Friday, 9 November 2018

The Masque of the Red Death (1989)

For reasons that I’ve never been able to pin-down there was an influx of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the late 1980s and early 90s. Roger Corman did a 1989 remake of The Masque of the Red Death starring Patrick Macnee, Stuart Gordon made a version of The Pit and the Pendulum, Romero and Argento teamed up for the joint Poe adaptation Two Evil Eyes and Christopher Lee took off to Croatia to host the ropey ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ Poe TV series. One would hope that this flurry of interest in Poe was solely motived by a love and respect for one of the masters of American horror literature, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Poe’s work had entered into the public domain, meaning that any Tom, Dick and Harry Alan Towers could adapt his work. Never one to miss a trend the notorious film producer Harry Alan Towers came up with his own versions of The Masque of the Red Death and The House of Usher in 1989, closely followed up by Edgar Allan Poe’s Buried Alive in 1990.

As tends to be the case with Towers’ Poe adaptations this version of The Masque of the Red Death plays fast and loose with the source material. It’s an aggressively modern updating of Poe’s story that drags Poe kicking and screaming into an era of power ballads, slasher movies and Dynasty. So instead of a medieval Italian setting, where characters gather at the castle of the morally corrupt Prince Prospero, it’s the 20th century and we’re getting our glad rags on to attend a costume party at the castle of the wealthy, yet shady film producer Ludwig (Herbert Lom). As Ludwig has enjoyed recent success with a series of film adaptations of Poe, he repays his gratitude to the great man by staging Poe themed costume parties, this year’s theme being The Masque of the Red Death. A gathering that as well as drawing Ludwig’s usual crowd of hangers on, famous friends and assorted Eurotrash, also attracts plucky tabloid photographer Rebecca (Michelle McBride) who works for a National Enquirer type rag called The Snoop. Rebecca’s goal is to dish the dirt on soap opera actress Elaina Hart (Brenda Vaccaro) who can usually be relied upon to make a drunken fool of herself at public occasions. Rebecca isn’t the only one determined to gate crash Ludwig’s bash though. One of his guests appears intent on reducing Ludwig’s inner circle and is slashing his or her way through the guest list whilst dressed as the ‘Red Death’ from Poe’s story.

The Masque of the Red Death is a lively, yet crass, Poe cash grab, there is allot going on in it, the film has that in its favour for sure. Almost too much going on in it, there is a whole subplot about Ludwig having secretive meetings with a female doctor who injects him with a serum that prolongs his life, which initially looks as if it’s going to play a major part in the plot, but ultimately goes nowhere. Elsewhere it feels as if the writer was getting an extra bonus every time he worked another Poe story into the plot. Thus, we get a dream sequence modelled on The Tell-Tale Heart, Ludwig installs a giant pendulum in his castle as a homage to The Pit and the Pendulum, which the moment you lay eyes on it you just know is going to be put to a gristly use at some point. A black cat is also thrown into the proceedings at one point, quite literally, painfully landing on a kitchen sink and then limping off never to be seen again. All of which lends The Masque of the Red Death the appearance of a ‘greatest hits but not by the original artist’ package.

For all of the Poe pilfering at work here, this Masque of the Red Death self-consciously roots itself in the world of 1989. It’s very much Poe as slasher movie fodder, you can tell that Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street ruled the roost when it came to horror cinema of the time, and that Harry Alan Towers wanted as much a slice of their pie as he did Edgar Allan Poe’s. This was the era of attention grabbing, elaborate kill scenes and the wisecracking ghoul. In 1989 every new horror movie killer wanted to be Jason or Freddy and the ‘Red Death’ is no exception.
As well as being a serial killer the Red Death is something of a serial plagiarist as well, who appears to have taken fashion tips from the Royal Guard in Star Wars, speaks with a Freddy Krueger voice and has a similar line in groan inducing one liners. “Get the facts straight before someone does a hatchet job on you” quips the Red Death before sinking a hatchet into someone’s back. Inexplicably the Red Death also appears to also be channelling Muttley from the Wacky Races, and has a habit of sneaking up behind people and doing the Muttley laugh.

Comparisons between the 1960s Roger Corman Masque of the Red Death and this version really do validate the claim that period piece horror films tend to dodge the bullet of dating as badly as films set in the present day. The Corman version retains a timeless feel and doesn’t automatically feel like a movie from the 1960s, whereas everything about this Masque of the Red Death positively screams “now that’s what I call 1989”. The film seems to take immense pleasure in modernising the source material at every possible turn. Beginning as it means to go on with Rebecca’s flash sports car speeding around the Bavarian mountains, thereafter throwing around mod cons like CCTV cameras like confetti, while the costumed guests evoke the tail end of the New Romantics era. Entertainment for Ludwig’s guests comes in the form of a soft rock band, headed by a poor man’s Roger Daltrey, who valiantly try to keep the party atmosphere going even when the bodies start to pile up around them.

On the other hand Harry Alan Towers productions like this were all about tapping into the here and now, striking while the iron was hot, exploiting the trends, fashion and music of the times, without a care for the fact that within the space of a few years the film would be considered dated and a laughing stock. These days The Masque of the Red Death is a time capsule of the late 1980s VHS era, when all the small scale video rental shops helped create a market for B-level product. Want to rent the latest Hollywood blockbuster starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone, only to find your local video shop’s sole copy of it has already been rented out for the night? Then chances are that rather than return home empty handed you might be persuaded to rent out a B-list, shot in South Africa movie starring the likes of Frank Stallone. That was the little niche that films like The Masque of the Red Death owed their existence to, an existence that would be dealt a fatal blow with the rise of Blockbuster Video in the 1990s. Once corporately owned video shops came along offering multiple copies of the latest blockbuster, who was really interested in settling for second best and taking a film like The Masque of the Red Death home with them.

As is the norm with Harry Alan Towers productions from this period, The Masque of the Red Death was made amidst the remnants of Cannon films. Menahem Golan’s 21st Century films company released the film, while former Cannon alumnus Avi Lerner co-produced the film with Towers. The cast are your typical Harry Alan Towers ensemble of washed up actors, B Level stars and wannabe scream queens…here playing exaggerated and often unflattering versions of themselves. Brenda Vaccaro is a scream as the trashy, sweary, drunk soap opera actress who has hooked up with a toyboy (Frank Stallone) and tears into any woman who dares look twice at him. Vaccaro is even more over the top here than she was in Supergirl, chewing up the scenery and spitting out head turning dialogue like “the only thing the sun ever did for me was burn my ass”. Frank Stallone is well…Frank Stallone, in fairness he is not the worst actor in the film, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that he only got the gig because of the facial resemblance to his more famous sibling…which does at least lend the film some novelty value.

Unlike in brother Sly’s movies, Frank doesn’t get to sing in this one, but he does get to show off his dance moves, at one point jumping up on the tables and performing the tango with one of his female co-stars. A scene that comes out of nowhere and feels as if it was born out of Stallone letting slip that he was a decent dancer on set, and someone then throwing this scene together to capitalize on this factoid. The rest of the younger cast are pretty forgettable, though your heart does go out to lead actress Michelle McBride, who spends the entirety of the film dressed in a cupid costume that doesn’t do her figure any favours. “Awfully small breasted for a dress like that” bitches Elaina.

A pity that the self-referential elements of the film tend to get thrown aside as the film progresses. What with his motley showbiz entourage, Herbert Lom’s 20th century answer to Price Prospero invites comparisons to Harry Alan Towers himself. Although with his hair dyed blonde and combed forward to within an inch of its life, plus a penchant for significantly younger, trophy girlfriends, it’s now difficult to not mischievously draw comparisons between Ludwig and a certain American president. The Melania to Ludwig’s Donald being Colette (Christine Lunde) a talentless actress with supermodel good looks and an often incomprehensible foreign accent. Okay, Colette is actually French which does prove an obstacle when it comes to the Melania comparisons, but as the actress playing the role frequently seems to forget that Colette is meant to be French as well, it’s not a huge obstacle. There are many moments in this film where you do have to pinch yourself to remind you that this is a film from 1989, and isn’t meant as a satirical hatchet job on Donald and Melania Trump, even if it now plays like that.

Always the pro, Herbert Lom could do screen villainy in his sleep, but Ludwig is a character who goes against expectations. Built up as a mysterious, Howard Hughes type control freak, Ludwig is eventually revealed to be a rather pitiful figure, whose only crimes are to try and buy friendships and overindulge those around him. Whereas Vincent Price in the 1964 film was a despicable bastard who thoroughly deserved his comeuppance, Ludwig mainly evokes sympathy when the finger of suspicion falls on him and his paranoid friends turn against him “this party is just a scapegoat, a trap to get us here and kill us off one by one. You’re dying, so the way your sick mind works, we must all die too”.

Considering that Harry Alan Towers began the 1980s with a spate of softcore costume dramas, and continued in a similar vein with the pornographically minded Edge of Sanity, The Masque of the Red Death is surprisingly reserved in that department. While you’d expect everyone at an affluent late 1980s party at a castle to be bed hoping and knee deep in cocaine there is nothing that decadent on the menu at Ludwig’s place. The chief form of excitement being –I kid ye not- a Faberge Easter Egg hunt, surely a slasher movie first when it comes to ways of sending characters off to their deaths. Softcore sex may have fallen out of favour in Harry Alan Towers’ world by this point, but violence was still very much in fashion. No one gets a simple death in this film, hands are hacked off, people are stabbed then have acid thrown in their faces, Ludwig’s pendulum costs one character their head, while another has their skin stretched with metal hooks, Hellraiser-style.

Faced with demises like that, it’s no surprise that most of Ludwig’s guests make a speedy exit. Not all manage to escape though before Ludwig turns on the castle’s hi-tech security system, trapping all of the key characters behind the castle’s walls for six hours. At which point you realise that Edgar Allan Poe has been thrown out of the window and you’ve been suckered into watching yet another one of Harry Alan Towers’ adaptations of Ten Little Indians. In the land of Harry Alan Towers all roads lead to Ten Little Indians. Just who is the ‘Red Death’ though? The Roger Daltrey-esque rock star?, Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Max?, the gay German manservant Hans?, the British fashion designer Kitra?, or has Melania/Colette finally snapped after suffering one too many insults over her acting ability (“she can’t even screw her way into an acting job these days”). Let’s just say that all these years on from the Pink Panther movies, a character with an overcooked French accent still poses a threat to Herbert Lom.

The late 1980s was a very busy period for Harry Alan Towers. The fact that the Masque of the Red Death shares its sets with his 1989 version of The House of Usher, and three cast members (Herbert Lom, Brenda Vaccaro and Frank Stallone) with his 1989 version of Ten Little Indians, would indicate that all three of those films were shot in close proximity, if not back to back. Who says men are no good at multi-tasking, take a bow Harry Alan Towers.

The director of both Towers’ 1989 versions of The Masque of the Red Death and The House of Usher was Alan Birkinshaw, a graduate of British exploitation cinema, who began his feature film career with the sex comedy Confessions of a Sex Maniac (1974), but whose cult reputation rests on his second film 1978’s Killer’s Moon, one of the most laughably inept British horror films of the 1970s. As tends to be the case with British exploitation film directors who hadn’t thrown in the towel by the 1980s, Birkinshaw spent most of that decade working overseas for B movie producers like Towers and Dick Randall. For all of the ribbing Birkinshaw has taken over the years on account of Killer’s Moon, a film that once earned him the cruel yet wickedly funny nickname of ‘Edward Clumsyhands ’, his direction here is of a much more professional standard. Nothing outstanding, but certainly on a par with any of the other directors who were on the Harry Alan Towers payroll at the time.

When it comes to Edward Clumsyhands’ 1980s employers, I’ve always favoured Dick Randall’s film productions over those of Harry Alan Towers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusions that lining his pockets with the profits of film producing was as much Dick Randall’s endgame as it was Towers. To me though there is more heart and personality at work in Randall’s productions, and Randall comes across as quite the showman who enjoyed giving the public what they wanted. Whereas with Towers, you get the impression that film making was nothing more than a business transaction to him. Strictly a matter of signing the cheques, assembling a few down on their luck actors at whatever country offered the best tax breaks, letting 90 minutes of film run through the camera, depositing the profits in a Swiss bank account, then paying a few backhanders to the Russian mafia, before moving on to the next adaption of the work of an author whose material is in the public domain.

The Masque of the Red Death is one of only a few Towers’ productions to capture me in its crooked spell and that still is a blast even after multiple viewings. C’mon who cannot fall slightly for a version of The Masque of the Red Death in which the Red Death laughs like Muttley, or which ends with an almighty cat fight worthy of an Alexis/Krystle bust-up. The Masque of the Red Death is a treasure chest of 1980s trash. It’s even worth enduring that strange buzzing sound you hear in your head the day after you’ve watched it, a noise that is either the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe turning in his grave or the ghost of Harry Alan Towers laughing all the way to the bank.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Random thoughts on: Horror Express (1972)

Warning: if you watch Horror Express on Halloween you may wake up the next morning to discover your entire face has transformed into a Telly Savalas album “if a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you”?

Aka ‘Good Guys Wear Tweed’. Seriously though, is there any greater evidence that Cushing and Lee were a marvellous screen double-act than Horror Express, impossible to watch the film and not miss them both, dearly.

This dog really, really doesn’t want to be in the movie does it? In the context of the film its meant to ‘sense’ the danger posed by the creature in the crate, in reality it probably wants to get away because this mad woman is intent on plucking it like a turkey.

On the basis of revisiting this film I’m convinced that allot of the personality, and the sense of humour at work in both Horror Express and Psychomania comes from their writing duo of Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet, the pair had a real ear for witty dialogue “Monster? We're British, you know” has rightly entered into legend.

“shhh, don’t wake her up, she’s a dreadful actress”. In fairness Faith Clift isn’t too bad in a small role here, its only later when she played one of the main roles in Cataclysm (1980) that her ‘limitations’ become more obvious. I wonder what the story was with her and film producer Philip Yordan. Cataclysm comes across as a thinly veiled excuse to promote her acting, and Clift doesn’t appear to have ever acted outside of Yordan’s productions (although he goes uncredited in Horror Express, I believe Yordan did have a financial stake in the production)

To misquote Kate Bush “Faith Clift, its me, your Telly, I’ve come home”

It does seem unusual that the ‘This is Telly Savalas’ album knocked on the door of Horror Express for its cover photo, rather than going the more obvious Kojak route. Then again, that is a damn cool image, I mean Telly is holding a cigarette and a gun in the same hand ferchristsakes!!

‘If’ isn’t actually on that album, but Telly does sing Dylan on it.

‘Arranged, conducted and produced by John Cacavas’. Who seems to have been Telly’s main man in that respect, Cacavas having done soundtrack duties on both Kojak and Horror Express.

Throwing around diminutive Chinese men, whipping a monk and hitting on women, Telly sure knows how to gate-crash a party

"God made a few beautiful heads, the rest he covered with hair"- Telly Savalas

“If the world should stop revolving spinning slowly down to die, I'd spend the end with you.”

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Skyscraper (1996)

I hereby predict that in a few years from now, once people have exhausted 1980s nostalgia and moved on to getting all misty eyed over the direct to video action films and erotic thrillers of the 1990s, then Skyscraper will be worshipped in the same way that people today queue up to worship at the altars of Ninja 3: The Domination and The Miami Connection. Like those films, Skyscraper is very era specific in its ludicrousness, actors who look like Fabio, the use of pagers, purportedly ‘erotic’ sex scenes that will make you laugh out loud and Eurotrash villains who quote Shakespeare and speak pidgin French….N'est-ce pas. Skyscraper’s day as a cult item must surely beckon.

Nothing- not even exposure to the likes of Nai Bonet, Julie Lee and Renee Harmon- can quite prepare you for the experience that is an Anna Nicole Smith acting performance. Yet had this film been made with a B-level male action star in the lead it would probably be just another forgettable, cheap, by the numbers Die Hard imitation, whereas Anna Nicole Smith could never be accused of being forgettable, paradoxically she is the worst thing about this film and the most memorable thing about this film too. God bless her and her melon heavy breasts. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Carnivore: Werewolf of London (2017)

Not the most original of film, Carnivore: Werewolf of London clearly…badly… wants to be Dog Soldiers, and proudly slaps a quote proclaiming it “very similar to Dog Soldiers, but with civilians” over the DVD cover. Carnavore is more ‘very similar to Dog Soldiers, but with characters straight out of a Red Shoe Diaries sequel’, as lovebirds Abi (Atlanta Johnson) and Dave (Ben Loyd-Holmes) attempt to work on their relationship with a romantic trip to an isolated rental home in the country. She is an American with commitment issues, he is a British bulldog who despite his cage fighter/Jason Statham’s stunt double appearance is a romantic at heart and wants to make an honest woman out of her. Their arguments, bad dancing and softcore lovemaking (scored to saccharine, acoustic love songs) have to be put on hold though once the green eyed monster rears its ugly head. No, not jealousy, but a green eyed werewolf, whose appearance leads the couple to some laughably illogical behaviour. Trapped at a remote woodlands house, with a rampaging werewolf outside? Why not sit in a bathtub and arm yourself with a rolling pin? (the scene where the werewolf is clobbered about the head with said baking instrument must surely be a cinematic first). While macho Dave can’t resist antagonising the werewolf by stripping off his shirt and running through the forest with a lit torch, presumably meant as a homage to Schwarzenegger in Predator.

Against considerable odds Carnivore: Werewolf of London is surprisingly likeable, Atlanta Johnson is easy on the eye, the low budget part practical, part CGI effects aren’t the disaster area that they can be, and to give credit where its due Carnivore is the most entertaining 21st century British horror film I’ve seen in a long while. No genre game changer by any stretch of the imagination, just an unapologetically dumb monster-on-the-loose movie. A Rawhead Rex for the supermarket DVD era if you will.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Deathsport (1978)

According to IMDB trivia “David Carradine smoked a lot of marijuana while shooting this film”. Gee, you don’t say...cause I’d never have guessed that going off how clean-cut and sober he looks in this film.

The various remakes, prequels, rip-offs and ‘thematic’ sequels to Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 do seem to split into two different groups. Some like Death Race 2050 try to recapture the black comedy and satire of Bartel’s film but fall of their asses when it comes to being an action movie, others like the Statham/Luke Goss movies press down hard on the action movie pedal but leave the humour in the dust. 1978’s Deathsport, Roger Corman/New World’s sort of follow-up to Death Race 2000, is very much of the latter camp, its action packed yet all rather po-faced and lacking much of a personality. The barely coherent plot of Deathsport, set "a thousand years from tomorrow" involves nomadic psychics played by David Carradine and Claudia Jennings being rounded up and imprisoned by cruel dictator Lord Zirpola. Since the death penalty has been abolished a thousand years from tomorrow, Carradine and Jennings are forced to compete in the ‘Deathsport’ basically gladiatorial games that Zirpola uses to satisfy the bloodshed of the violence loving masses. Meanwhile, Zirpola gets his own jollies by electrocuting butt naked women in his own personal torture chamber. Once Carradine and Jennings escape Lord Zirpola’s clutches the film becomes a chase across the desert on futuristic motorbikes, as they are hunted by Zirpola’s leather clad henchman Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch) and somehow also find the time to rescue a little girl from a tribe of ping-pong ball eyed mutants.

Calling this a ‘troubled production’ is putting it mildly, stories about on-set drug use, physical altercations between cast and crew and people getting fired have surrounded this film for years. The saga resurfaced in the early 1990s when a David Carradine interview led to a heated war of words between Carradine and original director Nicholas Niciphor in the letters page of Psychotronic Video magazine over what exactly went down on set.

Evidence of this collectively bad experience is all up there onscreen, Deathsport is a particularly messy film, a character built up as a major villain is abruptly and unceremoniously killed off mid-way through the film, the titular ‘Deathsport’ meant to be a main plot point only gets about 10 minutes of screen time, and Carradine appears especially agitated and bad tempered throughout. Then again, given that he spends much of the film wandering about the desert in a diaper, wielding a plywood sword and playing a character who appears to be a combo of Jesus, Luke Skywalker and Evel Knievel, who can really blame him. Carradine really does look like a man who has been through the desert on a horse with no name in this film.

I first encountered Deathsport on the Granada Men and Motors channel (of all places), a low-rent TV channel whose blokeish output mostly consisted of T&A and sports programming, but who went through a brief period of showing ultra-obscure action and kung-fu movies at ungodly hours of the night. Since Death Race 2000 was still fresh in my mind at the time, I was pretty underwhelmed by Deathsport initially, but I have found that it grows on you over each successive viewing. Especially if you return to it fully in the knowledge that you’re not going to get another Death Race 2000 here, and I’m happy to admit I had lots of fun with it this time around. The combined charisma of Carradine, Claudia Jennings and Richard Lynch somehow keep this shambolic ship afloat, the cut-price ‘futuristic’ costumes and vehicles lend laughability and Deathsport does boast an entertainingly reckless obsession with pyrotechnics and motorbike stunts.

There is a particularly jaw dropping moment when an actor who was meant to be set on fire accidently brushes past and sets alight to another actor who clearly wasn’t meant to be set on fire, and boy does that poor bastard look frantic and alarmed as he tries to put himself out. All of which they of course left in the film!! If we learn nothing else from Deathsport it is that stoned actors should never be let anywhere near lit torches.

The fact that the film was salvaged by one of Corman’s in-house directors means that Deathsport is pretty much your textbook 1970s Roger Corman production, X amount of female nudity, X amount of violence, XXX amount of things blowing up, and some left-leaning/eco politics (about how we should renounce violence, grow beards and go back to riding about on horseback)... y’know for all the students and the chin strokers out there.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Red Heat (1976, Ray Dennis Steckler)

Just what it is with Ray Dennis Steckler and lethal redheaded women who are a little too handy around switchblades? That type haunts not only his porno movie Red Heat, but also his 1979 horror movie The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skid Row Slasher as well as his 2003 short film ‘Slashed…’ In fact Red Heat ties in to Steckler’s other films in so many different, complex ways, that trying to work out precisely how may well be the most complicated thing I’ve ever tried to explain.

Basically, Red Heat is a side-sequel to 1974’s Fire Down Below, well sort of anyway. It also comes across as an early try out for the storyline of Steckler’s The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher, which is a remake of this film, well sort of anyway. There is also the possibility that Steckler either remade Red Heat as 2003’s ‘Slashed…’ or possibly just reworked footage from Red Heat into Slashed. As I say, it is head scratchingly complicated, and illustrates the erratic approach Steckler had to filmmaking in his final decades, where he would start a project, never finish it, put the footage to one side, then a few years later come back to it, shoot some more footage, combine that with footage intended for a completely different film, resulting in Steckler's movies snowballing into complete malformations of footage and genres. Red Heat, bless it, is quite the malformation, it is a hardcore sex film, but its also a female slasher movie, and also a biker movie, and also a Las Vegas travelogue, and also a deconstruction of a hardcore sex film.

Red Heat is all things to all men, all vaguely tied together by Steckler’s alter-ego ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’. Steckler would direct a whole number of adult movies under the name Cindy Lou Sutters. The implication that these films were directed by a woman being a common ruse used by male pornographers to make their movies stand out from the crowd. Steckler takes this deception one step further in Red Heat, both capitalising of the popularity of Cindy Lou Sutters movies and further concealing his involvement in porno, by presenting Cindy Lou Sutters as an actual character in ‘her’ own movie. Mostly heard in voiceover, provided by Steckler’s ex-wife Carolyn Brandt, Cindy Lou recounts her adventures shooting porno footage in Las Vegas along with her trusted cameraman Habib. The first porno shoot Cindy Lou and Habib embark on involves Nancy, a three time divorcee who has drifted into porn acting. As Cindy Lou cynically points out to us “she’ll get paid well for what she has been giving away for free”.

The person Cindy Lou really has an eye on casting in her movie though is a burlesque dancer called Red Heat (yes, that is actually the character’s name in the film). Cindy Lou thinks Red Heat will make a great X-rated film star, but Red can’t commit due to her abusive, no good boyfriend. A man hilariously nicknamed ‘Mr Prick’ by Cindy Lou. Mr Prick is played by Steckler favourite Pierre Agostino, who’d go on to distinguish himself with repulsive star turns in Steckler’s The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher and The Las Vegas Serial Killer. Mercifully all of the scenes involving Agostino fucking around with other women behind Red’s back are shot as softcore, sparing us the sight of what the Hollywood Strangler’s cock looks like.

Red comes home early from her audition for a Cindy Lou Sutters movie and catches him fucking another woman on their couch. Charming as ever, Agostino calls Red a “dumb fucking broad”, proceeds to strangle her (let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Steckler film without at least one woman being strangled) before rendering Red unconscious by repeatedly punching her in the face. “Little did we know that there were some strange things going on in Las Vegas, that would make our X-rated movie making look like a fairy tale” notes Cindy Lou. Having had enough of Mr Prick, Red Heat picks up a switchblade and offs him in the shower, Psycho style. A scene with an incredible colour scheme to it, with almost everything onscreen, Red’s hair, Agostino’s blood splattered body and the bathroom walls, being bright red.

Having developed a taste for bloodshed, Red takes her switchblade on the road, hitchhiking her way around Vegas and taking that switchblade to any promiscuous slob who is stupid enough to offer her a ride. As I say, it’s very much a Las Vegas rehearsal for The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher, which handed the role of the switchblade wielding redhead to Steckler’s ex-wife Carolyn Brandt, and extended Mr Agostino’s misogynistic bit part here to co-star status.

As if having a runaway star on her hands wasn’t enough to ruin Cindy Lou Sutters’ day, the female porn director finds her work further compromised by a biker, who shows up in Las Vegas to commit a series of robberies. Inadvertently, the biker ends up causing Cindy Lou further headaches, when he robs her cameraman Habib and also holds up a Vegas massage parlour, which provides Cindy Lou with acting talent. All of which leaves Ms Lou Sutters seriously out of pocket, with still lots more smut to film.

Any seasoned fan of Cindy Lou’s earlier work will be struck with a sense of deja vu about this sub-plot… you see this biker character had appeared before in her….sorry his earlier film ‘Fire Down Below’ (1974). In that film the biker’s exploits were played out alongside that of a tubby voyeur (Will Long) who also strangled most of the women he spied on. In fact the bulk of the ‘biker’ footage in Red Heat, the biker robbing Habib’s wallet, the biker holding up the massage parlour, is recycled material from Fire Down Below. Steckler does however show lots more footage of the biker cruising around in Red Heat than made it into Fire Down Below, presumably because Fire Down Below was meant to be set in Los Angeles. So any footage that reveals the biker scenes were actually filmed in Las Vegas, like shots showing casinos and the Las Vegas strip in the background, got the chop from Fire Down Below, and instead found a home in Red Heat.

Since Red Heat was meant to have been filmed in 1976, and the footage of the biker comes from a 1974 film, you’d therefore expect that the biker subplot would be played out entirely separate from the other two plots about Cindy Lou Sutters and Red Heat. It’s quite surprising then to discover that the biker and the Red Heat plots do tie in together at the end of the film, with the two characters sharing screen time. Having two seemingly disconnected plots that collide head on at the end of a film, being something of a trademark of Steckler’s. RDS ends The Hollywood Strangler meets the Skidrow Slasher, Fire Down Below and The Las Vegas Serial Killer in a similar fashion.

I suppose it is possible that Steckler got the actor who played the biker to reprise his Fire Down Below role again two years later, but the fact that his bike, his clothes and helmet remain the same throughout, leads me to suspect that all of the ‘Red Heat’ plot was filmed in 1974 too. Could Red Heat’s ‘female slasher’ plot have originally been intended for Fire Down Below?, and that Steckler envisioned that film as juggling the exploits of its tubby serial strangler and the biker robber, alongside Red Heat’s murder rampage? Only for Steckler to decide that Red Heat deserved a film to herself, cut all the scenes relating to her out of Fire Down Below and instead used them two years later for this film? As I say, trying to piece the history of this film together may well be the most complicated thing I’ve ever tried to explain.

As they stand, Red Heat and Fire Down Below are sort of side-sequels to each other, they both share a character in the biker, the same incidents play out in both movies, and the tubby strangler’s Los Angeles murder rampage in Fire Down Below plays out at the same time as Red Heat is taking her switchblade to guys in Las Vegas. I have a feeling though that Steckler realised that the plots about the strangler, the biker and Red Heat were too much for one movie, especially one that already had to accommodate lengthy hardcore sex scenes. My theory is that the idea to spin-off Red Heat’s story into a different movie entered into Steckler’s head towards the end of shooting Fire Down Below, since ‘spoilers’ the way the biker dies at the end of Fire Down Below is different to the way the biker dies at the end of Red Heat. A sure indication that Steckler intended to spread this footage out over two movies, if he was shooting two different death scenes for the same character.

The Cindy Lou Sutters hardcore footage and the Las Vegas footage that is in the film appears to date from 1976, a pairing of Mac Davis and Joan Rivers advertised on one of the marquees took place in November 1976. Not even this is straightforward though as elsewhere in the movie there is a marquee advertising Village People as the headlining act at the Riviera, a group who weren’t put together and didn’t start having hits till way into 1977, which in itself throws a spanner in the works over Red Heat being a 1976 film!!

Red Heat captures Steckler at the mid-way point of his hardcore directing career, and finds him both trying to integrate himself into the adult movie industry, whilst at the same time becoming jaded and disillusioned by it. Red Heat is a far more slicker looking production than his earlier adult films, with the 1976 footage looking as if it were shot on 35mm. Gone are the dysfunctional basket cases of his earlier X-rated films, replaced by a less memorable bunch, who are at least, successfully able to have sex on camera.

Steckler’s device of having ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’ narrate and comment over the film footage ‘she’ is supposedly shooting has a curiously anti-erotic effect to it. Instead of being lulled into believing that the sex unfolding onscreen is all natural and spontaneous, hearing Cindy Lou and Habib constantly talk to the performers, ordering them what to do and telling them how to fuck, reminds you that all sex in porn movies is stage managed and artificial. ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’ comes across as a tough talking, hard bitten porno pro, at one point telling her star “Nancy get that little thing up, see if it can scare the camera” as Nancy unzips a guy’s pants. Cindy Lou calls time on an elongated shot of Nancy kissing her male co-star with “I think that’s enough kissing, let’s see some tit”.

Red Heat is a self-analysing film that is constantly deconstructing and pulling itself apart for you. Midway through the film Steckler throws in what looks suspiciously like home movie footage of Lake Mead. Just when you’re about to chalk this up as superfluous, up pops Cindy Lou/Carolyn Brandt on the soundtrack admitting that …yes…this is all superfluous ‘back ground footage’ which she threw into the film because “too many X-rated movies are shot in back rooms”. The effect is akin to watching the film with the director’s DVD commentary on, albeit the sort of DVD commentary an adult movie director would do in an especially candid mood, having got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Cindy Lou’s narration is often hilariously mean-spirited and extremely blunt about the people who are onscreen. If you feel guilty about finding someone onscreen ugly, Red Heat instantly absolves you of such guilt by having Cindy Lou chip in some put downs and bio info about her cast “she’s had four kids….we had to make do”.

Steckler, of course, never acknowledged his adult movies, let alone opened up about them, meaning Cindy Lou’s narration is the closest we’ll ever get to a porno confessional from him. Hiding behind a voiceover by his ex-wife, and his ‘Cindy Lou Sutters’ alter-ego, does seem to have allowed Steckler the comfort of giving an off the cuff account of his Las Vegas porn directing days. Cindy Lou believably recounts money troubles, the pressure of shooting porn, procuring talent from a massage parlour; dealing with a ‘small time pimp’ who is into underage girls and shooting in flophouse motels “we needed a more seedy atmosphere” confesses Cindy Lou. When Cindy Lou explains that a low budget dictated she hire a few hookers and a weightlifter from a local gym for a scene “the girls weren’t much to look out, but we were running low on moves” the awkward, overly muscular man onscreen and the out of shape, tattooed women servicing him lend authenticity to Cindy Lou’s words.
Only towards the end of Red Heat does the narration track begin to lose credibility as ‘Cindy Lou’ finally appears onscreen herself, blowing her lead actor and cameraman Habib in order to ensure she has enough porno footage to finish the film. ‘Cindy Lou’ is portrayed by a baby faced 20-something blonde, who in no way fits the mental image that Carolyn Brandt’s jaded, middle aged voiceover conjures up of her, and the idea of a swinging 20-something blonde directing adult movies and happily fucking crew members feels like the stuff of stroke magazine fiction.

'Cindy Lou Sutters'

Carolyn Brandt’s involvement in the film does however invite curiosity over the extent of her involvement in her ex-husband’s adult movies. It is now generally thought that Steckler and Carolyn Brandt divorced in 1973, yet she still continued to be around his filmmaking activities, including his porno ones, regularly appearing onscreen in non-sex roles (as ‘Jane Bond’) and doing voiceover work on them as late as 1983’s Las Vegas Erotica. It has even been rumoured in some quarters that the Cindy Lou Sutters films were actually collaborative efforts between her and Steckler. Could the claims that the Cindy Lou Sutters films were directed by a woman actually have some credibility after all? Could Carolyn Brandt be a forgotten, pioneering female pornographer, who is long overdue the critical recognition and kudos currently being bestowed on the likes of Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman? The insults dished out to the women onscreen here, often noting how many times they’ve been married and how many children they’ve had, do feel like the sort of thing an acid tongued, bitchy female would say, rather than a misogynistic male filmmaker.

For a film supposedly directed by a man Red Heat is also an extremely cock heavy film, often expressing little interest in the female form in favour of filling the screen with alarmingly extreme close-ups of guy’s cocks. Evidence of a woman’s touch? Possibly, then again Steckler’s pornos are so hung-up on oral sex that all the male genitalia onscreen could be just the by-product of Steckler’s blowjob obsession. An all-consuming fixation that often results in you feeling like shaking Sheckler and reminding him that women do …y’know…have over orifices. Unless Carolyn opens up about ‘Cindy Lou’ though, the extent of her involvement in these films is unlikely to be known.

One of the saddest parts of Cindy Lou Sutters’ narration comes with her matter of fact remark that “people who pay to see X-rated films want to see some real action, they’re not interested in lots of dialogue they can see that for free on TV”. It is difficult to hear that remark and not detect Steckler’s underlining resentment at working in such a limiting genre. The fact that he was still able to pull off such an unconventional film as Red Heat, that frequently veers off into slasher movie and biker genres, would suggest he was a little less restricted by the genre than Cindy Lou’s comment implies, but this is still clearly a film made by someone who felt their creative wings were being clipped.

Steckler might not have loved being a Las Vegas porn director but the man clearly loved Las Vegas. Steckler crafts Red Heat into a big, shiny, Valentines Day card to Vegas. Steckler was always big on making the environment around him part of the action, an approach that didn’t always pay off, the torturously dull footage of a local rodeo that he tagged onto his 1971 horror film ‘Blood Shack’ comes to mind. Here though, Steckler found a muse in Las Vegas that was truly worthy of its glorified co-star status. Red Heat gives you everything you’d want from a film made in Vegas. Early on it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just the work of some out of town filmmaker whose idea of setting a film in Vegas is a few brief establishing shots of the strip, but of someone who knew the town like the back of his hand. By the end of Red Heat you feel as if Steckler has given you the grand tour around every casino, bar, motel, car rental business, porno theatre, dirty bookshop, peep show and wedding chapel that 1970s Vegas had to offer. Nothing escapes Steckler’s eye here, thirsty dogs hanging out of windows, confused looking old timers shuffling around in plaid pants, guys in cowboy hats, teenage girls in ass hugging sports shorts, all human life is here. Ginormous marquees advertise the likes of Barry Manilow, Tony Bennett, Helen Reddy and ol’ boyo himself Tom Jones.

Some might feel there is a mischievous, even malicious edge to visually name checking such famous people in a film like this. One minute the names of squeaky clean, family friendly entertainers are up onscreen in Red Heat, then moments later we’re cutting to some motel room cocksucking. For anyone who has ever pounded those streets though, Steckler’s depiction of Las Vegas feels on the money in terms of how much sex and showbiz co-exist in that town. I don’t know if this still goes on, but the last time I was in Vegas, we’d be talking early 2000s here, the strip was lined with gentlemen who appeared to be from ‘across the border’ all handing out these obscene pamphlets advertising the services of motel room hookers, fully illustrated with legs-a-kimbo photos of the women in question. Walking down the strip, with the desert sun beating down on you, you’d have these pamphlets thrust in your direction, then look upwards and see the faces of Barry Manilow and Saint Wayne of Newton staring down at you disapprovingly from the marquees. Red Heat accurately captures this schizophrenic side to Las Vegas. Vice and family entertainment sleep in the same bed in Vegas, and might even be fuck buddies.

While Stecker’s involvement in adult movies has been known about for decades now, little is known about his leading lady in this movie. The actress who plays ‘Red Heat’ goes uncredited in the film, never participates in the hardcore sex scenes and appears to have never acted in any other movies. So, just who is ‘Red Heat’? I may have inadvertently stumbled upon the answer whilst researching ‘Slashed…’ a video Steckler released in 2003. Slashed was a supposedly long unreleased film that Steckler made with his girlfriend at the time, explaining in a 2004 interview “I started another film with a girlfriend, a stripper called Lovie (sic) Goldmine. I started making a slasher movie with her and about fifty per cent of the way through the film she told me she had to leave town immediately. She took her kids and disappeared and I never heard from her again”.

Supposedly Slashed… was the first time this unreleased and uncompleted film had seen the light of day. Personally, I’m not so sure. See if you look around the internet for photos of Lovey Goldmine, she bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘Red Heat’. In fact if Lovey Goldmine and the actress who plays Red Heat in this movie aren’t one in the same, I’ll happily eat my Stetson on the steps of the MGM Grand whilst illegal immigrants pelt me with whoring pamphlets.

Lovey Goldmine in the early 1970s, and the lead actress in Red Heat.  One in the same?

My guess is that years before ‘Slashed…’ Steckler actually used the footage he had of Lovely Goldmine and worked it into Red Heat. Ms. Goldmine had in fact been a Las Vegas burlesque dancer in the early 1970s (aside from Steckler, she also famously dated Richard Pryor for a while) before getting the call to perform at Le Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. This being the likely reason why she left Steckler,and never finished the film. Steckler’s loss being the Crazy Horse’s gain.

Steckler sure was having his share of rotten luck when it came to leads during this period, not just leading ladies but leading men as well. Will Long, a regular in Steckler’s porn movies like The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire and Peeping Tom (Long was the man I referred to as ‘Buford’ in my review of that film) contracted hepatitis whilst playing the serial strangler in Fire Down Below, then rather inconveniently died before completing the film, leaving Steckler to piece that film together in a Bruce Lee/Game of Death fashion. It seems that in the early 2000s, Steckler re-edited Red Heat, removing all the hardcore footage, but including all the ‘slasher movie’ material he’d shot with Lovey Goldmine. The resultant 25 minute video being ‘Slashed…’. Around the same time Steckler did another re-edit on one of his 1970s pornos, re-releasing Fire Down Below, sans hardcore footage, as ‘Face of Evil’.

In terms of sexiness, Lovey Goldmine is undoubtedly Red Heat’s strongest assets, whether it’s dressing up in the lingerie and peacock hair feathered crown that was presumably part of her stage act back then, or stripping off to display the body that dazzled the strip in the 1970s. For X-rated cinemagoers, the only downside to her appearance in Red Heat is that the only attractive person in the film is also the only cast member not to have real sex on camera. For Ms. Goldmine does not at any point get the shaft!!!

Despite the distance Steckler later put between himself and his adult movies, the films he made during his final decades that don’t feature the inclusion of hardcore sex just feel dull and lacking like Blood Shack, or numbingly repetitious like The Las Vegas Serial Killer. Give me Fire Down Below and Red Heat over those two any day. Disjointed and singing from several different hymn sheets as Red Heat might be, this mutant hybrid of gore movie, biker movie, porno and Vegas travelogue can never be accused of being dull. Like Vegas itself, it’s always putting on some kind of entertaining show for the masses. For all of Steckler’s attempts to play the adult movie industry’s game, Red Heat is still a misfit in that world, something that doesn’t quite fit in with the XXX crowd, much as Steckler’s earlier work had put him at odds with mainstream Hollywood decades before.

“I still wonder to this day whether Red would have made a good porno star” - Cindy Lou Sutters.