Tuesday, March 20, 2018


"Coffins Looted ! Cadavers Dissected !"  

      The historical horrors of Edinburgh's infamous murdering/grave robbing duo of William Burke and William Hare have long fascinated filmmakers and writers. Starting in 1948 there was Tod Slaughter's THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART (British censors forced name changes) and recently there was John Landis's BURKE & HARE in 2010 along with the excellent THE BODY SNATCHER from 1945. In the late 1950's producer/writer/director John Gilling (THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE REPTILE) formed Triad Productions for the specific purpose of producing THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Gilling had previously written 1948's THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART and frustrated with his inability to bring historical accuracy to the film because the censors looked again to the project in the more liberal post- Hammer period of British horror.
     In the early 1800's Edinburgh Scotland was the center of anatomical study in Europe with the shortage of fresh cadavers forcing doctors to deal with grave robbers (or "resurrectionist") who dug up freshly buried corpses or in the case of Burke and Hare turned to murder. Public outcry led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1932 which allowed the donation of corpses for medical study and ids a plot point in the current BBC series THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES.

    Written (along with Leon Griffiths) and directed by Gilling this stands among the finest of British "historical horrors" and features one of Peter Cushing's best non-Hammer roles after that studios THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA propelled him to stardom. At the same time, there was an un-produced script by Dylan Thomas floating about (that would emerge as THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS in 1985) so the script was re-written by Griffiths in order to not have too much in common with the earlier Slaughter film and the Thomas script.
   Although closely based upon the actual events (with a few ghoulish details added mostly regarding the climax) the story adds the character of Chris Jackson (John Cairney) and his relationship to Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) and the two resurrectionists William Burke (George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence). Set in 1828, medical student Jackson is employed by surgeon/teacher Dr. Knox to aid his assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermont Walsh) in the procurement of corpses for his classroom work. At one point Jackson is dispatched to a pub to pay for a recently delivered specimen and there he meets feisty prostitute Mary Patterson (a young Billie Whitelaw) and begins a relationship with her (and a rather lusty one for 1960 censors)

   We're also introduced to Burke who along with his wife Helen (Renee Houston) runs a seedy boardinghouse with one of the tenants being Hare. After another resident suddenly dies the duo sells the body to Knox and begins their string of murders (historically sixteen are credited to them) to expedite the process. Jackson and Mitchell both bring their concerns to Knox concerning the freshness and signs of violence (suffocating or "Burkeing" as it was called was their preferred method) upon the bodies provided by the pair. Things are brought to the forefront horrifically (especially in Jackson's case) in the film's climax and while sticking mostly to the facts does have a grislier comeuppance for Hare than happened historically.
    Shot in B&W scope (Dyaliscope credited here as "Dylacope - one of the many cheaper Cinemascope knock-offs) by Monty Berman (THE CRAWLING EYE) while looking a bit more upscale with the widescreen compositions still has a certain grungy look about it (fitting its setting & plot). Shot at Shepperton it was able to use some of that studio's more spacious sets helping it avoid a "set bound" look for the most part. Like several other British horror films produced during this period such as JACK THE RIPPER and THE HELLFIRE CLUB, it was shot with a few alternate scenes for a "continental" version for showing in Europe. Consisting of few glimpses of topless barmaids (but not Billie Whitelaw) and a close-up of a hanging climax they're included on the Image DVD (released as a part of their EuroShock Collection and now OOP).
    Cushing is excellent here portraying Dr. Knox as a man of high principles who turns a blind eye to what part he takes in the crimes and his role here can be seen as an extension of his Dr. Frankenstein in the Hammer films. This can be seen especially in the sequence where he haughtily talks down to his fellow doctors. Speaking of eyes, Cushing's Knox displays one droopy eye (the result of childhood chickenpox) of which the historical Dr. was afflicted and it was used predominately in the film's artwork. The historical Dr. Knox though while ostracized from the medical community escaped any form of punishment that caused a public outcry and is the basis for Robert Wise's excellent THE BODY SNATCHERS.

    Donald Pleasence is wonderful as the wanna-be dandy Hare. Wearing a well-worn top and raggedy dress clothes he fussily plays with his ring and snuff box and constantly tries to suck up to the more refined Knox ("would you take a bit of snuff doctor") while being constantly rebuked by him. The loathsome hatred of having to deal with the likes of Hare is brought to the forefront beautifully by Cushing. Rose and Pleasence have some great dialogue together, while sometimes getting close to comedy, it does add to the character's evil charm. There's a bit of unnecessary subplot with Cushing's niece coming for a visit and while initialing setting up a love interest for Dr. Mitchell this goes nowhere and is likely added to pad the running time.
    It was released by Valiant Pictures in the U.S. under various titles such as MANIA and PSYCHO KILLERS and in 1964 was cut by 23 minutes and released by Pacemaker under the title THE FIENDISH GHOULS. The Image DVD contains both the 94 min British theatrical print (complete with its "X" certificate) and the 95-minute "continental" version with the naughty bits.

Monday, March 12, 2018


"Ravaged - robbed and busted from county to county"

     This sometimes-uneasy mix of feminism, EASY RIDER, exploitation, and 70's road movies was a late entry in that decade's "R" rated drive-in fare and tardy in latching onto both the "road" and "biker" genres that proliferated earlier. Also channeling some of the dangers of the road plots from such films as JOYRIDE TO NOWHERE (1977), THUMB TRIPPING (1972) and GIRLS ON THE ROAD (1972) it's recently turned up in its uncut form after years of (rightly so, some would argue) obscurity and believe it or not this was something of a holy grail for me.
    It was produced by Peter Perry Jr. who spent the 60's producing & directing such soft-core sex films as the monster rally KISS ME QUICK (1965), THE NOTORIOUS FANNY HILL (1966) & THE JOYS OF JEZEBEL (1970) and directed by Jack Arnoldy who served as a second unit director for JAILBAIT BABYSITTER (1977) and SUPERVAN (1977) among others. Perhaps both were looking to go legit and/or move up in the food chain of film production but their endeavor seems to have faded into obscurity quickly after release.

     Opening with a title card that reads "The Time.. Like Now..." we're introduced to sisters Sheila (Daphne Lawrence) and Sherry (Deborah Marcus) who along with their best friend Priss (Loraine Ferris) are getting bored with summer break in Boulder CO. Looking to take a breather from swilling beer with the locals from the back of a van at the local burger joint they impulsively decide to drive their motorcycles to California to "see the ocean". Sheila and Sherry's parents while skeptical agree to the trip while Priss's parents forbade it necessitating her to run off without permission.
    They embark on the trip and run into various comedic and/or horrific situations and it's here that the film rears its schizophrenic nature. Unlike EASY RIDER whose characters found their journey darker as it progressed this film jumps from such lighthearted fare as the trio attempting to give a lift to a guy and his overweight girlfriend to a particularly brutal attack and rape sequence and a malicious policeman. In addition, the girls make some bone-headed moves throughout the film which doesn't help with our sympathies for them including flashing themselves at a creepy pervert peeping tom and inviting a very sketchy couple into their nighttime camp (both of which lead to tragic results).

    The cast is interesting in the fact that this their only acting credit across the board with the expected acting results in full display. The three leads are attractive and exceed a 70's sexy wholesomeness and to the film's credit there is a modicum of effort to give them distinct personalities. The plot is sometimes painfully padded with riding sequences (and a pinball game that stretches into whole minutes) with shots of the three riding abreast on an obvious towing rig as they randomly jiggle throttles and clutch handles.
    Filmed for the most part it would seem around California's Mojave Desert, a sense of travel is conveyed by shots of state line signs with the girls giving a thumbs-up and pointing and there's some fascinating looks at vintage roadside America including billboards, diners and a stop at the now-closed Lake Dolores Water Park in Newberry Springs, CA. - which gives our leads the opportunity to change into bikinis in full view of the camera. For anyone who came of age in the 70's there's a nostalgia-tinged sequence where a group of teenagers lay on the hood of their cars while drinking beer and tuning their car radios to the same station ("Right on, tune it to 108") and ends with the classic deflowering of the nerd sequence by Sheila.

     There's a Byrds like country-rock song (another nod to EASY RIDER) that plays endlessly on the soundtrack ("Cruisin'...Yeah cruisin' down the road...") until it's forever drilled in your brain and the EASY RIDER-like downbeat ending is a bit of a jaw-dropper but not surprising considering the films main influence in the Dennis Hopper/ Peter Fonda classic. The film closes with a head-scratching trying-to-be art house sequence that only adds to its all over the map approach.
      I first encountered this movie back in the 80's on a VHS rental where it was re-titled CYCLE VIXENS with three models on the cover straddling choppers looking they just stepped off the set of a hair metal band video. As part of my all-encompassing desire to view biker films, I was very disappointed after discovering it played out like a TV movie and I had the distinct feeling something was missing. Awhile back I discovered this DVD and happily found it contained the uncut version with the requisite "R" rated content intact under the original title. Hey, it doesn't take a lot to make me happy.


Friday, March 2, 2018


"300,000 Volts Of Horror!!"

     After his leading "monster" roles in Universal's second horror wave of the 1940's Lon Chaney Jr. become a reliable and solid character actor in such films as HIGH NOON (1952) & BIG HOUSE USA (1955), but by the turn of the mid-fifties, Lon Chaney Jr. found himself increasingly cast in low budget horror/exploitation movies and TV. Released in 1956 this was produced by C.G. K productions and distributed by low budget specialist Allied Artist who put it on a double bill with WORLD WITHOUT END. Without an undeniable atmosphere of low rent seediness about it the film seems to take place entirely in burlesque houses & dingy police offices. A PD staple on those horror DVD bargain packs it seemed to run almost every other week on Sat. afternoon TV during the late 6o & the '70s.
     Centered around a lumbering silent performance by Chaney and low rent B&W cheesecake with most scenes having a bottle of rotgut liquor within easy reach almost like product placement. It was directed by Jack Pollenfax (who as writer cranked out bunches stuff like this during the '50s) it has elements of Chaney's horror debut in 1941's Universal "B" programmer MAN MADE MONSTER also invokes some film noir atmosphere, particularly with its onscreen narration. Filmed in and around the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles it contains some fascinating glimpses of classic L.A. scenery including the Bradbury Building (later used in BLADE RUNNER) and the original Angels Flight railway.

      Charles "Butcher" Benton (Chaney) is scheduled for execution for his part in an armored car robbery that resulted in the death of two guards and the theft (and disappearance) of $600,000. Having been double-crossed by his accomplices he comes to realize that his crooked lawyer Paul Loew (Ross Elliott from TARANTULA and scads of Republic Serials) is also in on the scam. Led off to his execution he vows vengeance and via devious means, his body handily falls into the clutches of semi-mad scientist Prof. Bradshaw (Robert Shane THE GIANT CLAW) ably assisted by his unarmed henchman played by Joe Flynn (McHALE'S NAVY).
     The professor is doing cancer research in which massive voltage is sent throw a body destroying cancer cells. Experimenting on The Butcher he ends reviving him and makes his body impervious to harm which is shown by a hypodermic needle bending when stuck in him (and as we shall later see even bullets and a bazooka!). Throttling the professor and his assistant the silent Butcher (seems his vocal cords were burned in the experiment) Chaney lumbers off to exact his vengeance on his cohorts (who have wonderful names such as "Sqeamy").
      Police Lt. Dick Chasen (busy character actor Max Showalter THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD) has been on the case of the original armored car robbery begins to suspect something sinister is afoot after a string of murders on the "road leading to Los Angeles" are committed by a man "who appears to be dead"(!) and is impervious to bullets. Chasen begins to believe that a resurrected "Butcher" is to blame and begins tracking down his associates including his girlfriend/stripper Eva Martin (Marion Carr KISS ME DEADLY) and begins to romance her (including taking her to for drive-in hamburgers after her shift at the burlesque house). The Butcher proceeds through his list of backstabbers while the police try to figure out how to deal with an indestructible Chaney with frequent stops to Eva's place of employment.

    Filmed on what seems to be a couple of sets with the rest of the other action taking place outdoors the entire film has a seediness about it with the frequent close-ups of Chaney's bleary eyeballs adding to bourbon fumes atmosphere. With the script induced convenience of no speech for Chaney's character he silently lumbers about reminiscent of his portrayals of the Frankenstein monster. Max Showalter (who sometimes acted under the name Casey Adams) appeared in 100's of TV shows & movies always playing (whether intentional or not) characters that came across as slightly goofy but with an underlying creepy vibe. Check him out as Jean Peter's husband in Marilyn Monroe's NIAGARA.
    The film's climax includes some great model work (including a huge industrial crane) that probably impressed the producers so much that they use a shot of it under the opening credits. Showalter also provides on-screen narration that adds to the film noir feeling with screaming newspaper headlines inserted in emphasis the plot.
     The films PD status has long made it a bargain option in DVD horror packs with the Retromedia DVD being the best current option (although kind of hard to find these days), but with Warner now controlling the Allied Artist catalog perhaps we can see a nice legit DVD at some point.