Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Mid-week Movie Break: Summer Drive-In Spectacular!

It’s hot! It’s wet! No, it’s not a Blowfly song, it’s summer (more or less)! What do we do in the summer? We pile in the car and head down to the drive-in! Or we used to. I am one of the fortunate ones who is still able to partake in this particularly American pastime, as the Vali-Hi is literally just eight miles up the interstate from me! True, the only films available to see at the drive-in these days are first run features like three hour Marvel Comics pictures or computer animated children’s features, but sometimes it’s worth sitting through a Shrek or an Iron Man 3 just for the experience. 

Not to step on the toes of the mighty Joe Bob Briggs, I thought, in celebration of the summer, I’d do an ode to the drive-in days of yore, much appreciated by Ichibunnies and nostalgia aficionados alike; back when there would be dusk-til-dawn show-o-ramas featuring quickie horror and sci-fi pictures. I’ve chosen a double feature of films that are easily accessible to watch from the comfort of your own home; free of the mosquitos, devoid of the hazard of the idiot in his monster-sized diesel guzzler pulling in to the front row spot ahead of you and blocking the screen, and no need to find D-cells for that old radio to tune in the audio.

Don’t worry, I’ll control myself and keep it brief.

Our first feature takes us out onto the Caribbean Sea and to the sunny beaches of South America. Watch out, there’s a commotion in the ocean, and it ain’t no giant clam! It’s Roger Corman’s 1961 heist/secret agent/comedy/monster picture Creature From The Haunted Sea!  Describing the film won’t do it any favors, and showing a picture of the monster, if you aren’t familiar already, likely won’t entice you to watch it, but subjectively speaking I find it an enjoyable watch.
Renzo and Mary-Belle smooch, unaware of the
creature waiting to strike.

To boil it down, the political coup in Cuba that put Castro into power has run the old guard out. A general, Tostada, and a team of soldiers, make a deal with shady nightclub owner and gangster Renzo Capetto to smuggle the troops and a chunk of the Cuban treasury off of the island. Renzo and his gang of oddball miscreants devise a plan to kill off the Cubans when the boat hits the water, using the guise of a phony sea monster, planning to keep the gold for themselves. Turns out, much to everyone’s chagrin, that there is in fact a real sea monster (of sorts) who has been tailing them, and he’s hungry. Thrown into the mix, our narrator and guide through this oddball madness, is a secret agent, real name XK150. He loses sight of his mission to track Renzo’s path across the water and coordinate his capture by authorities when he falls for Renzo’s gun moll Mary-Belle Monahan.

Despite being what could be Roger Corman’s most slap-dash production, Creature From The Haunted Sea has a heavy vein of Naked Gun-esque humor to it. I don’t know if David Zucker was a Corman aficionado or not, but there are certainly parallels to the sight gags and droll humor here. Of interest to note is that Agent XK150 is played by none other than Robert Towne, screenwriter and filmmaker who wrote the screenplays for Chinatown and Shampoo.

You can watch the trailer here and the film here.

But wait, there’s more! For our second feature, let’s vacation to the sweltering small town of Furnace Flats. Crazy recluse Pete Jenson slashes a goat and then himself one night, then smears the blood around a hexagon on the floor of his ramshackle cabin. He’s made a deal with the devil! 

Shortly after, a young man named Nick Richards appears in town. He claims to be Pete’s nephew, settling in town to go through Pete’s, erm, estate. Anyhow he makes himself real friendly to the five or six folks who seem to inhabit the desert town, but they start to get real suspicious of this so-called Nick when they notice he doesn’t seem to sweat a single drop, regardless of how hot the weather gets. Well, things go awry and a series of animal attacks leave the citizens of town rattled and/or dead. Turns out Nick isn’t who he says he is…. The film is a solid little thriller that seems like it could have been an episode of the Boris Karloff series Thriller. Despite some massive plot holes, it’s a great watch that would fit right in on Svengoolie. And if you haven't seen the film, be it known up front that there is no footage of a nude woman astride a centaur anywhere in it.

The film was made in 1958, but was released in 1961 when sold to Roger Corman’s Filmgroup Releasing company. It was put on a double bill with, you guessed it, Creature From The Haunted Sea. Devil’s Partner was directed by Charles R. Rondeau who directed numerous episodes of some of the greatest television shows in tv history, including Batman, Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West, Surfside 6 and more. The amazing soundtrack here is composed by frequent Corman collaborator Ronald Stein, and the great news is the tunes are now available to purchase and download through various digital music channels. Take a listen here.

You can watch the trailer here or the film here. Or, if so inclined, can purchase a dvd with all kinds of drive-in ephemera on it from Sinister Cinema here. This isn’t a sponsored nod, I’m simply directing you towards a product that I have personally enjoyed, from a great small business that I have solicited.

I left out a wealth of backstory and personnel bio info to keep things relatively compact here. The main thing is to enjoy the films. If you want to set up an in-home double feature for yourself, with all of the drive-in trappings, here are some intermission reels to add to the fun. Stay safe and don't forget the popcorn!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Mid-Week Movie Break: Black Tight Killers

Biff! Bang! Pow! All we’re missing are the flashing onomatopoeia title cards in this swinging 1966 time capsule of the grooviest aspects of the mid-60’s pop culture mania, for this week’s Mid-Week Movie Break. This week we highlight the tongue-in-cheek spectacle Black Tight Killers, starring Akira Kobayashi and Chieko Matsubara.
Screen grab showcasing some of the oddball club interiors seen in the film.

Sandwiched between the tail end of the Nikkatsu noir movies of the 1960’s, and the first wave of the Pinky Violence exploitation films on the 1970’s, Black Tight Killers (Ore ni Sawaru to Abunaize) is a pop art spectacle well worth the time it takes to seek it out.  For a taste of what’s in store for you, you can watch the trailer here.

Akira Kobayashi 45 on Colombia
Our hero (Kobayashi) is a combat photographer named Hondo. Hondo is enchanted by a young stewardess named Yuriko (Matsubara) during his flight back home from a recent assignment, and she concedes to have dinner with him. The date doesn’t end well, as Yuriko is kidnapped and Hondo is framed for the death of a gangster. The real killers? A group of women in black tights and jackets with knives hidden in their hair brushes; the titular Black Tight Killers! It appears Yuriko is a marked woman, as a coalition of hoods–formed by American mafioso and Japanese yakuza–are after her to get their hands on some gold her father may have stolen and hidden away during WWII. As Hondo tries to clear himself with the police and track down the missing Yuriko, he’s constantly hindered, and helped, by the group of assassins who employ such bizarre weaponry as exploding golf balls, chewing gum bullets to spit into the eyes of their enemies, deadly tape measures, and 45rpm records thrown like throwing stars. And get this, when they aren’t out foiling Hondo or knocking off gangsters, the ladies moonlight as a troupe of go-go dancers in a crazy rock club! What is their part in all of this madness? Watch and find out!

Take all of the best camp elements of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., James Bond and Batman, throw in some Takeshi Terauchi surf guitar and Japanese Group Sounds 45s, some secret agent jazz, a little skin (though no visible nudity), go-go dancing film breaks, blend well, then you have the crazy concoction that is Black Tight Killers. Want more proof of the candy colored madness that awaits you? Watch this dream sequence from the film (not the original music, though)! It’s like The’s got their own girl gang flick!

The Black Tight Killers in a masked go-go dance frenzy
The film was directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, who went on to direct Alleycat Rock: Female Boss, about warring female biker gangs, and a number of the aforementioned Pinky Violence films. Lead actor Akira Kobayashi did some film and television work through the early 1970s, was a popular crooner for a while, including the title tracks to a number of his films, then became a professional golfer. Actress Chieko Matsubara was spotted at a beauty contest and has since starred in over 115 films, including the classic Tokyo Drifter which came out the same year as our feature, and is still working today. She also apparently did some crooning of her own, as suggested by the sleeve pictured below. She released some singles in he late 60s on Columbia. The amazing soundtrack is provided by prolific film and television composer Naozumi Yamamoto, and as far as I can tell, is not available in any format, which is a damn shame.
Note the Goldfinger-esque gold-painted dancers. This is a plot point in how
the crooks intend to do away with Yuriko.
Chieko Matsubara 45 for Colombia Records.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Mid-Week Movie Break: The Adventures Of The Masked Phantom

“Maybe he’s got something on his chin he can’t erase/ and that’s why he wears that silly mask upon his face.…” Yes, the anthem our cloaked cowpoke The Masked Phantom is saddled with (joke intended) is more mockery than tribute, but fun all the same. This week’s Mid-Week Movie Break features a caped cowboy avenger lodged firmly somewhere between The Lone Ranger and The Shadow, and the only starring vehicle for one-time stunt pilot Monte ‘Alamo’ Rawlins, an aw-shucks John Wayne wannabe playing the part of a drifter named “Alamo” and the titular hero.

 The plot involves some nefarious goings-on at an ore mine owned and operated by young Stan Barton and his grandma Mary. Stan’s an upstanding, virtuous character, but his silent partner Robert Murdock, a shady business man from “back East”, has secretly taken control of the outfit, laundering stolen gold from his friends back home and mixing it with the ore mined from the Barton excavation site. The feds are on the track of the crooks, and with Murdock being a “silent” partner, all roads lead to Stan for the frame-up. Barton intends to hit the road and leave Stan holding the bag, but then fate lends a hand by having Alamo and his sidekick Boots The Wonder Dog (also billed as Boots The Human Dog) wander into the valley to intervene. Alamo steps in during a shootout between Stan and Murdock’s hired hands after the reveal of Murdock’s misdeeds. Stan and Alamo lose each other in the proceeding fracas, but Alamo makes his way to the Barton ranch where a surly Granny tells him of the legend of The Masked Phantom, a do-gooder who would throw a knife with a death’s head carved into the handle, bringing justice to a lawless valley years back. Alamo decides to take up the mantle of The Phantom to try and take down Murdock’s gang, believing that criminals are “a superstitious lot” (seems I’ve heard that somewhere before). With the help of crooning cowhand Tooney and gyrating goofball Dumpy, Alamo goes on a knife-throwing rampage to right all wrongs before trotting off into the sunset again. This was clearly staged as the hopeful first entry in a series of films for Alamo and his roving pals Dumpy and Tooney, but alas it wasn’t to be.

George Douglas as Sheriff Dubbitt (right) in Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman
Monte 'Alamo' Rawlins (left) and Tooney (Art Davis, billed as Larry Mason)
with Boots the Wonder Dog, who's just retrieved the Phantom's knife.

The Adventures Of The Masked Phantom is a 1939 low budget oater from the days of quickie b-westerns, produced by B.F. Zeidman Productions Ltd, who made a slew of quick exploitation pictures between 1922 and 1939. There are plot holes you could build a U-Store-It in, but the momentum here is pulp adventure fun, so leave reason under the sofa and enjoy the ride. I say that The Masked Phantom is lodged somewhere between The Lone Ranger and The Shadow because like The Lone Ranger, our hero wears a mask and dispenses some six-gun justice on dastardly evildoers, but his main offensive seems to be playing on the fear of the legend of The Phantom itself. The legend goes if you see the knife of The Phantom, you have twelve hours to live, so a good deal of Alamo’s time using the guise of our cloaked character seems to be dedicated to throwing knives at crowded boardwalks and cackling loudly to spook Murdock and his goons. 

Betty Burgess - photo from Univ. of Washington archives.
As stated above, Monte Rawlins was a stunt pilot from Washington who eventually made his way to Hollywood to try his hand at acting. He did some aerial stunt work and played a couple uncredited bit parts as cowhands until cast here in his lone starring role. Shorty after The Adventures Of The Masked Phantom he joined the Marine Corps during WWII, then became a sound engineer for poverty row production house Monogram Pictures and Disney Studios. Our crooning cowhand Tooney was played by b-western stalwart Art Davis who played largely uncredited roles in films like Border G-Man and Code Of The Cactus. Sadly, despite a majority of his roles being musical, I’ve yet to find evidence that he actually recorded any music. If anyone can provide anything that suggests otherwise, I’d be greatly interested in hearing it. Our comic relief Dumpy is played by bit part actor and skilled dancer Sonny Lamont; you can see him hot footin’ it in MGM’s A Letter for Evie with Marsha Hunt and John Carroll, as well as in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Baddie Murdock is played by actor George Douglas, the member of the cast list who has the most credits to his name, including parts in Ichiban friendly favorites like Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman (as Sheriff Dubbitt) and The Colossus Of New York. Stan is played by Matty Kemp, actor and producer who later became the caretaker of the estate of actress Mary Pickford. Stan’s hardly utilized love interest Carol is played by actress Betty Burgess, whose white bra is seen burning through her sweater the entire picture. You’d think someone would’ve pointed that out to her, but with a sweater so tight that it looks like you’d need a potato peeler to remove it, maybe there just wasn’t time for a wardrobe change. The picture was directed by Charles Abbott, who directed only one other picture, another b-western called The Fighting Texan, two years prior. My favorite character, Granny, played by Dot Karroll in her only film role, sings a song called “A Rip Snortin’ Two Gun Gal” while firing off a pair of pistols in the living room. That wasn’t pressed to 78 either, unfortunately, but that same year Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers recorded a version for Okeh, and you now have the privilege of hearing it here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Mid-Week Movie Break: The Monster Of Piedras Blancas

This week we utilize our Mid-Week Movie Break to hit the beach! Not the sunny, surfer-filled beaches of Hawaii, Southern California, or Lake City, MN,  but the craggy, brackish lighthouse property on the coastal outskirts of Piedras Blancas, CA. Get your baggies on and remember — six feet apart!

A page from issue 18 of The Monster Times,
spotlighting TMOPB.
The Monster Of Piedras Blancas is a sleepy little creature feature produced by Vanwick Productions, and is largely the culmination of favors called in by producer Jack Kevan, a makeup specialist and effects engineer who worked under the infamous Bud Westmore at Universal. You can watch the trailer here, or the entire picture here. It features a bevy of familiar faces from the world of 1950s television and b-film celluloid, like Les Tremayne (The Angry Red Planet, The Monolith Monsters) and Forrest Lewis (The Thing That Couldn’t Die), and features some shocking-for-its-time gore, especially when compared to what companies like AIP and Universal-International were putting out concurrently. The story hinges on a persnickety lighthouse keeper named Sturges forming a relationship with a legendary sea monster after his wife passes away. Lonely and isolated, Sturges (John Harmon, veteran radio, television and film actor who has appeared in key episodes of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Rifleman and others) discovers that the rumored monster is real and starts to leave meat scraps for it. The monster grows dependent on Sturges’s offerings, so much so that years later when Sturges arrives at the local grocer’s store a day late and doesn’t get the scraps, the monster goes on a  killing spree. In the mix to add to the drama is Sturges’s daughter Lucille, back from college for the summer, and her new beau, a young scientist simply named Fred.

The opening shot to the Flipper episode "Flipper's Monster".
Our young protagonists Fred and Lucille, simply credited as “The Boy” and “The Girl”, are played by Jeanne Carmen and Don Sullivan. Carmen was a pinup queen and actress who starred with Jayne Mansfield in The Untamed Youth and was a familiar face within the pages of men’s magazines of the time. She was also an uncredited stripper in the Betty Page burlesque film Striporama and was the first female trick-shot golfer. You can hear her tell it all here. Yes, it would be criminal to neglect the fact that she was also in a Three Stooges short, “A Merry Mix-Up”, even if it was during the waning Joe Besser years. Sullivan is probably better known for his starring role in the teens vs. monster cult classic The Giant Gila Monster, which came out the same year. We get to hear Don rock out in Gila Monster with his ukulele, crooning “The Mushroom Song,” which you can see/hear here.  Carmen allegedly had some ties to the Kennedys and the mob and was advised to make herself scarce after Marilyn Monroe turned up dead, eventually moving to Arizona where she lived in obscurity for decades. Sullivan left the entertainment business to become a chemist and entrepreneur for the cosmetic hair care industry. 
Jeanne Carmen in a publicity still from The Three Stooges short A Merry Mix-Up.
Carmen is third from the left, cuddling up to Joe Besser.

The picture was produced by Jack Kevan and production partner Irvin Berwick, a one-time dialog editor for Columbia who had worked with William Castle and Jack Arnold, so he was already entrenched in the ways of the low budget sci-fi/horror/monster movie. Tired of working in obscurity in largely thankless and uncredited roles for the studios, Kevan and Berwick decided to try their hand at becoming independent producers, hence Vanwick Productions. The picture was made for around $29,000 with a number of favors and at-cost help being utilized from Kevan’s old connections at Universal. To my knowledge the only other picture Vanwick Productions ever had a hand in producing is a seedy 1966 drama called The Street Is My Beat, filmed in Texas. Kevan and Berwick did work together again however on pictures like Crown International’s The 7th Commandment (1961).

Don Sullivan on his book The Perfect Look:
Don Sullivan's Hair Care Secrets
Jack Kevan had helped develop the Gill-man suit for the Creature From The Black Lagoon and the applications for the titular creatures in The Mole People; elements of both were used in the Piedras Blancas monster costume, as well as pieces from the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth. The Piedras Blancas suit surfaced again years later in the 1965 Flipper tv series episode “Flipper’s Monster”, where Flipper comes across a low-budget monster movie production. The episode was directed by none other than Ricou Browning, the man who wore the Gill-man suit for the underwater shots in Creature From The Black Lagoon and can be seen here. The Monster Of Piedras Blancas was directed by Berwick, whose son Wayne makes an appearance as the little boy who finds the headless grocer. The film is ably acted for the most part. If anything it’s really the pacing that keeps it from being something special, which by no means should imply that it’s unwatchable. It’s a by-the-numbers late 1950s low budget monster movie which tries to make up for its short changing you on action with a mild dose of gore vis-a-vis some decapitated heads. Berwick went on to direct low budget pictures like Strange Compulsion, Malibu High and Hitch Hike To Hell through the early 1980s. Kevan, who helped with makeup effects on everything from The Wizard of Oz to Abbott And Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde to The Incredible Shrinking Man, seems to have abandoned the Hollywood game for the most part after The Monster Of Piedras Blancas and by the mid-sixties had joined Don Sullivan in the cosmetics field, as indicated by this 1965 article (below) from the Honolulu Star Bulletin.

Honolulu Star Bulletin article highlighting the career of Jack Kevan.
Though the film was largely forgotten after it’s release, it’s a fun little foam rubber monster romp that has endured mostly as an iconic still image of the titular monster brandishing one of the aforementioned severed heads, featured regularly in monster magazines of the 1960s and 70s, forcing itself onto the must-see lists of a whole generation of monster kids who were probably unlikely to find it before the advent of home video, save in a truncated 8mm print released to the consumer market. Punk aficionados will recognize the famous still of the monster and rubber head from the cover of the Angry Samoans’s 1982 debut LP “Back From Samoa”. 
Packaging of the Super 8 home movie version of
The Monster of Piedras Blancas.

While The Monster Of Piedras Blancas isn’t as strong a fish-man monster film as even the weakest of the Universal Creature From The Black Lagoon trilogy, nor nearly as revered a cult classic as Del Tenney’s The Horror Of Party Beach, I still recommend a viewing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Mid-week Movie Break

Hi there! My name is Josh and I’ve been invited to contribute a regular film feature to the mighty WFMU Ichiban blog! My goal is to do a regular weekly focus on great pop cultural artifacts from the early days of cinema through the early 1970s, likely regularly featuring the names and faces found indelibly revered on the mighty Rex’s Fool's Paradise memorial playlists.

I figured I’d utilize my inaugural post to focus on something we could all use a little of right now, and that’s levity. We’ll get to the rubber monsters, masked adventurers and secret agents later, but right now I’d like to highlight a comedy classic that works two-fold with the modus operandi of this here music-talky blog, which is highlighting great ephemera from the early half of the previous century, and providing a musical element that can be appreciated as an obscure piece of pop music history as well. The feature in question is Abbott And Costello’s Comin’ Round The Mountain; the 1951 Universal feature that follows their meeting the Invisible Man, and prefaces their being Lost In Alaska. 

Margaret Hamilton as witch Aunt Huddy in
Comin' Round The Mountain

In Comin’ Round The Mountain, Bud Abbott plays not-quite-adept talent agent Al Stewart, and Lou Costello plays bumbling would-be escape artist Wilbert Smith. When Wilbert’s debut escape attempt goes awry, Stewart’s one lucky break, singer Dorothy McCoy, realizes that Wilbert is a member of her family, the McCoy clan of Kentucky—an old hill folk family that has claim to a lost treasure secreted by clan patriarch Squeeze Box McCoy. Dorothy and the boys head back to the hills to stake a claim on the hidden treasure. In the interim, the cast runs afoul of a love potion concocted by show-stealing hill witch Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz, 13 Ghosts), forced marriages, and reigniting a feud between the McCoy clan and their rivals, the Winfields, lead by Glenn Strange in the hillified role of Devil Dan. Obviously some of the Abbott and Costello routines in the picture haven’t aged well in the eye of modern sensibilities, and the played-for-laughs running theme of child brides will likely cause some clenched teeth, but overall the humor still stands strong. The hillbilly kinfolk are portrayed in the broadest Li’l Abner stereotypes this side of an episode of Hee-Haw; this isn't a Herschell Gordon Lewis production. Think torso-long beards, shapeless felt hats and moonshine jugs corked with corn cobs. There are numerous musical pieces by co-star Dorothy Shay "The Park Avenue Hillbillie" and they are fantastic in the Spike Jones / Stan Freberg vein of humorous novelty numbers. The film also features some other recognizable faces, including character actor and dialectician Robert Easton (The Giant Spider Invasion) and singer/actress Shaye Cogan, who can be seen/heard singing “Pathway To Sin” in the 1957 Alan Freed vehicle Mr. Rock ’n’ Roll here. She also starred again with Abbott And Costello the following year in the 1952 color feature Jack And The Beanstalk

Poster for a double bill of Comin' Round The Mountain paired with the 1948
Marjorie Main, Percy Kilbride (not as Ma & Pa Kettle) film Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin'.

Co-star Dorothy Shay (born Sims) had a rather ironic career trajectory: born in Jacksonville, Florida, Shay took professional singing lessons to try and lose her southern twang to find success as a professional singer. Later, after she found fame by performing a hillbilly novelty tune “Uncle Fud” with the Morton Gould orchestra, she made her way as a solo novelty act, billed as Dorothy Shay “The Park Avenue Hillbillie”. Shay recorded a handful of records, starting with The Park Avenue Hillbillie Sings on Capitol in 1946, and eventually moved to Columbia. By the early 1960s she had changed career paths to become a bit player in television shows like Adam-12, The Virginian, The Brady Bunch and The Waltons. 

You can watch/hear Shay perform "A Little Western Town Called Beverly Hills" here.