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Saturday, December 28, 2013

MIRANDA (1948)

The one and only Glynis Johns as Miranda, a lonely mermaid who's out to catch herself a man.

Ever since I was a little boy I have loved and been fascinated by the lore of the mermaid, an interest likely sparked by the adorable Neptina, the tastefully topless half-fish girlfriend of early anime hero Marine Boy. I was one of the rare little boys who never found girls to be "icky," so I was fascinated by the female from Day One, plus I had a deep interest in aquatic lifeforms that led my earliest job aspirations to lean toward marine biology, so the concept of a magical creature that combined my two loves into one was bound to appeal. From the early days of watching Marine Boy and Neptina "fighting evil 'neath the sea," I moved on to reading world mythology and absorbing the many cultural variations on the mermaid, and as I got older I sought out any movies that had to do with them, nearly all of which revolved around mermaids falling in love with men from the surface world. The list of the genuinely good films in this niche category is rather small and until now I held the Daryl Hannah vehicle SPLASH! (1983) as the exemplar of the form, but now that I've seen Britain's 1948 cult classic MIRANDA (based on a stage play by Peter Blackmore), Madison's reign is over and her Cornish predecessor has taken her place in my heart and mind.

Dr. Paul Martin (Griffith Jones) fails to entice his wife, Clare (Googie Withers), into joining him for a fishing trip to Cornwall, so he leaves by himself for a bachelor's holiday. While out angling in a boat, Paul's line is snared by what he presumes to be a very large fish and he is pulled overboard, where he is promptly seized and spirited away to the underwater cave of Miranda Trewella (Glynis Johns), a lonely mermaid who's looking for a man — she'd previously caught other men but threw them back because they were too short — and instantly takes a liking to the married doctor. She makes it very clear that she intends to keep the doctor forever and he is absolutely not immune to her considerable charms while stuck in her hideout (despite his love of his wife, which he immediately tells Miranda about), so, understanding Paul's fidelity (which is fighting a losing battle against her otherworldly allure), Miranda agrees to set him free, provided he takes her back to London with him for a three-week stay. She wants to see and experience all of the things she's read about in books and magazines found mostly on ships, and she would be willing to pretend to be an invalid during her stay, covering her fish tail with long dresses and blankets while riding around in a wheelchair or being carried. Paul agrees to her request and brings the beautiful creature to the London flat that he shares with his wife and their live-in servants, butler/chauffeur Charles (David Tomlinson) and maid Betty (Yvonne Owen), with Miranda playing the role of a patient who needs Paul's care over a specifically-stated period of three weeks. 

During the course of her stay, every male that she meets is completely enthralled with Miranda and not one of them stands a chance against her spell (though Paul puts up the most resistance). She bewitches Charles — who's engaged to Betty — and Nigel (John McCallum), an artist who's betrothed to Clare's best friend, snobbish hat designer Isobel (Sonia Holm), and enters into affairs with both, which of course results in all sorts of romantic mishegoss that postwar British society found scandalous and wholly inappropriate. Yet as all of this extracurricular spit-swapping occurs with the two mesmerized young men — and, to a certain extent, Paul as well — Miranda remains as sweet as honey and it's impossible to hate her for what appears to be simple (albeit powerful) sex appeal, and not even the women whose men she's stealing really hold it against her (their ire is instead directed at their helpless paramours). Especially not Clare, who eventually twigs to Miranda's secret, realizes there's some form of magic involved in all of the seduction going on, and settles back with an amused eye to watch what she knows will be an inevitable emotional train wreck (or as much of an emotional train wreck as the British stiff upper lip of 1948 would allow). It all amounts to a (mostly) one-set sex farce that leads to a rather surprising ending, especially for a film of its vintage and country of origin.

MIRANDA is a delight from start to finish and it wastes absolutely no time in getting the ball rolling, with Miranda coming into the narrative about two minutes after the opening credits. Highlights include:
  • The eerie-but-charming siren song that Miranda sings at night, a strange melody heard by the entire household.
  • The depiction of Clare and her performance by Googie Withers. It would have been easy to portray Clare as a shrewish wife who sought to tear down the invalid Miranda for her obvious effect on Paul, but Clare is both very smart and realistic, gradually realizing there's more going on than her husband's head, and the heads of the other men, being turned by a pretty wheelchair-bound girl. A refreshing change from what's expected in this kind of scenario.
  • Miranda's adventures around London while chauffeured by the increasingly-smitten Charles, especially her argument with a sea lion after she orally catches and swallows a fish meant for it during feeding time, an argument loudly conducted in fluent sea lion, no less.
  • Miranda's prodigious appetite and consumption of raw seafood.
  • Miranda revealing in a throwaway line that she is the bastard daughter of her mermaid mother and a Covent Garden chorus boy named Matthew Trewella.
  • British cinema legend Margaret Rutherford as Nurse Carey, the health care professional whom Paul brings in to attend to Miranda's "special needs" who is ideally suited to the case, thanks to her "eccentric" nature. She believes in mythical creatures, so her reaction to the reveal of Miranda being a living, breathing mermaid is one of utter delight, so it is never in doubt that she will keep Miranda's secret.
  • The early pairing of Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson, some sixteen years before they were cast as Mr. and Mrs. Banks in the Disney classic MARY POPPINS. Witnessing a still-gentlemanly Tomlinson overcome with lust for the lovely mermaid and losing his battle with himself is very funny.
  • The running gag involving Miranda treating the Martin's well-populated fishbowl as a candy dish. At the beginning of the film there are around ten fish in the bowl. By the end...not so much.
  • As her time on land grows short, Miranda gifts her three men with neck-worn tokens containing locks of her hair, in celebration and remembrance of "a love that might have been."
  • The scandalous notion that Miranda, while owning other undergarments, does not own a single pair of panties, much to the shock of Clare and her maid.
  • "Sea Cow?!!? SHE KNOWS!!! If you think you're going to take a peek at my tail, you're very much mistaken!"
  • Miranda's tail, which looks exceptionally realistic when its seen flopping about in water. The tail is even afforded an onscreen credit for its maker, namely Dunlop.
  • The black and white photography lends the story a dreamlike aesthetic that greatly benefits the proceedings.
One of the things that most fascinates me about this film is that when looked at from the point of view of a rather jaded audience member some 65 years after its release, it's fun to ponder just how risque this movie must have been when it hit the U.K.'s screens during its original release. For one thing, you get a mermaid who's topless when she's seen in the water (though her hair is always strategically placed), and piled on top of that there are several references to fish (and their smell) and wetness that bear intentionally vulgar connotations, and Miranda's sweet-faced, very matter-of-fact sexual aggressiveness, which brings me to the film's ending.


Far from being merely the male sex fantasy adventures of a beautiful horny mermaid on the loose, Miranda's sexual campaign is revealed near the end of the film to be her acting not only on her personal loneliness, but also taking action to ensure the survival of her species. She earlier states that her mother had an affair with a human man, and she also mentions that mermen do exist but their unattractive looks make them unappealing to her — and presumably other females of her species — so she's opted to mate outside of the more obvious choice, and her dalliances with the three men under her thrall are an effort to widen the genetic options. It's never explicitly stated as such, but that's exactly what's going on. And while the goal of conceiving a child out of wedlock via three different men was probably scandalous enough for its era, an aspect that absolutely would never have flown in an American film, it's the film's very last shot that really raises eyebrows. When Miranda escapes back to the sea after Clare subtly calls her out for being a mermaid — and there is no malice about that; Clare is fascinated, but she wants to make the discovery public, which Miranda (and Paul) is not at all thrilled about — we see Miranda swim away, after which there is a flash-forward that shows a very happy Miranda on the shores of Majorca with a mer-baby on her lap. So in a film made by one of the most propriety-obsessed European societies during the postwar/pre-Profumo era, we get a feel-good story about a hot chick who gets knocked up by one of three possible babydaddies and we're happy to see the unashamed result.

How in hell did they get away with that in a 1948 British comedy, and did it ever get an American release? (I'm guessing that it was okay by virtue of Miranda not being a human woman, but even so it's still a bit of a shocker for its time.)

The movie is dominated by the performance of Glynis Johns as Miranda, and I defy you to find any straight guy who wouldn't willingly end up a slave to the character. She's beautiful, dryly funny, has eyes that draw one in like quicksand, has charm to spare, and she's horny as hell in a classy British way. And while Miranda is a natural-born seducer — which may be magically assisted, though it's never explicitly spelled out — and knows full well that's she's messing with men who are all involved in very committed relationships, she doesn't have a malicious bone in her body, so her man-stealing ways are impossible to hate, especially once we get that she's doing what she's doing by way of acting on a biological imperative. In short, she's an ideal fantasy creation who carries equal irresistible appeal for both adults and kids. This movie can be run for kids and not be considered salacious because when viewed through innocent eyes, Miranda's romantic entanglements can be seen as simply kissing and such, the kind of thing that mermaids get up to in even G-rated kiddie flicks, and the scene fades out during the three instances when it's obvious to adult audience members that the Beast with Two Backs is about to be made. (Don't ask me exactly what the logistics of achieving successful intercourse between a human male and a mermaid may be in this specific instance. Unlike Madison in SPLASH!, Miranda does not have the ability to become bipedal below the waist, so I'd say that magic is a definite factor here. That, or a process similar to the fishy mating process involving the female's eggs being fertilized by the male's milt, which when translated to this sort of scenario would amount to bukkake, which is something best not thought about in this movie's charming context.)

MIRANDA proved popular enough to generate a Technicolor sequel, MAD ABOUT MEN (1954), which brought back Glynis Johns and Margaret Rutherford, but it appears to be unavailable on DVD in an official release, either domestically or in a foreign edition. That makes me quite sad because I loved MIRANDA and I've read several reviews that cite MAD ABOUT MEN as being superior to the original, so I'm anxious to see it. Anyway, take my word for it and check out MIRANDA for yourself. It's a rare and unique treasure. I would love to see it rediscovered because it really is a classic deserving of wider recognition on these shores. (Then again, the one possible negative byproduct of MIRANDA getting rediscovered is that some Hollywood douchebag will greenlight an unnecessary remake, replete with modern day raunchy humor and fart gags, so maybe it's better off staying in relative obscurity.)

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Last night I went to the Rifftrax live screening of the classic seasonal bad movie SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964) with three friends, and we had a blast.

For those not in the know, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS is a cheapjack kiddie movie that played annually for ages on the now defunct kiddie movie matinee circuit, and it was in that context that I saw it several times during my childhood. Even as a wee moppet I knew it was a piece of shit, but I saw it numerous times during those days because it was always part of an all-day movie show where parents could drop off the little ones for three full features and a number of cartoons  and short subjects, giving mom and dad time in which to sleep, fuck, get wasted, have marriage-ending fights without the kids around, or a combination of some or all of the aforementioned activities. As a kid I found it an insult to my intelligence but as I got older and my fascination with bad movies blossomed, it took on a luster that few of the bad kiddie movies I endured could match. Its narrative of a party of Martians kidnapping Santa Claus (and an incidental brother/sister team of kids) in order to bring joy to the listless children of their world is ultra-juvenile, cheaply-made and very cheap-looking, boasts no special effects to speak of — which is a real problem for a movie involving technologically-advanced  space aliens and inter-planetary travel — contains one of the most irritating "comic relief" characters in the entire history of world cinema, possesses the screen debut of future sleaze-film star Pia Zadora, has robot and polar bear costumes that would not have passed muster in an Ed Wood flick, and features an incredibly annoying theme song that sticks in one's head like napalm while being so terrible that it comes back around to actually become endearing. In short, it's a masterpiece of crap.

The film rests on its laurels among the pantheon of classic bad movies, so it was perhaps inevitable that the crew at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 would find it perfect fodder for their weekly sarcastic evisceration of terrible cinema. Their version of it is now rightly hailed as one of the all-time greats from the series' ten-season run, so when the guys from Rifftrax — all of whom are alumni of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 and continuing that show's tradition for the 2000's — announced that they'd be doing a live theatrical simulcast of their take on SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, I swore I would be there with bells on and I would drag as many of my friends as possible along with me. Two of the three friends who attended had never seen the movie before (much less with it being snarkily riffed upon by Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett), so they were unprepared for what they got.

Though I enjoy what the guys of Rifftrax do, not all of their efforts result in gems and their treatment of SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, while certainly funny, simply could not hold a candle to the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 version. That was a bit of a disappointment but it was fun nonetheless, largely thanks to an unexpected bonus.

SANTA AND THE FAIRY SNOW QUEEN (1951): a jaw-dropping short of the highest (?) order.

The screening was preceded by the short SANTA AND THE FAIRY SNOW QUEEN (1951), a spectacularly warped kiddie time-waster that felt like it was made in the ERASERHEAD universe. Think "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" if it had been viewed through the effects of a potent cocktail of well tequila, muscle relaxers, and Nyquil. The shit was funny as hell and worth the price of admission. MST3K fans will enjoy it because it is extremely reminiscent of aspects from the legendary MR. B NATURAL. (Those who've seen that one will immediately get what kind of psycho vibe I'm talking about. In tonight's short there's a character named Snoopy who's a magical brownie played by a woman, which brings up all of the confusing androgyny that made MR. B NATURAL an instant classic.) 

Some of the live Rifftrax shows have come out on DVD — BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR and MANOS:  THE HANDS OF FATE being the must-sees — and I'd be willing to bet that we'll be seeing this one available for at-home enjoyment soon enough. I recommend it, but mostly for SANTA AND THE FAIRY SNOW QUEEN. The MST3K version of  SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS is currently available in a two-movie DVD edition that pairs it with MITCHELL, a film considered by many fans to be the series' single funniest entry, so recommend picking that up in the meantime.

Friday, November 8, 2013


Roughly two years after the events of the first Thor film and an unspecified time after THE AVENGERS, the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Earth after quelling assorted conflicts on several worlds in the nine realms of Norse myth, a job that has his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), sizing him up as next in line for the throne of Asgard, the home of the gods. Once on Earth, Thor finds that his love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), is inadvertently the host to the Aether, a major-league power source coveted by the dark elf Malekith (Christpher Eccleston), who seeks not only to exact vengeance for Asgard's long ago victory over and near-destruction of his race, but also to destroy all nine realms of existence when they perfectly align for the first time in ages. Needless to say, Thor has to save Jane from the force that has taken up residence in her body and kick Malekith's elven ass once and for all while preventing the complete and utter destruction of everything, but the odds are very much stacked against him and the success of his plan depends on the participation of his imprisoned evil/amoral step-brother and god of mischief, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Will Thor save Jane and the universe, and will Loki betray his brother or find redemption?

THOR: THE DARK world is a more entertaining followup to the the first Thor flick, largely because the origin minutia and setup is out of the way, and this time around what we get is a pretty-to-look-at spectacle, replete with romance, action, and humor. In short, if you're looking for an exciting piece of light entertainment that pretty much subscribes to the modern formula of a popcorn-muncher, you'll probably dig it. I certainly enjoyed it, but I have to clarify that I enjoyed it as a brain-optional romp where the plot and character development take a backseat to the action and the visual wonders wrought by CGI. And what there is of a plot contains a number of surprises that I won't spoil, but here's the short list of elements worth considering:
  • I saw the film in 3D. The 3D adds absolutely nothing to the proceedings, so save your money and see the regular version instead.
  • The film's director, Alan Taylor, has helmed several episodes of GAME OF THRONES, and it shows. Some of the scenes in Odin's throne room felt like we were in King's Landing rather than  Asgard.
  • Tom Hiddleston once again steals the movie with his indelible portrayal of Loki. In fact, I dare say he's the best thing in the entire film. If you enjoyed his previous outings in the role, you won't be disappointed.
  • Christopher Ecclestion as Malekith certainly wields considerable power and has an army of heavily-armed elven warriors who fly about in massive spaceships and smaller fighters, but he's really not that interesting as a villain. He's simply there to be a powerful threat with little definition of who he is, and his army and their battle scenes are pretty much a rehash of the Chitauri aliens from THE AVENGERS (who weren't that interesting in the first place). The screen time spent on Malekith and his forces would have been better spent on further exploration of Loki's arc.
  • The romance between Thor and Jane continued to fail to arouse any interest from me but the individual viewer's mileage may vary. Jane Foster is a character I've loathed since I was five years old and even her updated/re-imagined iteration for the 2000's leaves me apathetic. I much prefer Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander), but she's once again given rather short shrift. Elaborating on her status as Jane's romantic competition would immeasurably add to the proceedings, especially since all she has to do is wait until the mortal Jane inevitably grows old and croaks, but nothing is made of the rivalry save for Sif cutting Foster a couple of nasty looks.
  • The Warriors Three — Fandral the dashing (Zachary Levi), Volstagg the voluminous (Ray Stevenson), and Hogun the grim (Tadanobu Asano) — are on hand, but Hogun is left to stay with people in Vanaheim early in the story, so Sif more or less takes his place. I do NOT dig splitting up the Warriors Three...
  • The film's final act plays out like a game of Portal taken to ridiculous extremes.
  • The movie brings the larger-than-life superhero action, and at times it was almost like I could feel the blows from Mjolnir.
  • One of the most endearing hallmarks of the Marvel Age of comics was its sense of humor, and the film features strong and very funny lashings of that aspect. There are those who may take issue with it, but I felt the humor fit just perfectly.
  • As per usual for Marvel movies, the viewer is advised to stay all the way through the credits at the end. This time there are two Easter egg sequences, the first of which features an interesting piece of casting for a certain character who makes his live-action debut here, while setting up part of the plot for what I'm predicting will be THE AVENGERS 3...
Bottom line: THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a serviceable entry in the Marvel movie tapestry, but it's more of a snack than  meal. I had fun with it but I won't be running out to see it again anytime soon. And a close friend in England saw it when it opened in the U.K. and immediately wrote me to rant about how he felt it was the worst Marvel movie ever, I love the guy like a brother but we are frequently at odds when it comes to our opinions on movies, so I called bullshit on  his opinion by writing back to ask if it could possibly be worse than DAREDEVIL or either of those appalling Fantastic Four movies. He unequivocally answered "no," so make of that what you will. (NOTE: Since first posting this review, my friend in England wrote in to clarify that he meant he felt the movie was the worst film thus far fro Marvel Studios. DAREDEVIL and the abominations that are the two Fantastic Four flicks were not made by Marvel Studios. Just so we're clear on that point.)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 31: PSYCHO (1960)

WARNING: this post assumes the reader has seen PSYCHO and therefore it contains spoilers. If you have not seen PSYCHO, where the fuck have you been for the last five decades? Living under a rock in the tiny republic of Togo? See it immediately, damn you!

Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, PSYCHO, one of the all-time classics of horror and suspense, and the film that can arguably be considered the granddaddy of the “slasher” genre. Three years ago, when I informed my mom that it had been a half-century since the film came out, she couldn’t believe it had been so long since she’d seen it during its original run, and she once again regaled me with the tale of how after seeing that movie, she refused to shower in the house unless another person was around.

To me, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when PSYCHO wasn’t around. I’m forty-eight years old and during my lifetime PSYCHO has gone on to become a part of world cinema’s DNA and has been a point of reference and jokes more times than I can possibly count, such was its impact. Yet somehow there are still people out there who have managed to reach adulthood without having seen it, and one of those people was She Who Cannot Be Named, an ex-girlfriend from three years ago. Having devoted much of her growing-up years to being a diligent student (unlike me, who loathed virtually every moment of my organized schooling), she has missed innumerable classic (and not-so-classic) films that you or I would take it as a given that the average person would have experienced, so you can imagine how I was champing at the bit to fill her head with a literal cornucopia of cinema from all genres and decades. With that goal in mind, when I heard that Manhattan’s Film Forum was running a screening of PSYCHO in honor of its golden anniversary, I fairly leapt at the chance to finally see it projected and haul She Who Cannot Be Named along.

Once I’d procured tickets, I made sure to advise She Who Cannot Be Named about not letting anyone spoil any of the film’s particulars for her, and things were going well in that department until one of her grad school courses ran footage from the sequence where Norman sinks Marian Crane’s car into the marsh behind the Bates Motel. When the girlfriend told me that she’d seen that bit, I was a little annoyed but not as much as I could have been because when taken out of context that scene reveals nothing. Also, when the segment was about to be discussed in class, one of her classmates was kind enough to stand up and announce to the class that out of kindness to those who had never seen PSYCHO, they should keep mum on the details of the story. That was very gentlemanly of him, but I soon reached a state of apoplexy when She Who Cannot Be Named told me that right after that guy’s consideration of the few PSYCHO newbies in the class, some galloping asshat stated flat-out that Norman was the killer. When she told me that during our pre-screening dinner, I nearly hit the roof.

Undaunted, we made our way to the Film Forum and met up with my pal Suzi. As the girls hit the ladies’ room, I stood up and asked the audience if there was anyone in attendance that had not yet seen the film, and when a few hands shot ceilingward, I asked the audience not to give anything away. They all nodded in knowing agreement, and when the girls got back I settled in and absorbed PSYCHO on the (relatively) big screen for the first time. (I have seen the film many, many times since the late 1970’s and know it inside and out, but I was genuinely excited to see it projected and with an eager audience.)

If you’ve read this far despite the spoiler warning, then it’s safe to assume that you’ve already seen the movie, so I won’t bother to recount the plot. Instead, I’ll just make some observations.
  • PSYCHO hit the screen barely three years after the real-life horrors discovered at the Wisconsin home of one Ed Gein, so that brain-meltingly awful event was still fresh in the shocked and disbelieving minds of the American public, thus lending the film an extra visceral mule kick to the guts.
Ed Gein, the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates (among others), being led to the crime lab.

For those not in the know (and making a very long, complex and downright fucking horrible story short), Ed Gein was the textbook example of the town "quiet soul" that everyone knew and thought was a little odd but harmless, only to have it revealed that he was not only bullmoose crazy, but also capable of acts of such outright stomach-churning blackness that even hardened homicide detectives found his acts literally nauseating. Among other elements lifted from the Gein case for author Robert Bloch's source novel of PSYCHO can be found a grown man's very serious mother issues, questionable hobbies and handicrafts, and a marked gender-confusion, so the moviegoing audience no doubt remembered those details as they watched Hitchcock's creepy low-budget flick unspool across the nation.
  • The sheer genius of letting us get to know and care about Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) only to kill her off about a third of the way through the narrative is still staggering and must have been a real kick in the head to the 1960 audience.
And think about this: more than fifty years later, Marion Crane is still the most famous murder victim in screen history.
  • Though he's creepy from the moment when we meet him, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is so awkward and childlike, we find it easy to believe he's not the killer.
Instead it seems like he's covering for his crazy mother, so the big reveal in the fruit cellar leaves one gobsmacked, a feeling that's compounded when Norman's pathology is outlined in detail during the epilogue.
  • My favorite scary moment in the film is when Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is murdered on the stairway while snooping at the Bates house.
The shower sequence is rightly hailed as a classic, but there's something so BANG! about when Arbogast is slashed across the face and sent tumbling off-balance, backwards, down the stairs, arms flailing, only to have "Mrs. Bates" land atop him and go to work with that chef's knife. Marion was naked and in a shower, so she had pretty much no chance to defend herself, but Arbogast might have had a chance had he not been expecting to be able to nose about in the home of a presumed invalid, so the audience really feels it when he meets his grim fate. When that moment came, I could have sworn my girlfriend jumped out of her skin.
  • The legacy of PSYCHO is vast and the funny thing is that its sequels are actually pretty good, unlike the majority of proper slasher flick sequels. Especially of interest are PSYCHO II (1983), which chronicles what happens when Norman is released after having spent twenty-two years in a mental institution, and PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING, in which Norman relates his disturbing origin story. Both are well worth checking out.
  • In recent years a number of classic films containing creepy and visceral material have been given ratings for their current releases on DVD, and PSYCHO has been slapped with an "R." The same rating has been applied to ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and considering the admittedly arbitrary criteria by which the MPAA determines what does or does not deserve a "restricted" label, I find it baffling that both films now bear that distinction. There's more "adult" material in ROSEMARY'S BABY, but nothing that would not garner a PG-13 were it to come out today, and other than the two murders, neither of which is gory, there is no content in PSYCHO that deserves any rating harder than a PG. And I'm willing to bet that the ratings on the DVDs serve no purpose anyway, because both are acknowledged classics and have both been run on non-cable television for ages in versions that were damned near uncut, so I very much doubt that any garden variety ten-year-old would be denied their purchase.
And with that I urge you to watch PSYCHO again, simply to be reminded of how they just don't make 'em like they used to.
Poster from the 1960 theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


No, you are not going mad. That's actually Frankenstein's monster versus a jungle girl from outer space.

When four competitors in a balloon race find themselves stranded on a mysterious island with their dog, they encounter a bizarre assortment of brainwashed zombie-men in dark shirts and cool shades, a drunk sailor who continuously laughs for no apparent reason, a shrieking disembodied vision of Dr. Frankenstein (John Carradine in a piece of footage presumably from an unreleased movie), the requisite mad science, a painful arm-paralyzing effect that happens whenever anyone mentions a location other than the island, a seemingly insane castaway (Cameron Mitchell) who's imprisoned in a cage and somehow convinced he was the inspiration for the narrator of Poe's "The Raven," the great grand-daughter of Dr. Frankenstein who is married to a Van Helsing (talk about stacking the deck), a tribe of jungle girls who are descended from space aliens, and of course the Frankenstein monster himself. If all of the information imparted in the preceding run-on sentence seems confusing, just try sitting through and making sense of the movie itself! (Yeah, good luck with that.)

FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND was the final film from schlockmeister Jerry Warren, the writer/director who also gave the screen THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD (1957) CURSE OF THE STONE HAND (1964), and the garbage classic THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966), and his career could not possibly have had a more memorably-schlocky coda. To describe the film as a confused mishmash is a colossal understatement, as absolutely nothing in the story makes even a lick of sense. It features more cross-genre gene-splicing than Ed Wood's PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) while being almost as gloriously incompetent as that black-and-white landmark of bad cinema, and it's a very interesting throwback because it looks and feels just like JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER and other films twenty years (or so) its senior. 

John Carradine's disembodied head, inexplicably shrieking "THE POWER! THE POWER!!!" while deep in the caves beneath the island. (It's kinda/sorta explained but I swear it made no sense to me.) 

There's also a distinct flavor to all of it that evokes a horror movie a seven-year-old would have made if they had the resources at their disposal. It's difficult to cite a single element that stands out as the most ridiculous example of "kid logic" in this un-scary world-class jaw-dropper, but if I had to make that call I'd go with the concept of a tribe of jungle girls clad in leopard print bikinis who are apparently the descendants of space aliens. Any excuse to provide a movie with female flesh is okay by me and jungle girls are one of my favorite things ever, but the added  aspect of having this film's jungle girls be aliens for no real narrative reason is a stroke of twisted genius, and I wish I'd thought of it first.

The cast is nothing to write home about, despite the presence of John Carradine (in stock footage only) and Cameron Mitchell, though it is worth noting that Sheila Von Frankenstein-Van Helsing (Oy, what a name!!!) is played by none other than Katherine Victor, who will forever be infamous to bad movie aficionados as the title character in THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN, a movie so bad as to actually be mesmerizing. In FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND she's just shy of sixty, and you have to admire her moxie for still being able to get away with rocking a rack-tastic outfit.

Katherine Victor, rocking a look that screams "Bea Arthur as envisioned by Russ Meyer."

Katherine Victor as seen in the infamous THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966). Was Victor the most fashion-challenged actress in trash cinema history?

As previously stated, the film makes zero sense on just about every level, so by the time the crazed climax happens, the audience has long been pummeled into submission by all the rampaging non-sensicality, so when the zombie dudes and the Frankenstein monster (who looks a hell of a lot like Phil Hartman's fondly-remembered take on the character from his SNL days) engage the balloon castaways and the outer space jungle girls in final combat nothing seems any more idiotic than anything else that unfolds during the final reel. Replete with poorly-choreographed karate, flailing jungle girls, broken lab equipment, a Halloween devil's pitchfork that inexplicably turns one of the outer space jungle girls into an outer space jungle girl vampire, an ultra-bogus disintegrator gun, a tarantula and a garter snake deployed as offensive weapons (to no great effect), a living brain in a glass bubble, and even more, the zero-budget apocalyptic finale must be seen to be disbelieved.

It's balls-out nonsensical action as scientists, ballooning enthusiasts, zombies, jungle girls from outer space, and Frankenstein engage in blistering combat!

Though not scary in the least and very much PG-rated, I cannot recommend FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND enough. It's one of those rare movies that wallows shamelessly in the fact that it's completely and utterly out of its mind and simply does not give a fuck, and in this age of bland, lifeless movies by committee, Jerry Warren's swan song stands as a monument to one man's singular, demented artistic vision. Believe me when I tell you that you've never seen anything like it, and also take my advice and have plenty of beer and other questionable "party favors" close at hand when watching it with like-minded friends and loved ones. Concrete proof that a movie doesn't have to be coherent to be entertaining as a motherfucker, FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND is a unique triumph. Someday I intend to host a drunken screening of both THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN and FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, just to see if an audience's collective mind can withstand such an assault of pure, unadulterated, back-to-back mind-rot.

An ad from the original theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 29: TROLL 2 (1990)

Have you ever seen a movie so incredibly, jaw-droppingly bad that it gave you what I like to call a "what the fuck?!!?" moment? I hadn't seen one in quite some time, but when I sat through TROLL 2 I was simply amazed by its complete and utter wretchedness. It's totally amateurish in every way but unlike the majority of bad Hollywood "product" movies, TROLL 2 is entertaining as hell and definitely worth wasting your time on.

Having absolutely nothing to do with TROLL (1986), the story, such as it is, tells the "scary" tale of a family of total non-actors who journey to the rural town of "Nilbog" (oh, puh-leeze!) and discover the place to be a nest of supremely bogus-looking goblins played by a bunch of dwarves in tatty costumes designed by Laura Gemser. Yes, dear Vaulties, the very same Laura Gemser who starred in such classics of softcore cinema as BLACK EMANUELLE (1975), EMANUELLE ON TABOO ISLAND (1976), EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977), EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE (1978), UNLEASHED PERVERSIONS OF EMANUELLE (1983), and that favorite of bad sword & sorcery fans everywhere, ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE (1982).

Laura Gemser: skin-flick mainstay and TROLL 2's special effects costume designer. No, seriously!

The family and other assorted characters (translation: "goblin fodder") must stay one step ahead of the evil goblins who, in a bizarre (and pointless) twist, are vegetarians who use a magic green goo to transform their prey into plants before they chow down on them; in one memorable instance a nerdy teen is turned into a tree and takes root on a clay pot exactly like what you'd find at a garden supply shop, only to meet his fate at the hands of the chain saw-wielding goblin queen — a character named Creedence Leonore Gielgud — who's actually a witch from Stonehenge or something.

The incredible Deborah Reed as scenery-devouring goblin queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud.

No joke, Creedence is one of the most over-the-top flagrantly poorly-acted characters in film history, and I love her. Just how bad is actress Deborah Reed in essaying this part? Let's put it this way: imagine the witch at a local junior high's Halloween haunted house that's been set up in the school's basketball court, as played by some baked hippie chick with no previous acting experience that they'd conscripted from off the street and told to go completely apeshit with her conception of "scary," and you'll only scratch the surface of the thespic anti-wonders to be had here. There's even a truly mind-boggling bit in which Creedence seduces one of a group of annoying and horny teenage boys by materializing from out of the TV the idiot was watching and manifesting as a sexy, lingerie-clad spank fantasy made flesh, complete with black stockings and an ear of corn.

"Gosh, Mrs. Robinson! Whatcha gonna do with that ear of corn?"

The two thrash about on a couch as they French through the ear of corn (?), their passion becoming so hot that the scene explodes in a shower of popcorn.

The most ludicrous seduction scene in cinema history? You decide!

No, really! I swear on my Devo albums that I'm not making up any of this! And I've neglected to mention that the boring and grossly untalented family who serve as the protagonists in this mess have a son who keeps receiving lore about goblins and advice on how to deal with them from his dead grandpa, the chief nugget of wisdom being not to eat any food proffered by the townsfolk of Nilbog (*snicker*). So when the family sits down to feast on an assortment of goodies that look like somebody overdid it with the green food dye and Play-Doh, the kid has to come up with a way to stop his famished family from eating and save them from turning into plants, so on the spot he settles on whipping it out and giving their repast a major golden shower (which we thankfully don't actually see transpire).

"How about a little butter for that corn, Sis?"

That act of micturational martyrdom results in what could be the film's signature quote, coming from the irate dad: "You can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!!!"

Those are just some of the horrendously-acted highlights in the film, and after seeing it I did a little research and was astounded (but not really all that surprised) to discover that TROLL 2 has a huge and steadily growing cult following as the "greatest bad movie ever made." That's a pretty lofty anti-accolade and I'm not sure what film would really deserve that title, but TROLL 2 is definitely among the curdled cream of the bad movie crop and is head-and-shoulders more entertaining than just about any other genuinely bad film you can name. There's even a documentary about it entitled BEST WORST MOVIE, directed by Michael Stephenson, the former child actor who so memorably whipped it out and let fly all over the family's meal in the film, and I highly recommend it. As truly awful movies go, TROLL 2 should definitely be experienced by one and all, and you just have to give it up for any movie entitled TROLL 2 that features not even one troll in its entire running time.

The stunning handiwork of former-Emanuelle Laura Gemser.

Monday, October 28, 2013


A portent of impending scares, or an invitation to yucks? You decide!

One of the universe's greatest truisms is that whenever anything is successful, a sequel is inevitable, so when William Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST (1973) raked in the samoleons at the box office (over 66 mil in early-1970's dollars, and that ain't hay!) it was only a matter of time until a followup graced the screen. But any sequel to THE EXORCIST would have been a daunting task; how to follow an instant classic that shattered onscreen taboos regarding language, religious improprieties (Ouch! That crucifix!), and truly creative cussing while maintaining the high standard of quality set by the original would have proved daunting to any writer or director, and as per the nature of sequels one would assume that the general public would have been expecting more of the same, perhaps with the blasphemous ante being cranked up a notch or two. So what to do in order to meet the public's expectations and make an assload of box office at the same time?

The answer to that question cannot be found in 1977's EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, a literally unholy mess of a film whose reputation as possibly the single worst sequel in major motion picture history seems pretty much set in stone.

Helmed by world-class oddball director John Boorman, the guy who gave us the jaw-dropping Sean Connery vehicle ZARDOZ (1974), EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC unwisely chooses to focus on the possibility that Reagan McNeal (Linda Blair, reprising the role that made her famous) may still harbor memories of the excruciating details of her exorcism some three years prior to the events of this film. Sent by the Vatican to dig up all the necessary dirt while investigating the death of the priest who performed Reagan's excorcism — Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow, reprising his role as a much younger version of his character in the original film) — Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton, looking and acting like he's in the midst of a week-long bender) journeys to Manhattan where a high school-aged Reagan lives and volunteers at a bizarro clinic that helps the mentally ill/challenged. The place is run by Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, here pulling a total one-eighty from her Oscar-winning role as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST), who breaks out this trippy-looking strobe light and bio-feedback headsets that looked like something you'd have found in a head shop at the time and uses it to hypnotize Reagan into remembering her forgotten experience of demonic possession. That turns out to be a bad idea because the second Reagan's fully under she starts sounding like Lucille Ball during her autumn years, her face gets all evil and fucked-up-looking, and the demon identifies itself as Pazuzu, a malevolent ancient Assyrian wind spirit and "one of the lords of the air."

Whoa, dude! Trippy! But not scary.

As of that point the film nosedives into a nigh-incomprehensible mess of questioned faith, misguided attempts at psychedelia, bullshit psychobabble, flashabcks to Father Merrin's first exorcism, all manner of bizarre mystic visions and mumbo-jumbo, accented with Linda Blair performing in an utterly awful chorus line production of "Lullaby of Broadway," and the unforgettable sight of James Earl Jones as an African holy man in a ridiculous locust costume. It all culminates in a confusing fistfight between Father Lamont and Pazuzu in the form of Reagan's evil twin, a bout settled when the good Reagan arrives and fends off a swarm of demonically-controlled locusts by imitating the movements made by Jones' character during his youth as he used a bull-roarer to drive the evil bugs from his village, all while father Lamont literally tears out Pazuzu's heart.

Now this is what the audience craved to see: Linda Blair battling locusts.

A lot more crazy shit happens, and if any of this sounds coherent, let me assure you that it isn't. When I first saw EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC during its network television premiere — the night after THE EXORCIST, so the edited-for-TV version of that was fresh in my mind — I watched it with my mom, and the two of us nearly laughed ourselves to death. To this day we can still crack each other up with random quotes from the film ("Pazuzu will help me find Kokumo!!!"), and while it is an unmitigated turd storm, I must confess to finding it entertaining as hell, and loaded to the gills with visuals that bring to mind Alejandro Jodorowsky in his more accessible moments. Boorman's visual imagination was given free reign, and the film is replete with beautiful and bizarre imagery and gorgeous cinematography. Too bad there wasn't a script good enough to properly complement Boorman's vision.

Perhaps the saddest thing about EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is that when it is carefully examined, there are the building blocks for what could have been a genuinely good and scary film that could have used the original flick as a starting point and really run with some of the story's themes. My two major points on this are as follows:
  • The first thing they should have done was lose Reagan entirely; she was successfully rid of demonic influence at the end of the first story, and not much the worse for wear thanks to having psychologically blocked out the entire hellish experience. By bringing her back when her arc was clearly over and done with for audiences who demand more of the same — or at the behest of studio execs who can't think beyond the immediately familiar — , the film renders Father Merrin's heroic efforts and sacrifice, as well as Father Karras's, without meaning or impact, pissing all over the power of Catholicism that supposedly saved Reagan's soul. And when we find out that demons like Pazuzu run around possessing folks like Reagan because they are so pure and good that they have what amounts to superpowers, it throws a cheesy X-Men kind of vibe over the proceedings.
  • The film should have focused on Father Lamont's investigative efforts and his own crisis of faith in the face of the returned Pazuzu. (Who, by the way, was not identified in the original, but was implied to be the Devil himself; by having Pazuzu turn out to be pretty much just a badassed grasshopper, his terror level is considerably diminished.) Lamont's tracing of Kokumo, the kid long ago exorcised by Merrin, could have gone down many fascinating and potentially terrifying avenues, all of which could have been well served by Boorman's imagination. The interaction between the Christian, specifically Catholic, powers that be and their opposite numbers has fueled horror stories from day one, and it wouldn't have taken too much effort to have come up with a great Campbellish "hero's journey" for Lamont that would have seen him lose his faith only to have it restored in the aftermath of the throwdown with Pazuzu. The long-running Vertigo comics series HELLBLAZER pulled off many such stories as a matter of course, so there's really no excuse, especially when tons of money are thrown into such a project (yes, I know HELLBLAZER was bastardized up the ass for the awful CONSTANTINE movie, so I won't even go there).
So, yes, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is a spectacular misfire, but there's too much good material to be found amidst this cinematic dog's breakfast to fully write it off as one of the worst films ever made. I've certainly seen far worse, both from low-budget schlockmeisters like Al Adamson and from the major studios, and unlike many other bad films, at least EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC entertained the crap out of me, something I cannot say about would-be blockbusters like SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, PEARL HARBOR, or LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. Give EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC a second chance, and this time while you're laughing take note of the cool shit it possesses (sorry) and grieve for could have been a glorious entry in the horror genre.

Poster for the original theatrical release.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


The things we do for love...

Sure, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE is a classic example of a bad movie, but what a fucking great bad movie it is! If you appreciate the sleazy in the same way I do, especially sleaze with a distinctly 1950's flavor, there's a lot to savor in this classic of epic bad taste. It's become something of a born-again cult classic since it was lampooned on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 twenty years ago and the treatment it got there was indeed hilarious, but I argue that the film should be experienced on its own merits. It's like the cinematic equivalent of a lurid, ultra-trashy pulp novel found in a filthy bus depot at Jesus o'clock in the morning, only with the added bonus of the horror angle thrown in alongside the lascivious content.

Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a brilliant but unorthodox surgeon who gets into an horrific car accident while out driving with his fiancee, Jan (Virginia Leith). Cortner survives relatively unscathed but Jan is decapitated, so Cortner bundles up her noggin and takes it home to his lab, where he promptly places Jan's severed head in a tray of life-giving fluids and hooks her up to some nifty wires and tubes. Aided by his malformed assistant (Leslie Daniels), the doctor keeps Jan's head alive — and she's somehow able to speak, despite intact vocal chords or lungs with which to produce breath — despite her frequent entreaties to be allowed to die, and in no time he hits the streets of the nearby inner city to find a new body for his love. So what if some innocent woman has to die so he can bring Jan back?

Jan in the pan.

And not just any female body will do for Cortner's sinister purpose. He cruises shady areas and strip joints, prowling for a stacked figure right out of the classic 1950's Jayne Mansfield mold, and he's quite thorough in his search. (It's beyond morally reprehensible, but I can see where's coming from.)

Dr. Cortner does some window shopping.

After striking out with a street pickup and two strippers (who get into a ludicrously gratuitous cat fight), Cortner sets his sights on a raven-haired lovely (Adele Lamont) who poses as a model for an Irving Klaw-style camera club, creepily worming his way into her trust by promising to fix her scarred visage with his miraculous plastic surgery skills. (She hides the scarring by draping her long hair over the left side of her face.) Desperate to look normal, the model accepts Cortner's offer and ends up drugged and bound for his basement operating table.

From girlie-shot model to unwilling replacement body for a severed head.

But while all of this is going on, Cortner's selfish obsession allows him to completely ignore Jan's growing hatred for her fiancee because he won't hear her pleas to be humanely put out of her unnatural misery. While Cortner's away prowling the street for nubile flesh, Jan plots vengeance while learning to telepathically communicate with the cobbled-together monstrosity that Cortner keeps locked up behind a thick door in the basement, which sets in motion the narrative's satisfyingly gory climax.

Shot in 1959, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE — titled THE HEAD THAT WOULDN'T DIE in some prints — didn't see release until 1962. I have no idea why, but I like thinking that it was simply just too damned sleazy to be unleashed onto the screen at the ass-end of the 1950's. Not only is the presentation of the story's material a bit more extreme than usual for its era, the movie also notably possesses a vibe that evokes sweat, greasiness, the choking miasma of stale cigarettes in a closed back room poker game, and the feeling that one is watching the proceedings through the haze of a three-day bender fueled by the cheapest of tequilas. The ending also delivers like few other American-made horror flicks of its vintage, and I'm intentionally not telling you what happens so you can marvel at it like I did when first seeing it at age nine. THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE is, in my humble opinion, the perfect gene-splicing of Fifties-era exploitation and E.C. Comics-style horror, and as such it is a nasty little treasure.
Poster from the original theatrical release.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2013-Day 26: PEEPING TOM (1960)

For years I’d held the opinion that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece PSYCHO was not only the prototype for the slasher movie genre, but also that it was the best of the many psychological horror films featuring a creepy, sexually fucked up protagonist.

Allow me to state right here and now that I was dead wrong.

A few years back, I made my way through some of the ever-growing stack of movies on DVD that threatens to bury me here in the Vault, and I sat through a film that I last watched during my “lost” (read “stoned out of my goddamned mind”) years, but I remembered it for its basic plot despite not being in any fair shape to judge. Now that I’ve seen it with a clear mind, I would like to direct any of you who have not encountered it to Michael (THE RED SHOES) Powell’s PEEPING TOM, an unjustly maligned and reviled work that met a sorry fate and languished in semi-obscurity before getting a shot in the arm from very vocal fan Martin Scorsese.

Sharing a few themes with PSYCHO — yet pre-dating it by some three months — and disturbing the living shit out of just about everyone who saw it when it came out, I have to admit that it’s a much better film than its American-made contemporary in many ways; not an easy thing for me to say, because PSYCHO was my favorite Hitchcock work for much of my life (only recently getting edged out by FRENZY, PSYCHO having lost much of its impact for me since its big shocks have now entered the pop culture lexicon, neutered by nearly fifty years of references and parody).

PEEPING TOM tells the story of Mark (Carl Boehm), a creepy focus puller at a movie studio who sidelines as a photographer for a smalltime pornography racket operating out of a local newsagent’s. 
Thanks to a highly questionable series of endlessly filmed experiments that he endured through childhood at the hands of his uncaring and twisted psychologist father, Mark is socially maladjusted (to say the very least) and obsessed with the act of “looking,” a conditioning that allows him to be able to deal with the world only when perceived through the camera’s lens. Taking a handheld camera with him wherever he goes, Mark embarks on a quest to document the human fear reaction, coldly murdering women with a blade concealed in one of the legs of his camera’s tripod, capturing their sheer terror as they are fatally penetrated by his surrogate phallus. 

Having inherited his father’s spacious house and acting as landlord, Mark occupies the upper floor, a space filled with his father’s books on his studies and a fully equipped film studio, complete with dark room and screening area. Mark spends all of his off time in his film lab, watching the footage of his victims and slowly editing it into a documentary of the darkest order. The rest of the house is rented to various boarders, including Helen (Anna Massey), a friendly girl whom Mark meets as he spies upon her twenty-first birthday party through the window.

Helen (Anna Massey) unwittingly enters the world of a madman (Carl Boehm).

The two develop a friendship that blossoms into a sweet relationship, the first normal one Mark has ever had, but Mark is very much aware his own madness and calmly accepts that it’s only a matter of time until the police catch up with him. The story dovetails into a deeply disturbing tragedy that leaves viewers drained by just how bleak, sick, and sordid it all is, all factors that lead to PEEPING TOM being shot down in flames by critics and defenders of common decency all over Britain when it was released some fifty-three years ago.

Long known for its stringent censorship of films and a general snobbish uptightness when it came to the more visceral elements of horror, the British film industry and critical body deemed PEEPING TOM to be a morally bankrupt and vile bit of business, utterly crucifying it with scathing reviews and withdrawing it from release after a mere two weeks in theaters, a backlash that virtually destroyed director Powell’s career. The British press spared no vitriol in the pillorying of the movie, as seen in these quotes from contemporary reviews:

"The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing" 
-Isabel Quigly, The Spectator 

"I don't propose to name the players in this beastly picture" 
-C.A. Lejeune, The Observer

"sadism, sex and the exploitation of human degradation”
-Leonard Mosley, Daily Express 

"from its slumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil" 
-Nina Hibbin, Daily Worker

“As a shocker, it succeeds only in being nauseating for the sake of nausea. This is a sick film - sick and nasty.”
-Derek Monsey, Sunday Express

“However intriguing psychologically, the film is frankly beastly. De Sade at least veiled his relish with pretensions to being a moralist. It might have been even worse but for the discreet playing of Carl Boehme (sic) in the main role.”
-David Robinson, Financial Times

“This account of a young psychopath (Carl Boehm) who butchers girls with an ingenious killer-camera, then watches their last moments on a home screen, is not only drivel, it is crude unhealthy sensation at its worst. A sad discredit to a fine producer's reputation, - and I was appalled to find such delightful artists as Moira Shearer and Anna Massey mixed up in this sickly mess.”
-reviewer unknown, Sunday Dispatch

“Given some of the home-grown films we have had lately it's hard not to sound repetitively querulous. What-are-we-coming-to questions are apt to sound nannyish, like complaints about muddy boots, but after a film like Peeping Tom ('X' Certificate) it's a question to ask quite straight. What are we coming to, what sort of people are we in this country, to make, or see, or seem to want (so that it gets made) a film like this?”
-Isobel Quigley, The Spectator

“The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.”
-Derek Hill, The Tribune

The reasons why the film offended so mightily during its initial run are many and have been discussed in much detail by film scholars far more qualified than Yer Bunche, but I’ll attempt to provide a short list of possible causes:

• The film makes the viewer aware of cinema as a voyeuristic act, using it to make us complicit in Mark’s crimes by allowing us to see them as they unfold, culminating in the “money shot” of his victims’ horror as seen from his P.O.V. through his camera’s viewfinder.

This approach would be appropriated to much lesser artistic effect in many of the slasher films that followed in the wake of the box office garnered by FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), a film concerned with nothing other than depicting gory murders with a bare minimum of plot upon which to hang the carnage. Back in 1960 nothing like PEEPING TOM had ever been seen before, and its borderline-pornographic approach to the murders was considered especially distasteful.

• Unlike Norman Bates in PSYCHO, the audience knows from the beginning that Mark is an insane killer, and the entire film makes us intimate with the causes of his madness, revealing  a lonely, damaged young man who has little hope for a healthy emotional life until Helen enters his world. Mark is not a ravening madman by any means, but is quite thoughtful and even artistic, elements not usually found in such characters, and as we get to know and understand him we feel a great deal of sympathy for him. Aware as he is of his deep psychosis, Mark even considers going in for psychoanalysis thanks to Helen’s influence in drawing him out into the world at large, proving he is not beyond some kind of redemption. The idea of having sympathy for a twisted, somewhat perverted murderer was pretty much unheard of in 1960, and in a British film such a notion was unthinkable.

• PEEPING TOM wallows in voyeurism, and that aspect is ripe for the depiction of Mark’s work as a porn photographer. Working in a cheesy studio that would have made Irving Klaw laugh his ass off, Mark shoots his subjects with a clinical detachment, only moved by one model’s disfiguring harelip and the inevitability of shooting another for his lethal home movie. The sequences in the studio reek of sadness, the boredom found during photo shoots, and a palpable sleaziness that must have been quite provocative in 1960, especially the bit with famous 1950’s/1960’s nude model and pinup girl Pamela Green splayed out for Mark’s camera before she meets her off-camera demise. That scene was shot in a negligee-clad version and one featuring Green’s all-natural awesomeness, the latter version supposedly being the first female nude shot in a British film not aimed at the “naturist” market.

The stunning Pamela Green as the ill-fated Millie.

The first female nude shot in mainstream British film.

• The message of “your parents sure can fuck you up” probably wasn’t a crowd pleaser back in the days.

• The symbolic link between Mark’s camera and stiletto tripod and his warped sexuality is uber-Freudian and more than a bit obvious, and the camera as murderous cock imagery is pretty damned sleazy, no matter how utterly appropriate for the story. After seeing PEEPING TOM again, I very much doubt that I’ll ever look at my own camera the same way again.

The extent to which we are given admission to Mark’s psyche really amps up the film’s twitchy, somewhat anxious tone, whereas in PSYCHO we don’t learn much about Norman Bates’ issues until the big reveal during the last five minutes, after which we’re given a weak bit of psychoanalytical explanation that comes across as “Here’s some psychobabble to excuse the violence and twisted, pervy shit you just sat through.” That explanation felt like it was added almost as an afterthought and doesn’t give anywhere near the rich detail that made Mark a far more rounded and human character than Norman, but whatever the case PSYCHO went on to box office success and a solid place in film history as the cross-dressing granddaddy of the stalk-and-slash school of horror while PEEPING TOM remained largely unseen and unappreciated for far too long. Now available in a terrific Criterion edition, I can’t recommend this film highly enough, especially to students of the slasher genre.

PEEPING TOM proves that the lurid nature of the field’s material can yield a classic if the elements of a quality script, a talented cast, and a director who isn’t afraid to “go there” with his subject are in place, and that was certainly the case here. Definitely not a feel-good movie, do yourself the favor and rent this very sick puppy immediately. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Poster for the original theatrical release.