus you find out about her new autobiography).

     With her long hair, amazonian build & beautiful natural looks (usually devoid of make-up), nobody seems to personify that 60's & early 70's sex appeal "look" better than her. She had a presence that truly was bigger than life - a mind-bending combination of hippie earth mother looks and a sexual wildcat. IMDB lists 126 titles to her credit , but you can most likely at least double that counting all the loops, short subjects & blink and you'll miss her cameos.
     It's amazing how many times she pops up (even briefly) in 70's drive-in movies - start watching them and see how often you say "Look, there's Uschi !!". She always seemed to have a smile on her face and almost seemed to be winking at the camera and saying "Hey -its all in fun". Although she skirted around the edges at times, she never performed hardcore (which is something I've always admired about her).
      On the recently released blu-ray of Kentucky Fried Movie there she is in an awe-inspiring shower scene (in glorious full-color HD no less). For whenever her birthday is - a VERY special birthday greeting for a true icon (plus its a great reason to post some Uschi pictures - as if you need one).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Crack in the World 1965


"Thank God It's Only a Motion Picture !"

   On the face of it, a Spanish/American mid 60's sci/fi co-production shot with a (mostly) British crew & cast (with some Italians lurking in the background) & starring a former A-list Hollywood actor (plus a couple of British "B" leads) might seem to have "low budget cheez" written all over it, but crack in the World is a resounding good time and a great choice for an apocalyptic end of world theme movie night. 

   Dana Andrews plays Dr. Stephen Sorenson who heads up "Project Inner Space" who's purpose is to drill into the earths core and tap into the liquid magma core as an unlimited source of energy. To break the final layer of crust he intends to use a nuclear missile shot downward thru the earth at huge underground installation in a remote part of the world (Africa is hinted at). Although perhaps not the classic mad scientist Sorenson is treading kind of lightly on the 'ol thin line of megalomania ego & insanity. Joining him is his much younger wife & fellow scientist Maggie (Janette Scott - who fills out a nightgown nicely) and geologist Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore). Previously Maggie & Ted had been involved, with her eventually deciding on the elderly Sorenson (although she's obviously faithful to him, he feels jealously toward Rampion). This along with his being diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer opens up a whole bunch of vest pocket Freudisms as he rushes ahead with the project, ignoring the warnings of his younger rival, as Rampion believes the resulting explosion will fracture the earths crust and cause apocalyptic natural disasters.

   The missile is launched and all seems good until a huge crack is discovered moving around the earth thru a fault line called the Macedo trench, with the end result being the earth will break apart. With his rapidly spreading cancer and the psychological responsibility for deaths of thousands of people, Sorensen starts to really go off deep end as he starts ominously wearing dark glasses and is wrapped in more & more bandages. This behavior slowly begins to drive Maggie back into Ted's arms (and she does start mending his socks for him).
   In an attempt to stop the crack an atom bomb is lowered into a handy volcano in its path (in one the movies more thrilling sequences) with the plan being to blow a large hole to stop it. Unfortunately the crack reverses direction and heads back to Project Inner Space - at this point the movie stomps down on the accelerator and never lets up. It's soon discovered that the result will being a giant section of the earth will be flung up into space to form a new moon. The climax finds volcanic destruction & earthquakes, with Soresen locked down in his vast underground bunker recording the events (and maybe the end of the world) while Ted & Maggie attempt to escape.

   The true highlight of the film is the spectacular special effects done by Russian born Eugène Lourié and although the entire budget of Crack in the World was only about $500,000, he creates some fantastic set pieces combining miniatures, pyro effects and some awe inspiring Ken Adam ala James Bond inspired set design (The only letdown is the strangely drawn map of the inner earth that looks like something from a 4th grade science fair). Actual volcano footage is neatly integrated and the whole thing as the look of a much higher budget.
  Most of the geology stuff in the script can most likely be torn apart by anyone with a passing knowledge, but its put forth with such conviction by the earnest cast that you can't help but get caught up in the excitement. The love triangle is put forth very maturely and although its a plot point, it never overshadows whats really going on.

   It's been said that Dana Andrews drank heavily during his later years, but he always put in a solid dependable performance (even if the movies were always diminishing properties). The next year he would be behind some Nazi zombies in The Frozen Dead and would finish up his career by crashing a plane into a jet airliner in Airport 1975. I always liked Kieron Moore and he appeared in a great trilogy of 60's British sci/fi - horror films. Along with Crack in the World he appeared in the 1962's Day of the Triffids (where he shared the climatic lighthouse scene with his co-star here Janette Scott) and the the wonderfully lurid Hammer knock-off Dr. Blood's Coffin (1961). A dark, sullen & brooding actor he always looks to be about 10 seconds away from kicking someones ass.
   Thanks to frequent showings on T.V. in the late 60's and 70's Crack in the World was an awe inspiring event for bunches of kids. With its scenes of  frightening mass destruction (particularly a train crash) and giant underground labs, this was a movie which you saw as a child and never forgot. Now out as an excellent DVD & Blu-Ray from Olive Films.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Help Save The Drive-In

    Honda is sponsoring a very cool fundraiser to help out drive-in theaters across the country in their conversion over to digital (which is a must if their to remain in business). Please click here for more info and help save a classic American institution. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Blind Dead Night # 1 - The Ghost Galleon (Horror of the Zombies) 1974

    For some time now I've wanted to revisit Amando De Ossorio's Blind Dead series and for reason I myself can't comprehend, the third entry (from Blue Underground's beautiful box set) was the first one I queued up. Ghost Galleon has always been the acknowledged weak link of the four films and although the plot always sounded intriguing (bikini models stranded on a ghost ship with The Blind Dead -  All Right !!! I'm There !) it never quite lives up to its expectations.

   Ossorio's Blind Dead films were one of the highlights of the golden age of Euro-horror. Concerning a group of Templar Knights. who after returning from the crusades in the middle ages began practicing the black arts and sacrificing local virgins. After putting up with this for awhile the local villagers capture the knights and kill them, hanging their corpses in trees till they rotted and crows ate their eyes. With this set-up (all explained in the prologue to the first film), the basic premise of the movies is The Blind Dead periodically rise up to wreak some terror & slurp up some blood. As their blind (hence their name) they stalk their victims by listening for breathing and heartbeats. Although mostly lumped in with the zombie genre, they seem IMO to be more closely aligned with the 70's devil worshipping thing.

   After the success of the first two movies, the Ghost Galleon was rushed into production (it was released only a year after 1973's Return of the Evil Dead) and perhaps to shake up the proceedings a bit the locale was changed from land to an abandoned ghost galleon lurking in the ocean - which presents it own set of problems in the film. If it was one thing that The Blind Dead movies always had going for them it was atmosphere. With Antón García Abril creepy atmospheric soundtrack music (composed of mainly organ, piano & percussion with Gregorian chants - and long overdue for a CD release) playing ominously while the hooded mummified Templar knights rose from their graves.

   The problem with sticking them on a ship is that there really isn't a lot for the mummified Templar's to do (not that there was much before), as they just crawl out of their coffins and shuffle about for a short distance in the confines of the ship. One of the highlights of the first films was the knights prowling about ruined castles and shadowed streets or riding their shroud covered horses in slo-motion, which here being on a ship pretty much negates the horse & castle factor. The biggest problem with the whole ship thing is that being on a ship Ossorio had to use models and special effects which for all intensive purposes look like exactly what they are - a small model boat bobbing around in a bath tub with the climatic firing looking like the same small boat model with some lighter fluid and a match comprising the entire special effects budget. The on board scenes, while suitably claustrophobic and atmospheric are represented by a couple of sets (with lots of fog to add atmosphere and hide the skimpy sets) with even Garcia Abril's score using recycled cues from the first two movies.

  A fashion model Noemi (Barbara Rey) expresses concern to the director of the agency Lillian (Maria Perschy) that her roommate and fellow model/lover Kathy (Blanca Estrada) has been missing for several days. After some prodding Lillian takes Noemi to a dockside warehouse where she finds out sporting goods magnate Howard Tucker (played by Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor - wearing a really ugly 70's turtleneck sweater). Howard has conceived of a publicity stunt to advertise one of his new speedboats which consists of putting a couple of models (Estrada & Margarita Merino) out in the shipping lanes on the speedboat and waiting for a boat to pick them up. The speedboat soon bumps into a large derelict galleon and after it springs a leak, Kathy climbs up into the ship and (off camera) meets her fate.

    Howard charters a boat to rescue the stranded models and along with the girls, his henchman Sergio (who earlier had raped Noemi) and a professor they happen across who is around to explain the ghost galleon with a bunch of talk of "another dimension" theories as to why the boat is invisible to everyone else. Once on board the ship the knights come crawling out of there coffins in the hold and start stalking the now also stranded rescuers. The professor comes up with an idea for an exorcism which consists of him holding a small flaming cross and he uses this drive the knights back into the hold. Later all the coffins containing the Templars are thrown overboard, allowing the survivors to escape - but this being a Blind Dead film, you know there still lurking around somewhere.

   Although a bit of a letdown (at least compared to the first two in the series), there are a couple of highlights. One being the slow agonizing death of Noemi as she attempts to crawl out of the hold after having her throat torn open while the knights reach out and pull her back down again, as she tries to scream for help (for Sergio none the less). This and the closing shots of the knights rising out of the water on a bright sunlit beach (complete with water gushing out of their empty eye sockets) and their slow procession up the beach, is an arresting & creepy sight and these both help redeem this one somewhat. Plus, somewhat unusual for a Blind Dead movie, there's a lack of nudity and the gore content is less compared to the other films. Not the best Blind Dead film, but hey - its got The Blind Dead & bikini models.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Karen Black - Part 2 (a postscript) & The Pyx - 1973

    With a wild mane of hair (that seemed to change color & style in every movie), a slightly cross-eyed look & a personality itself that always seemed a bit off-center, Karen Black probably could have only become a major movie actress during the counter culture Hollywood heyday of the late 60's to the mid 70's. Sandwiched between the platinum bombshell 1950's and the cover girl era that took hold in the 1980's she was the female lead of the new era of American film making.

    Born Karen Blanche Ziegler on July 1 1939 in Park Ridge Ill., her first acting credit was for none other then exploitation guru Dave Friedman in 1959's The Prime Time. Cast as Betty (The Painted Woman), Friedman said later that after her agent found out about her brief nude scene he paid $2500.00 to have the negative containing the frames destroyed (Which Dave said paid for his next movie). Cutting her acting teeth in the world of 1960's NYC Off Broadway, she attended the Lee Strasberg School and made her major movie acting debut in Your a Big Boy Now from 1966. With a hint of where her career was headed it was directed by one of the future Hollywood rebels of the 1970's - Francis Ford Coppola .
   Knocking around in T.V. for awhile she came to the attention of producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who fresh off their stint as the brains behind The Monkees formed the BBS production company, a movie company with a radical attitude. She was cast in three of their movies. Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Jack Nicholson's directorial debut 1970's Drive, He Said. In this she plays the wife of college basketball coach Bruce Dern and has an affair with one of his players. An overlooked (although slightly flawed) 70's minor masterpiece that contains one of her best performances. The recently released Criterion BBS box set should be required viewing for anybody with even a passing interest in the history of cinema and is a perfect memorial to her.
    A NY Times interviewer referred to her (with the ultimate 70's badge of honor) as "a freak, but a beautiful freak". Allowed to flourish in the perfect decade for her skills & look, she brought a wonderfully controlled realism to her performances  - with something always magically off-kilter lurking around the edges. Along the way she put in two outstanding performances for Robert Altman - 1975's Nashville & Come Back To The Five and Dime Jimmy Dean from 1982. In Nashville she even got to write and sing her own songs (for which she was nominated for a Grammy).
   Although cast in major Hollywood productions such as Airport 1975, The Great Gatsby and The Day of the Locust (in which she gives a wrenching performance of a black hearted wanna-be movie starlet in 1930's Hollywood) ), she always seemed more at home in smaller productions. With her performance in Alfred Hitchcock's swan song Family Plot in 1976 her major Hollywood career began winding down. The movie companies began to gravitate once again more toward the center and the freaks were pushed to the edges, plus in 1975 a temperamental giant mechanical shark would forever change the way Hollywood would market movies (and ultimately make them).
  In the late 80's and 90's she seemed to find a niche in the wave of independent horror films that were flooding the market. With many of her performances regulated to 3:00 AM cable showings and direct to video stuff that filled up the shelves of rental stores, she seemed to slowly drift away to the casual movie goer. She kept on acting though - doing one woman shows, independent productions and always looking for something to challenge her.

    In 1973 she starred in The Pyx, a strangle little Canadian horror/thriller that gave a hint to her future roles in offbeat low budget horror films. Karen stars as Elizabeth Lucy, a high priced call girl who in the opening scene of the film is found dead clutching an upside down cross and the title object - a pyx (in Catholicism, the pyx is a container which contains the Eucharist or communion wafer). As two detectives (Christopher Plummer & Donald Pion) investigate her death we see the past few days of her life in an unfolding flashback, which shows her slowly become immersed in a devil cult.
   The film is structured rather weirdly (which may be on purpose) and you find herself thinking several times that you may have missed something in the plot. Being a Canadian project its bilingual as it incorporates French dialogue into the plot and at times almost plays like a black comedy with Plummer showing up Monty Python "The Bishop" like and finding suspects already dead before he has a chance to question them. In spite of its faults (at 108 min it drags a bit) and plus playing up the supernatural elements a little more may have helped as at times it feels more like a police procedural movie, the movie does work (strangely enough if you try not to follow the plot too closely). In addition Karen contributes and sings three plaintive/haunting folk songs to the soundtrack which helps add to the films atmosphere.
   One of those films that seemed to show up on every cheapo DVD label in the world, The Pyx was finally released by Scorpion Releasing in a nice anamorphic transfer that preserves its widescreen cinematography. Karen participates in an audio commentary that initially finds her a little quiet, but she soon gets rolling and although sometimes distracted by minor details she relates some interesting facts (a double was used for her nude scenes as her hips were thought to be too fat).
  At one point in 1966 she was a replacement in the folk group The New Christy Minstrels and is the only actress to have a punk/glam band named after her - The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.