Sunday, 17 February 2019

Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956)

While poring over our home-grown Sci-Fi output of the 1950s and 1960s, it is often difficult to avoid the feeling that we are but a nation of thieving bastards. Consider that in 1954 Japan gave the world Godzilla, and a couple of years later the British film industry responded with Gorgo, the American made ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ begat the home-grown ‘Behemoth- The Sea Monster’, and The Fly was the obvious inspiration for Britain’s The Projected Man. While 1961’s Konga, despite not strictly being a King Kong rip-off verbatim, had enough similarities for the makers of Konga to offer a $25,000 backhander to RKO pictures –who owned the rights to King Kong- in order to ensure they weren’t later sued for copyright infringement.

No such concerns though plagued the makers of Fire Maidens from Outer Space....a 1956 film whose plot, not to mention its title, bears more than a passing resemblance to an American sci-fi movie ‘Cat-Women of the Moon’ made only three years previously. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t wanted to have been Fire Maidens’ defence lawyer had that plagiarism case ever come to court.

Despite Fire Maidens from Outer Space being a British production, with a largely British cast and crew, its driving force was a Chicago born film director by the name of Cy Roth, who arrived on these shores under a dark, if not uncommon, cloud. The year before Roth had raised red flags with the US government by directing ‘Air Strike’ a film Roth envisioned as being about the prejudice faced by Black and Jewish servicemen during WW2. When the American military objected and insisted on drastic changes to the plot, Roth responded by writing a furious letter of complaint to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in doing so probably only further dug his own grave, this being the tail end of McCarthyism. Investigated by the FBI and falling under suspicion of communist sympathies, it seems Roth’s actions resulted in a black mark against his name, and temporally banishment to the cursed earth of the British B-Movie.

Fire Maidens from Outer Space does bear all the traces of an intended American production that had been forced to relocate to Britain at the 11th hour. As tends to be the unwritten rule of British B-movies that had a greedy eye on the American market, Fire Maidens boasts a slightly faded American leading man in Anthony Dexter, whose main claim to fame was playing Rudolph Valentino in the 1950s Hollywood biopic. Here Dexter plays Luther Blair, the leader of a group of astronauts sent out into space to explore the 13th moon of Jupiter.

 Adhering to another British B-Movie tradition is the fact that the supporting cast is mostly rounded out by British actors adopting put-on American accents. This might not be such an issue for anyone outside the UK, but for home-grown audiences Fire Maidens comes complete with the distracting, and somewhat rib-tickling, spectacle of seeing such quintessential Londoners as Harry Fowler and Sydney Tafler, valiantly trying to disguise the fact that they were born within the sound of Bow Bells, with these uncharacteristic accents and American lingo.

'from' or 'of'?- the film was released as Fire Maidens from Outer Space in the UK, and Fire Maidens of Outer Space in the USA.

In spite of being a fish out of water when it came to the British film industry, Fire Maidens shows that Cy Roth could go shoulder to shoulder with any Brit filmmaker when it came to movie padding. As with the output of people like E.J. Fancey, Fire Maidens from Outer Space is the product of the movie padding extremist. Stock footage is lingered on and considered holy in this world. The act of getting from A to B is drawn out for as long as possible. Fire Maidens is the type of film that stubbornly insists on making you watch stock footage of a plane travelling over New Mexico, stock footage of a plane travelling over New York, stock footage of a plane’s landing gear, a scene of the plane landing, a scene of a character getting off the plane, a scene of the same character getting into a car, followed by several moments dedicated to that car driving around the uncongested roads of 1950s Britain before we reach our final destination the ‘’American-British Astronomical Station’. As with the E.J. Fancey movies, you really have to retrain your brain into finding amusement in this bombardment of inertia. The most notable example of this comes in a long, single shot scene in which the secretary of Sydney Tafler’s character takes dictation from him. For which we have to see her walking down a flight of stairs at the astronomical station, opening a gate, closing the gate, pulling up a chair, taking dictation, putting back the chair, opening the gate, closing the gate and walking up the stairs again. Crass padding as it is, Roth’s prolonged, real time depiction of this nothing-special scene renders it far more memorable than it has any right to be.

ad-break caption from a UK TV screening

Fortunately once we touch down on the 13th moon of Jupiter, Fire Maidens livens up considerably, and the film loses none of its ability to raise a smile and make jaws drop. Absolutely no attempt is made to evoke an alien terrain, with the landscape of the 13th moon of Jupiter looking suspiciously like a field near Elstree. “The atmosphere on the 13th Moon of Jupiter is similar to that on Earth” claims one of the astronauts, providing Roth with a get-out reason for not proving any expensive spacesuits for his film. Instead his astronauts are sent into the great outdoors with a pair of binoculars and wristwatches, frequently looking like a bunch of overgrown boy scouts on a Sunday picnic. Aside from the absence of spacesuits, another plus for the men is that the 13th moon of Jupiter is populated by the titular Fire Maidens, 16 beautiful alien women, who dress like Las Vegas cocktail hostesses and are more than a little smitten by the Earthmen.

Their father Prasus (Owen Berry) claims to be descended from the people of Atlantis, who if he is to be believed avoided sinking to be bottom of the ocean by travelling to the 13th moon of Jupiter. Contemplating a portrait of Aphrodite, Prasus tells the disbelieving astronauts “she was my Mother’s Mother”. Having established ‘New Atlantis’ on the 13th moon of Jupiter, Prasus now wants the men to mate with his lovely daughters. A plan of action that causes one of the astronauts to protest “wait a minute, I’m a happily married man”.

Fire Maidens’ plot plays like the daydreams of a 1950s eligible bachelor, our heroes are plied with drink, fed grapes and are the subject of loving looks and affection from the sexy fire maidens. The film is akin to someone back then buying a copy of a scientific journal as a front for simultaneously picking up a cheesecake magazine, concealing the latter within the former. The film might throw out the occasional piece of nonsense science and techobabble, but you just know its head is really at cheap thrills, boy’s own heroics and hot babes. There is also an underlining element of repressed 1950s kinkiness at work. At one point the Fire Maidens stage a coup and tie-up their nominal leader Hestia (Susan Shaw). Hopped up on fem-dom kicks, the Fire Maidens also decide they need to kill the men, so overpower and tie-up Sydney Tafler and Harry Fowler too. Incidentally, Fowler’s nickname within certain showbiz circles was ‘Harry the Horse’ because, well.... let’s just say if the Fire Maidens had seen that side of his talents they might not have been in such a rush to try and kill him, even though they still might have been eager to tie him up.

Alpha male shows of strength come when the men have to save the women from the clutches of a mutated creature, referred to as “the man with the head of a beast” who lurks around the periphery, providing much needed horror movie dramatics. Entertainment for the men comes in the form of dance routines, performed by the fire maidens to ‘dances from Prince Igor by Borodin’. A piece of music whose melody formed the basis for ‘Stranger in Paradise’ from Kismet, a musical that had opened in the West End in 1955, which is likely where it came to Cy Roth’s attention.

Although Fire Maidens only uses an instrumental version of the song, taken from the 1890 opera Prince Igor, Stranger in Paradise and Fire Maidens have a tendency to become inseparable once you’ve seen the film. Talking Pictures TV, which has aired Fire Maidens a number of times recently, have also been running an advert for a CD compilation of songs from the 1950s. Y’know the one featuring a couple and their dog being magically sent back in time to a b/w past, and every time ‘Stranger in Paradise’ is used in that advert I do find myself getting Fire Maiden flashbacks, and half expect the advert to hype the CD as containing the ‘love theme from Fire Maidens from Outer Space’. However if you truly want to never hear ‘Stranger in Paradise’ in the same light again, double-bill Fire Maidens with another frequent Talking Pictures replay ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ and that should do the trick.

I can’t help but think that these dance sequences would have thoroughly bored kids back in the 1950s, who’d shown up for the big bad monster promised by the poster, and instead were faced with all these scenes of the leggy fire maidens dancing in short skirts. I say this because as a kid in the 1980s I grew up watching The Benny Hill Show, and at that pre-pubescent age the entertainment value of that show always stopped dead whenever Hill’s Angels came on. For the life of me, I couldn’t fathom why there would suddenly be these whole sequences featuring women just dancing in these silly costumes, which weren’t even funny, and longed for the show to cut back to Benny being chased around or slapping the bald guy on the head. Sentiments that I suspect were echoed by 1950s brats watching matinee screenings of Fire Maidens from Outer Space and passionately hollering at the screen “where’s the monster, what’s with all these girls dancing...girls are stupid...we want the monster”. Its only when puberty kicks in that the penny drops and the titillating, knicker flashing appeal to these sequences begins to make sense. Even if ‘Prasus’ Angels’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Hills’ Angels.

Poor old Prasus does have to carry the can for much of Fire Maidens’ silly plot. The astronauts are forever ridiculing him behind his back, referring to him as “batty” and scoffing at the idea that he is descended from Aphrodite and that the 16 fire maidens are his daughters. It’s as if the makers of the film realised its plot wasn’t going to hold up to audience scrutiny, so cleverly anticipated this by having the no-nonsense astronauts mock the plot and the Fire Maidens’ crazy back-story that this campy old fool keeps trying to sell them on.

For a product of the chauvinistic 1950s, Fire Maidens does occasionally go against expectations too. While you’d expect Prasus to be respectfully portrayed as a powerful, intelligent Zeus type patriarchal figure, Fire Maidens instead paints him as something of an ineffectual joke. The film can never quite decide whether Prasus should be Fire Maidens’ villain or its comic relief. Once Hestia and Luther Blair share some me-time together she reveals that Prasus keeps the women prisoner within the confines of New Atlantis, which is separated from the rest of the planet by a giant, electrified wall that Prasus has had built (yeah, who’d have thought a plot point from Fire Maidens from Outer Space would resonate so strongly in 2019). The ever present threat of another male figure, the mutant creature, inadvertently helps Prasus keep the women behind the walls of New Atlantis and under his thumb. The astronauts’ journey might be one small step for man, but it’s one giant leap for womankind. By the end of the film the astronauts have liberated the women from both the savagery of the creature and the patriarchal tyranny of Prasus. Rather than then assert their own male authority over this new society, they instead hand control over to Hestia, establishing the beginning of what appears to be a more hopeful, peaceful, matriarchy. Here endeth my half-hearted attempt to pitch Fire Maidens from Outer Space as being a feminist film.

Various different versions of Fire Maidens have surfaced over the years. In the UK the film was cut in order to receive a kiddie friendly ‘U’ certificate. Missing from the climax of this version are several close-ups of the creature and terrified reaction shots of the fire maidens, obviously considered too intense for British kids back in 1956. It’s that same cut version which Talking Pictures has recently been airing in the UK.

footage removed from the UK version.

What has chiefly been problematic about Fire Maidens over the years though isn’t violence, sex or bad language but the amount of product placement in the film. On that level at least, Fire Maidens from Outer Space truly is King of Fifties Sci-Fi. Cy Roth never misses an opportunity to welcome product placement into his film, and Fire Maidens is rarely subtle about it. Luther Blair makes his flight from New Mexico, New York and London with a TWA bag in tow, gets off a TWA plane, and meets his contact in London airport at a building sporting the TWA logo. At the astronomical base a drinks machine tempts us to ‘have a coke’. Blair reminds his men “all of you have Longines space watches...set them”, and when they are not consulting those watches they are puffing on Chesterfield cigarettes. Whilst back at HQ the countdown to the rocket ship’s launch into space results in on all eyes being on a Longines wall clock, which Roth insists on grabbing huge close-ups of, even if this results in the camera’s shadow getting into shot as well. There is so much whoring for big business going on in Fire Maidens that it almost single-handily absorbs Cy Roth of any suspected communist leanings. When Fire Maidens was sold to television, the film would have ran afoul of rules against product placement on TV. Resulting in versions of the film that were missing certain shots or muffled the line extolling the virtues of Longines watches. It all seems to have depended on how eagle eyed various TV censors were towards this underhanded form of advertising.

As well as cheeky references to soft drinks, cigarettes and timepieces, there is genuine talent onscreen here too. Sydney Tafler and Harry Fowler were well loved and reliable character actors, who both appeared in well over a hundred films each. The make-up here is early work by Roy Ashton, who’d go on to drive an entire generation behind the sofa with his creature designs for Hammer Horrors like The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies, The Gorgon and The Curse of the Werewolf. All though does tend to get trampled underfoot by Cy Roth’s direction. Roth’s approach to making the film seems akin to a demented paratrooper storming the battlefield. Everything feels one take, and to hell if actors stumble over, corpse on camera or whether the dialogue in the observatory scene is drowned out by the sound of cars going by’s all about getting film into the camera.

While everything onscreen is played completely straight, Fire Maidens is the type of 1950s sci-fi movie that would provide ammo for sci-fi spoofs and wisecracks from late night TV viewers for decades to come. Pros as they are, it is easy to imagine the actors cracking up every time the director called cut, probably closely followed by the director yelling at them for laughing. For Cy Roth though, Fire Maidens was pretty much the end of the line when it came to his brief feature film career. A year later Roth was back in America, and briefly found himself in the director’s chair of the low-budget Western ‘Outlaw Queen’, only to quickly become an unpopular man with both cast and crew. In particular over an incident where Roth allegedly hit a horse in the face, after it failed to adequately respond to his direction. News of Roth’s firing from the film was reportedly greeted by a spontaneous cheer from the crew. Cy Roth...hero or villain?...persecuted victim of McCarthyism or equine abusing tyrant?...the jury is still out on that one. This then is the legacy of Fire Maidens from Outer Space...a film made by a man who once hit a horse, and a film starring a man who was hung like one, it’s an experience well worth setting your Longines space watches for the next time it rolls by on late night television.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Kill Squad (1982)

I love it when people insist on their names being part of their film’s title, even if realistically their names aren’t going to mean much outside of their immediate friends and family. Thus, in the tradition of Bart La Rue’s Satanwar, Krishna Shah’s Rivals, and Peter Kay’s Sexy Secrets of the Kiss-o-gram Girls, we here have “Patrick G. Donahue’s Kill Squad”.

While he isn’t exactly the household name that his title billing here might imply, Donahue has had a steady career directing low-budget action movies, mostly starring himself and his son. The most well known of the bunch being 1991’s Savage Instinct, released by Troma as ‘They Call Me Macho Woman’. A film in which at one point the heroine escapes from the bad guys by walking along the tops of their heads, then proceeds to taunt them by grabbing her crotch, and if that doesn’t entice you into seeing ‘They Call Me Macho Woman’ nothing will.

Beginning as he clearly meant to go on, Donahue’s first film Kill Squad is a simplistic, eager to please action-fest that I’m genuinely surprised isn’t crushed upon more by lovers of trashy 1980s movies. I’m also a little surprised that it has taken this long for the film, and indeed the rest of the Donahue oeuvre, to show up on my radar as well. I have to confess I’d never even heard of this guy till about 48 hours ago. Needless to say, I now want to see everything he has ever made.

The bare bones plot of Kill Squad concerns Joseph Lawrence (Jeff Risk) a former Vietnam veteran turned successful electronics businessman. Lawrence’s life is turned on its head when a bunch of goons led by a business rival of his called Dutch (Cameron Mitchell) breaks into his house, gang rapes and murders his wife, then shoots Lawrence, leaving him paralysed. Now wheelchair bound, a grief stricken Joseph Lawrence has revenge on his mind, and calls on his Nam vet buddies to form ‘The Kill Squad’. A bunch of vigilantes who have to fight literally hundreds of bad guys in order to get to Mitchell’s final villain.

Each member of this tough guy supergroup gets their own thumbnail sized intro, which quickly establishes what they’ve been up to since Nam, and the fact that they don’t take bullshit from anyone. Tommy (Gary Fung) has been working as a gardener for a racist shitbag who refuses to pay him and calls him a ‘nip’ at a pool party. Tommy responds by beating the bejesus out of him and several of his men, easily ensuring a cheque for garden services rendered. K.C. (Jerry Johnson) has become a Dolemite style badass pimp who refers to his hoes as ‘salt and pepper’ and whose martial arts moves and streetwise quips come in handy when a rival pimp tries to muscle in on his territory. Donahue was a man who clearly wasn’t about to let the Kung-Fu and Blaxploitation genres die off without a fight. All of these sequences end with the other guys showing up, hi-fiving their bro, and recruiting them into The Kill Squad with the film’s catchphrase “Joseph needs you”.

Kill Squad plays like a live-action version of an arcade game we all should have been dropping coins into during the 1980s. Characters are only distinguishable by their weaponry and ethnicity. It feels as if there should be an option to play as either Tommy, the Oriental guy (special weapon: fighting sticks), Larry, the Afro-ed black guy (special weapon: ninja stars), Alan, the muscular white guy (special weapon: a pair of nunchaku), Pete, the Mexican guy (special weapon: two pairs of nunchaku), K.C, the black pimp (special weapons: switchblade + jive talk) or Arthur, the Jewish guy aka the one with the Bruce Lee T-Shirt (special weapon: the sword). True to the arcade game format, these characters battle their way through various backdrops (the junkyard, the used car lot, the construction site) before moving on to the next level.

The average scene in the film involves the Kill Squad shaking down some poor S.O.B for information as to Cameron Mitchell’s whereabouts, only for all of the guy’s work buddies to come to his aid, necessitating that the Kill Squad kick all their asses. The poor S.O.B eventually reveals he knows another poor S.O.B who ‘might’ know Cameron Mitchell’s whereabouts. At which point BOOM!!! a mysterious sniper takes out the snitch and one of the Kill Squad. After mourning their fallen comrade for all of about 5 seconds, the Kill Squad rush off to shake down the next poor S.O.B for information as to Cameron Mitchell’s whereabouts, only for all of the guy’s work buddies to come to his aid...and exactly the same thing happens as in the previous scene. No matter what their occupation or walks of life- hardhats, car salesmen, lawyers, scrap metal workers, party guests- everyone in this film appears to be an accomplished martial artist who wants to take on the Kill Squad. In fact if this film is to be believed, the only person on the face of the planet who doesn’t know martial arts is Cameron Mitchell.

Downsides to the movie are that the repetitious ‘lather, rinse, repeat’ nature of the plot begins to set in towards the end, and most will guess the identity of the masked sniper way in advance of the intended big reveal. To give credit where its due though, Donahue does throw in an insane other ‘twist’, when its revealed that one of the Kill Squad faked his own death and has been waiting on the sidelines until the sniper reveals himself. At which point the presumed dead member of the Kill Squad discloses to the sniper that he cheated death by wearing a bulletproof vest, which he then stupidly takes off right there in front of the sniper, who proceeds to slice him up with a sword!!! Such is the knuckleheaded logic of your average Kill Squad character.

Straight to video in the UK, Kill Squad was released on tape by Mike Lee’s Vipco company, one of the earliest VHS labels to openly embrace exploitation movies. While Mike Lee did sporadically dabble in financing movies himself, having put up the money for Andy Milligan’s Carnage (1983), the troubled horror film eventually released as ‘Spookies’ in 1986 and the car crash compilation video ‘Britain’s Women Drivers’ in 1995, Vipco’s involvement in Kill Squad appears to be purely as an after-the-fact video distributor. The ‘Michael D. Lee’ credited as the producer of the film being unlikely to be the Vipco Mike Lee, whose middle name is Anthony. Still Kill Squad is a film that’s perfectly at home amidst the Vipco brand of entertainment, and equally in keeping with the cheap thrill loving mentality of the early video renting public. Gore, Kung-Fu, car chases and racial insults are thrown around like confetti at a wedding. Filler and boredom appear to be alien concepts in the cinema of Patrick G. Donahue, his films could never be accused of standing still, and it is difficult not to be won over by a filmmaker so singularly hell-bent on giving you an action packed good time. Fuck it, I’ve changed my mind, this guy EARNS the right to have his name above the title after all. 

Whoever did put up the money for Kill Squad, that money bought them a few scenes worth of Cameron Mitchell chewing the scenery, a cast of real life martial arts experts putting in passable acting performances, countless onscreen brawls, a paper thin script, some spectacular vehicular destruction, and the occasion pair of bare breasts. In other well spent.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Terri’s Revenge (1976) addendum

Charles Devlin, a facebook friend, has generously allowed me to share the following about the making of Terri’s Revenge, taken from his correspondence with one of the few cast members from the film still around to tell the tale. Many thanks to Charles, for allowing me to repost this, and the rare Terri’s Revenge Ads, which also come from his collection. 

“a couple of years ago I got in touch with Jason M. — one of the cast for TERRI'S REVENGE. And he had this to say:

Working with the late Terri Hall was a truly unforgettable experience. When she died, I said then that there would never be another one like her, and there has not been. I may be the only person from "Terri's Revenge" who is still alive. Edward Marsh, Terri Hall, Chad Lambert, Jeanette Sinclair are all deceased now.

I was the guy in the first revenge rape scene. Terri did not hold back! She was a physically strong woman who could inflict some serious pain on men. She really got into her roles. Not long after "Terri's Revenge" was filmed, she took good care of me, seeing as how I had been a bit traumatized from the revenge rape scene, LOL. That's what kind of person she was. Very loving and kind. Sadly, once the early 1980's rolled around, the adult film industry brushed her aside. Unfortunate, really, because she still had a lot to offer.

When she died of cancer, nobody had even known that she was ill. I don't know if this is true or not, but it has been stated that she had three children. Two daughters and one son. I sort of have my doubts about that one.

Back then, I had been in a couple of bondage films, where I played a submissive to a professional Dominatrix. I had seen some of Terri's early work and was just head over heels for her, wanted to be in a film with her. However, getting into the full on XXX side of the adult film industry was a bit more difficult than what I had done, which was just BDSM. Not to mention, I could not compete with the likes of Chad Lambert. I was nowhere near that well endowed, LOL.

I had a few contacts, one of which knew Edward Marsh. That individual mentioned to him that I would like to be in a film with Terri Hall, but of course, I was just another guy on a long list of guys who wanted to be in a film with her. From what I heard, Terri's Revenge was going to go a bit different. Originally, it was going to be Terri taking revenge on either Chad Lambert or Peter Andrews. However, the idea was scrapped, and they went in the direction of Terri and her friend taking revenge on suspected rapists instead.

I was contacted, but only after a few guys had backed out, due what that scene entailed, which of course was getting "stuck" with a vibrator. I gladly took the part, seeing as how it was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I didn't know what it would be like, as I had never done that activity before. Miss Hall put it on me, that's for sure! I remember hearing her tell someone that she had scarred me for life, LOL! Those BDSM films and Terri's Revenge were the only films I was ever in.

The guy who played the undercover policeman was named Richard Ortolani. I heard that he was indebted to the mob and was eventually murdered. I also heard that the mob had a hand in making Terri's Revenge, but I'm not so certain about that one.”

Charles also pointed out a minor error in my Terri’s Revenge review “it's THE BLUES PROJECT which is performing the live rendition of Blind Willie Johnson's "I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes", not TEN YEARS AFTER.”