Monday, 23 September 2019

Psycho from Texas (1975)

Psycho from Texas….now there’s a movie title that takes me back. If you were around the bargain basement video shops of Britain in the late 1980s and 1990s a run-in with this film was inevitable, you just couldn’t move in those places without tripping over a copy of it. My own initial encounter with Psycho from Texas came at ‘Pricebusters’ in Blackpool. Pricebusters was two floors worth of market trading stalls, hidden away in the basement of which was this stall selling cheap video releases of horror and exploitation titles. Truth be told though, there were places like that scattered all over Blackpool back then.

Their niche was the type of videos that never made it into the rental shops or chains like HMV and Our Price, this was the absolute underclass of the video industry, labels like Apex, Network, Viz, Elephant Video, Stablecane, Bronx Video, all those here today, gone tomorrow outfits. If you were growing up in the era that came after the fleapit cinemas and the video nasties, and prior to the internet and DVD, this was how you got your education in exploitation movies. To venture into those bargain basement VHS shops really was a trip into the unknown. Very little documentation of these types of film were readily available then, and even if it was, most of these films had been re-titled anyhow. For reasons that looking back on it you can’t help thinking were a bit suspect, especially as you often had entire video labels that put out nothing but re-titled product, which dare I say is an ideal way of keeping one step ahead of a film’s rights owner.

Don't Look in the Basement- the entrance to the long gone Pricebusters

Anyway, it was in Pricebusters that I encountered the likes of Exorcist 3: Cries and Shadows, Al Adamson’s Dracula Vs Frankenstein (re-titled: Revenge of Dracula), The Witchmaker, Night Fright, Malpertuis, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (re-titled: Death’s Ecstasy), Borowczyk’s Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (re-titled: The Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll), Death Curse of Tartu and Werewolf Woman, all thrown together in a Blackpool basement, along with this ‘Psycho from Texas’ film. Not that it was called Psycho from Texas back then of course, the film had been re-titled ‘The Butcher’ by a distributor called Bronx Video, who liked it so much they put it out twice, under two different covers. One that sold it as a horror movie, and had a Michael Myers type mask on the cover, and another that had a cartoonish drawing of someone getting shot-gunned to death on the cover….which completely spoils the end of the film by the way. Every one of these films was an adventure in itself, would you stumble upon a lost gem, or be bored to tears by the likes of Wendigo and The Thirsty Dead, be off to Italy for a heavily-cut Lucio Fulci film, or experience an art film in horror movie clothing like Malpertuis and the Boro movies.

Let’s not look back on the VHS era with too much misplaced nostalgia though, don’t forget that back then these films were frequently cut, panned and scanned, and quality wise looked like shitty 3rd or 4th generation copies. No one remotely sane would argue that this was the ideal way to watch these movies, but such video releases brought these films allot of attention, put them out there at affordable prices, thus making them easily accessible to the common man, and helped pave the way for the whistles and bells, deluxe treatment that some of these films are receiving on blu-ray today.

VHS cover courtesy of Charles Devlin 

Psycho from Texas is a prime example of the kind of American regional obscurity that you tended to encounter in bargain basement video shops back then. The type of films that cast a spell over British VHS viewers on account of their ability to spirit you away down the forgotten, dirt roads of America’s past. You knew with films like these that you were seeing an America far removed from the gloss of Hollywood. We’re talking films made in places like Florida and the Deep South, films directed by and starring people you’ve never heard of before, and chances are would never hear from again.

Psycho from Texas’ director Jim Feazell, sort of fits the bill in that respect, this being his one shot at directing, producing and writing a feature film. Prior to the film though, Feazell had been kicking around filmmaking for a number of years as a stuntman. He’d done stunt work on Chisum, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Once you realize the Peckinpah connection, the ending of Psycho from Texas makes perfect sense, it being everything you’d expect from someone who’d worked under the tutelage of bloody Sam. Feazell was also the author of several books, whose plots make you wish he’d directed more feature films. Who wouldn’t want to have seen a film version of Feazell’s horror novel ‘Return to Heaven’ in which “Chuck Abbott, three years after he and Bubba destroyed the demon from hell” returns to “help Bubba quell another bedeviled shroud of evil that had enveloped heaven”.

Believe it or not, Feazell did actually base Psycho from Texas on a real-life story, that of George James, a rich businessman who in April 1967 was held against his will by two men who forced him to sign cheques over to them, before James managed to escape and alert the authorities. Feazell filmed Psycho from Texas in Eldorado, Texas where he lived and where the actual events took place. What made it onto the screen though can’t really claim too much basis in reality, with Psycho from Texas it feels like we’re getting a 10th generation retelling of a true story. Where every time the story has been told the teller has added their own salacious details and blown incidents that little bit more out of proportion.

Rechristened ‘William Phillips’ for a big screen, the film’s George James character is a widowed rich businessman with a blonde daughter and a luxurious mansion, who enjoys fishing and inexplicably likes to hang around with poor black children. Like Conrad Bain’s character in Diff’rent Strokes though, Philips is just a big hearted guy who loves to reach out to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who could knock that, after all

“Now, the world don't move to the beat of just one drum 
What might be right for you, may not be right for some 
A man is born, he's a man of means 
Then along come two, they got nothing but their jeans 

But they got, Diff'rent Strokes 
It takes, Diff'rent Strokes 
It takes, Diff'rent Strokes to move the world 

Everybody's got a special kind of story 
Everybody finds a way to shine 
It don't matter that you got not allot 
So what 
They'll have theirs, and you'll have yours, and I'll have mine 
And together we'll be fine.... 

Because it takes, Diff'rent Strokes to move the world 
Yes it does 
It takes, Diff'rent Strokes to move the world”

Left to its own devices this film could have played out as a gentle drama about how fishing can bridge boundaries of age, race and class in America, but ya’ can’t be having a film called Psycho from Texas without having a Psycho. So…enter Wheeler, a psychotic drifter played by John King III, the kind of mean looking sombitch that sure makes you glad you never got to meet John King II, or indeed John King- the original.

It might be blasphemous to mention them in the same breath, but in its own amateur hour way Psycho from Texas anticipates ‘Henry- Portrait of a Serial Killer’ in several ways. There are flashbacks to the bloody aftermaths of Wheeler’s crimes, as you see one of the …you suspect many… dead corpses that Wheeler has left in the motel rooms of America. Wheeler’s back-story is your typical serial killer sob story…Momma was a whore, young Wheeler got exposed to some inappropriate fornicating, now he hates all women cause they remind him of Momma….you know the drill. Wheeler finds his own Otis in Slick (Tommy Lamey) a low-IQed, mustachioed criminal who Wheeler is partnered up with to kidnap Mr. Phillips. Needless to say, what with Wheeler’s psychopathic tendencies and Slick’s general air of incompetence, together this duo are definitely not the greater sum of their parts.

As you might expect from a film made by a local resident Psycho from Texas has a great feel for its area, and gives the impression that very little has changed about the South since the days of Gone with the Wind. Phillips’ grand Southern mansion and gospel humming black maid is in sharp contrast to the dirt poor areas of town he drives through to pick up his young black fishing buddy. It might not have been Feazell’s intension but such scenes do hammer home that this is still a place of the haves and the have-nots, with the houses along Philips’ journey being little more than shacks, and a bucket full of dirty water being unceremoniously thrown out onto the street as Phillips drives by.

It is hard to know who Wheeler hates most rich people or women…who of course remind him of Momma. “I’d sure likely to take a pretty girl into the woods than a hairy legged old man” Wheeler bitterly complains to Phillips. Whoever came up with the music for Psycho from Texas appears to have been singing from a different hymn sheet than its director. Whereas the C&W songs on the soundtrack practically weep for Wheeler’s lost, tormented soul “I’d give my very life away, everything I own, if I could turn his world around”, the film seems to revel in portraying him as a tough, heartless bastard. Would you give your very life away, everything you own, for a man who moments later is brutalizing a harmless old man onscreen and referring to his daughter as a “stuck up bitch”.

As per their real life counterparts, Wheeler and Slick kidnap Phillips, take him to a woodlands shack and force him to sign over cheques. Psycho from Texas also sticks to the facts when it comes to the pair’s plan quickly going belly up. Wheeler goes to cash the cheques but can’t stay out of trouble for long, getting into a fight with a drug dealer, having more childhood flashbacks and raping and murdering the Sheriff’s daughter. Slick also fails miserably to live up to his name, and gets drunk, which allows Philips the chance to escape. Given that Slick sports a red hanky in his left pocket throughout the movie, which as per the rules of William Friedkin’s Cruising, means Slick is into gay S&M, old man Phillips was perhaps wise to make a quick getaway.

Psycho from Texas is the stuff of VHS era legend for two reasons, one of which is the foot chase that goes on…and on…and on. Slick’s pursuit of Phillips beginning at around 40 minutes into the film and ending at 66 minutes in. Roughly taking place in real time, Psycho from Texas might well contain the mother of all movie foot chases, played out over a landscape of cow fields, woodlands and muddy swamps. For thespians Tommy Lamey and Herschel Mays, this must have felt less like an acting assignment and more like the obstacle course from hell. As even the significantly younger Tommy Lamey appears visibly exhausted at one point, your heart has to go out to Herschel Mays, an out of shape, bespectacled, bewigged old man that this film seems determined to give a fatal coronary too. Psycho from Texas’ never ending foot chase also gives Tommy Lamey the chance to shine as the film’s comic relief, with plentiful opportunities to laugh at dumb ol’ Slick, as his pursuit of Phillips is impeded by a skunk and then a herd of pigs, all of whom add to the overall humiliation of being unable to catch up to a wheezing old man.

The second reason for Psycho from Texas being the stuff of VHS era legend is, but of course, it’s theme tune ‘Yesterday was a long time ago’. Psycho from Texas’ love affair with that damn theme tune knows no bounds, it’s rarely off Psycho from Texas’ jukebox and is repeated ad infinitum during the film. Along with the foot chase, this song puts forward a case that words like ‘overkill’ and ‘repetition’ were not part of Jim Feazell’s vocabulary. Once heard, impossible to forget ‘Yesterday was a long time ago’ is another C&W number that begs audience sympathy for the unsympathetic Wheeler

“Yesterday was a long time ago, 
Yesterday he did not understand, 
Now he’s learned how to hate, to kill and to rape, 
He’s lived a thousand lives and Wheeler knows, 
The fear of being a man, 
But fears come and go, and Wheeler doesn’t know, 
What’s to become of his soul”. 

There are further lyrics but if you’ve ever seen the film they should already be imprinted on your brain, and if you haven’t seen the film its best to experience the Psycho from Texas theme song for yourself. ‘Yesterday was a long time ago’ rivals ‘Keep on Driving’ from Pigs (1973) and the theme tune from Hitchhike to Hell (1977), as the most catchiest ditty ever heard in a regional exploitation film.


Psycho from Texas originally unspooled for local audiences in 1975 as ‘Wheeler’, self distributed by Feazell and bearing a phony PG rating (note the lack of MPAA logo on the poster). After lying dormant for a few years, the film was reworked in the late 1970s, with additional scenes shot to beef the film up to an R rating. A turn of events that meant Jim Feazell had to get all Jim Sleaze’ll. John King III was recalled to shoot a scene featuring Wheeler with a (dead) nude woman in a motel room, also added were explicit flashbacks involving a mangy salesman humping away at Wheeler’s no-good mother.

The most noteworthy scene that transformed the PG rated Wheeler into the R-rated Psycho from Texas, involves Wheeler getting into a bar fight and then blowing his top at a barmaid whose indifferent attitude has wound him up the wrong way. It’s an add-on that gave the film its biggest claim to fame, on account of the unfortunate barmaid being played by future scream queen Linnea Quigley, in one of her earliest screen roles. The years in-between did nothing to dim the bug eyed intensity John King III brought to the role, as Wheeler hollers “now bitch, let’s dance” to poor Linnea, who is forced to dance, strip, then has beer poured over her by the sadistic Wheeler. Talk about a trial by fire – or should that be trial by beer- introduction to the film industry. Then again, in a career that would see her being impaled on deer antlers, be eaten by zombies and pushing lipstick into one of her breasts, Linnea certainly began and she meant to go on.

After being shopped around under the titles ‘The Hurting’ and ‘The Mama’s Boy’ this new version of the film finally resurfaced under its now best known title ‘Psycho from Texas’, presumably dreamed up to cash in on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which was enjoying a successful Stateside re-release in 1981. Its distribution in the NYC area was handled by New American Films, a company ran by gay porn director Joe Gage, who soon after would himself be branching out into R-rated exploitation films (Breeders, Bad Girls Dormitory) under the name Tim Kincaid.

In the UK, Psycho from Texas was meant to have been cut by 5 minutes and 20 seconds by the British censor for its late 1980s VHS release. A fact that immediately put it on the radar of sleaze film fans who figured that any film which warranted such heavy censorship had to be worth seeking out, at least in its uncut state. The irony is that, I now suspect Bronx video never implemented the cuts that the BBFC insisted on. The Linnea Quigley scene, surely the only scene that could have warranted such excessive censor cuts, was intacto on the Bronx release, and while the version the BBFC passed ran 78 minutes, the Bronx tape clocks in closer to 84 minutes. For that Bronx video deserve kudos, even if you suspect that their issuing of it uncut was more down to error and incompetence rather than an attempt to defy the British censor.

There are a couple of different versions of Psycho from Texas floating around however. Some versions of the scene where Phillips escapes Slick allow it to play out in real time, while other versions curiously depict Phillip’s escape via a series of dissolves on Slick’s face. Evidentially language edits have also been made to the film at some point as well, as there exists racist and non-racist versions of Psycho from Texas. In one version of the film the redneck Sheriff makes reference to “that little nigger boy that fishes allot with Bill”, while other versions awkwardly edit out the racial insult. The deletion of that tiny piece of dialogue can’t hide the fact though that films like Psycho from Texas weren’t made for sensitive times. Scenes involving Phillips’ black maid becoming hysterical and wailing “lord ha’ mercy” while crawling about on her hands and feet having seemingly been included in the film to give racist whites a few belly laughs. As I say, films like this sure weren’t made for sensitive times.

Yesterday was a long time ago…yesterday people went to drive-ins and bargain basement VHS shops to watch old geezers being run ragged and neekid young ladies having beer poured over them…you might not have had to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre, but you do have to go to Psycho from Texas for a 26 minute foot chase.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Bedabbled #5

Bedabbled! issue 5 is out now, contains a few articles ‘what I wrote’ but don’t let that put you off, the rest of the mag looks rather wonderful.

"Bedabbled!, the magazine dedicated to classic British Horror and Cult Cinema (roughly the years between 1960-1980) returns after a long hiatus with issue #5. Each issue has a particular theme, and this time it's 'Keyhole Love', focusing on films that deal with obsession and voyeurism. Through the window we observe Hayley Mills' psycho-roadtrip Deadly Strangers, Peter Cushing's nastiest role in Corruption, and the bathing-house classic Deep End. Featured elsewhere are Goodbye Gemini, Groupie Girl and the bizarre porn film Diversions. Add to that articles on Alexis Kanner (Goodbye Gemini) and Skip Martin (Horror Hospital). Plus an interview with Dr Terrible's House of Horrible co-creator Henry Normal. Previous issues of Bedabbled! all sold out their limited print runs: #5 is the first edition to be available via Amazon."

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Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Obsidian Curse (2016)

Only a Rene Perez movie could begin as a drama about a reformed drug addict attempting to regain custody of her daughter and end with a fight between a hipster serial killer and a Nosferatu look vampire who wears a suit of armour, whilst in-between finding time to squeeze in a zombie invasion, a witch’s curse, a cameo from Reggie ‘Phantasm’ Bannister, a monster under the bed and whatever else has escaped from the Rene Perez house of horrors.

The Obsidian Curse might well be the ideal primer for someone wanting an idea of what Rene Perez is all about, its multi-genred plot allowing for elements of fantasy, reflecting Perez’s adaptations of The Snow Queen and Little Red Riding Hood. We also get a zombie attack sequence straight out of Perez’s ‘The Dead and the Damned’ series, and a last minute serial killer/ladies in distress subplot that harks back to his ‘Playing with Dolls’ series. Even having seen The Obsidian Curse I’m still finding it difficult to comprehend that one film can find the time to do so much, but Perez is a pretty diverse kind of a guy.

The Obsidian Curse evolves around Blair Jensen (Karin Brauns) a character who has lost her way in life, partied hard and is now paying the price for having gone off the rails. Having been arrested whilst snorting cocaine off the belly of another party girl, Blair emerges from a year long stint in Shasta County jail to discover that allot can happen in the space of a year. She is turned down for a succession of jobs on account of her drug conviction. Worse still, she discovers that not only has her husband remarried but that his new wife is scheming in install herself as a full time mother to Blair’s daughter, despite having open contempt for the girl. At times Perez seems to be restaging a fairy tale in modern dress here, with a ‘Wicked Stepmother’ motif running throughout scenes of the stepmother behaving cruelly towards the girl, as well as scenes of Blair herself being upstaged, humiliated and outclassed by her rival.

All this real world drama dominates the opening act of The Obsidian Curse, with only a pre-credits scene featuring the castle dwelling, blue skinned Nosferatu fellow, hinting at the monster mash to follow. The Obsidian Curse really kicks into horror movie gear once Blair goes for a job as a tour guide at an underground cave, only to fall victim to a witch, who places an Obsidian curse on her. This isn’t Perez’s first ‘Obsidian’ outing, and if you’ve seen his earlier Obsidian movie 2012’s Obsidian Hearts (aka Demon Hunter) you’ll known that an Obsidian curse makes the heart of the cursed party a magnet for evil of both the supernatural and non-supernatural varieties. Once Blair becomes the owner of an Obsidian heart, all hell breaks loose, as various creatures begin popping up to terrorize Blair and dispatch her friends and other interested parties.

Its a premise, that like the earlier Obsidian movie, allows Perez to go full throttle in the action and horror departments, whilst royally pulling the rug from an audience who’d become accustomed to a down to earth movie up until this point. Although I’m not sure if it was a direct influence, The Obsidian Curse does gradually take on the mantle of a 21st century version of ‘Spookies’ (1986). The narrative acts as an excuse to shunt the heroine from one horror movie set piece to another, as well as showcasing a mind boggling array of monsters.

First up is a sightless, twisty faced creature that lives under beds and uses a severed eyeball to see out of. This is a creature we’ve seen before in Perez’s version of Little Red Riding Hood (which begs the question do all of Perez’s movies exist in a shared universe or does he just think a good monster is always worth repeating) and here makes short work of one of Blair’s galpals, leaving another monster to chow down on her remains. Blair escapes but soon has to contend with a zombie invasion, after the witch causes the undead to rise from their graves. Blair’s fight back against the zombies, which involves energetically jogging around a field, pausing only to bash in their skulls with a bat, suggests her real calling in life might be as a baseball player.

The Obsidian Curse pauses only slightly for breath to trot out a couple of name actors. Reggie Bannister shows up as a paranormal investigator who is one of few people to buy into Blair’s story (and let’s face it, only someone who has been in five Phantasm movies would believe a story like Blair’s). Richard Tyson- formally of Kindergarten Cop- plays a Professor who narrowed escaped the witch, and has a mutated brother who wasn’t so lucky. In a moment that still leaves me unsure whether it was meant to be funny or not, a creature with a gas mask like face appears at Tyson’s window, causing him to nonchalantly turn to Blair and ask “is that person with you?”

The more Rene Perez movies you watch, the more they take on a cozily familiar quality. Part of their charm has become spotting people from his other films and pointing out “oh look, there’s that woman who was force-fed an eyeball in Playing with Dolls: Havoc” or “oh, there’s that little girl who was in a wheelchair in Death Kiss, and wired to a drip in The Punished”. Then there are the locations, the ginormous cave being familiar from Playing with Dolls: Havoc, the vampire’s castle having played host to characters in Perez’s Sleeping Beauty adaptation, and an airport being the same one where Bronzi punched the guy in the stomach in Death Kiss.

A ticket to a Rene Perez film always buys you a guided tour around Shasta County, a mountainous, woodland area of California that has become as distinct a part of his film’s character as his actors. Even relatively urban Perez films like Death Kiss can’t resist the call of the Shasta wilderness for very long. There appears to be a special pact going on between filmmaker and location in Perez’s films. The location lends Perez the kind of breathtaking backdrops that money can’t buy, but in return no filmmaker can claim to have done more for Shasta County tourism than Rene Perez. His films truly put Shasta County on the map as a place of natural beauty, even if they do also portray it as a regular hunting ground of hulking, mask wearing serial killers.

Although Perez’s films openly embrace elements of their exploitation movie forefathers (if there is an attractive female in his cast, chances are you’ll see her hooters at some point) they also portray Perez as a highly moral man as well. Redemptive themes, traditional values and positivity have become as much part of his formula as gore and female nudity. If Perez’s approach to filmmaking is far removed from Hollywood, so too are the attitudes of his characters, who have a sometimes amusing habit of getting on their soapboxes about off-topic subjects. In ‘The Dragon Unleashed’ the heroine has a rant about a ‘progressive’ guy she hooked up with, who turned out to be gay and left her to move to Washington and campaign for the legalization of marijuana. A similar moment occurs to ‘The Punished’ when a SJW gets read the riot act after she thrusts a petition- about breast feeding in public- under the nose of one of the lead characters. Perez’s Death Kiss also seems more comfortable with embracing the politics of the original Death Wish series than the 2018 Hollywood remake, thinking especially about Death Kiss’ ‘Dan Forthright’ character here.

Despite the films provocatively going out of their way to be the antithesis of political correctness though, female characters are a strong point and Perez has made more female led movies than many self-congratulatory ‘progressive’ filmmakers. Perez also casts the type of actors whose heavy accents and foreign backgrounds would in all likelihood work against them in mainstream Hollywood. Cast members who fit that bill include Hungarian Charles Bronson lookalike Robert ‘Bronzi’ Kovacs, the Russian Natasha Blasick from the first Playing with Dolls movie and Perez regular Robert Amstler who was allowed to deliver most of his Obsidian Hearts performance in German.

Obsidian Curse’s leading lady, Karin Brauns, is another heavily accented member of the Rene Perez players, whose well travelled accent is a hybrid of Swedish, British, Latvian, Australian and Los Angeles. Brauns might not be the best actress Perez has ever had to work with (in my opinion the greatest performance ever given by a woman in a Perez film was Gemma Donato in Sleeping Beauty), but Blair Jensen is the type of foreign underdog –determined to claw back some self respect and asking for a second chance in life- that Perez movies are so fond of championing. Given that the road to redemption is here paved with vampires, zombies and serial killers…you’d have to be pretty heartless to not root for a gal who can take on all that, and still emerge espousing such air punching, action heroine sentiments as “I’ll burn down the whole world if I have to”.

Non-supernatural adversaries that Blair comes up against here include the shallow and privileged stepmother and the horrid bureaucracy of a court official who continually looks down her nose at Blair. Types that, along with progressive men and petition thrusting SJWs, are unlikely to find their way onto Rene Perez’s Christmas card list this year.

By rights, people should be loudly banging the drum for Rene Perez, for my money this guy is really knocking it out of the park at the moment, and shows little sign of slowing down. Currently in the pipeline are a killer clown movie (It Hungers), a western (Once Upon a Time in Deadwood), a Playing with Dolls sequel (Cry Havoc) and another masked serial killer goes nutzoid in Shasta County movie (Cabal). Perhaps the fact that Perez is so prolific causes some to automatically write him off as one of those B-Movie ne'er-do-wells whose films have a catchy title, a decent DVD box and little else going for them…which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Prior to The Obsidian Curse I’d seen fifteen of his films and enjoyed thirteen of them, and after seeing The Obsidian Curse I’m happy to report that the number of good ones has now risen to fourteen. Quite honestly, could you watch 16 successive films by say, Lucio Fulci or Jess Franco and realistically expect those kind of good to bad movie experience odds. Perez’s films are the heir apparent to the absolute crème of the grindhouse era, and if the movie theaters of 42nd street hadn’t been allowed to turn to dust, they’d surely be playing Rene Perez films as we speak. Some films might be stronger than others, but for the most part, to miss out on a Rene Perez film, is to miss out on a fucking good time.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Konga (1961)

It takes a special kind of actor to deliver lines like "There's a huge monster gorilla that's constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!" with a straight face. So, take a bow, Jack Watson.

Konga was the brainchild of Herman Cohen, a film producer from Detroit without whom the British film industry would have been a much duller place. One from the William Castle school of horror film showmen, Cohen cannily realized early on that the primary audience for horror films in the 1950s and 1960s were teenagers, and made films that specifically spoke to that market. Cohen could be accused of being hung up on ‘misunderstood teenagers get transformed into ugly monsters by the older generation’ plots. This though was the main theme that ran throughout Cohen’s career and some of his biggest hits….I was a Teenage Werewolf, I was a Teenage Frankenstein, Blood of Dracula and Horrors of the Black Museum.

Back in the States, Cohen’s regular go-to guy when it came to horror movie villainy had been Whit Bissell, but by the time Cohen relocated to England his main man had become Michael Gough. Although they were made in the 1950s and early 1960s, Cohen’s films anticipate the hippie era philosophy of ‘never trust anyone over 30’…especially it seems if they’re played by Michael Gough. Konga diverts slightly from Cohen’s tried and tested ‘teenagers and monsters’ formula, without totally abandoning it, due to Gough sharing the screen with singing sensation and teenage heartthrob Jess Conrad, but its Gough’s mad scientist, rather than the teenagers, who is very much front and central here. Since he is in pretty much every scene in Konga, Gough is given an entire movie in which to antagonize a teenage audience, playing a hissy, evil control freak with a sexually predatory agenda. In Cohen’s films Gough is the mean authority figure who is out to steal your girl and turn you into a rampaging monster, the epitome of every headmaster, cop or politician that any teenager back then aspired to rebel against. It’s a role that became Gough’s calling card for many years, he returned to the Cohen fold to play a fanatical trouble maker in 1970’s Trog, before both retiring and spoofing this screen image in Antony Balch’s Horror Hospital in 1973.

In light of the fact that Konga’s working title is meant to have been ‘I was a Teenage Gorilla’ it is tempting to wonder if Cohen’s original plan was to strictly adhere to his ‘I was a…’ plots and make yet another film in which an angst ridden teenager is transformed into a monster by an older mad scientist. Instead though that honour is allocated to Konga, a chimp that Gough’s character Dr Decker, has adopted during an unplanned year long exile in Africa. The result of Decker bailing out of a plane crash and being rescued by an African tribe. Once back in Blighty, Decker proves to be quite the talk of the town, and attracts tabloid interest (Herman Cohen aptly cameos as a sucker for a sensationalist newspaper story). As is often the case with this sort of Michael Gough character, Decker is saddled with a needy, spinsterish female assistant, Margaret (Margo Johns) whose romantic gestures are given the brush off by the Doc “there’s very little room for sentiment in the life of a scientist”. The "firm instruction” Decker had sent Margaret “to have a large cage built" turns out to be intended just for Konga, talk about getting a gal's hopes up!! All of Decker’s energy is focused on Konga, and growing carnivorous plants…which provides the most phallic imagery ever seen in an ‘A’ cert movie from 1961…what with the plants resembling B.B.C ….and I don’t mean the British Broadcasting Corporation here.

Gifted to him by the African tribe, the plants produce a growth serum that Decker shoots into Konga’s ass, in the hope of turning him supersized. A plan nearly thwarted by Margaret’s cat, who accidently drinks some of the serum, causing Decker to shoot the poor puddy tat before it grows in size….the world wasn’t quite ready for Kitten Kong yet. Konga however gets an upgrade from puny chimp to man sized gorilla with a permanently perplexed look in his eyes. At which point Konga becomes a sort of ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue for a teenage drive-in audience’, as the villainous Decker sends Konga out to do his murderous bidding.

Were he not such an amoral hard-ass you’d actually feel sorry for Doctor Decker. Just when the path to fame and scientific glory seems clear the film throws yet another adversary into the mix for Decker to blow his top at. Human obstacles come in the form of the Dean of the collage that Decker teaches at, who dismisses Decker’s plans as the rantings of a madman, and a rival scientist who signs his own death warrant by mentioning he has been making breakthroughs in Decker’s own scientific turf.

A real ‘hands across the ocean’ affair, Konga might be mindful of a US Drive-In audience, complete with tailor made dialogue (“as the Americans say…play it cool”) but it is also a recognizable part of a true Brit tradition of quota quickie dramatizations of bizarre crime stories. Konga having being produced at Merton Park studios, home of the Edgar Lustgarten fronted ‘Scotland Yard’ and ‘Scales of Justice’ quota quickie series. As with those films, Konga boasts regular cutaways to Scotland Yard, where baffled detectives try to get to the bottom of the case, while Gough regularly pops in to gloat. Decker having the cast iron alibi of getting a boss eyed gorilla to do his dirty work for him. Future ‘Take an Easy Ride’ auteur Kenneth F. Rowles, who began as a runner at Merton Park, got an early career break working on Konga, and its DVD release is one of several films Rowles worked on that he has reviewed on Amazon UK. Natch’ they’re are all glowing reviews (“very good movie must be seen”, “a must for all Stones fans”, “not as good as Ups and Downs of a Handyman”).

Herman Cohen definitely brought allot of colour to the British film industry, quite literally. Konga is a very bright and colourful movie, with Cohen tapping into 1960s audiences love affair with colour film by delivering this Eastman colour spectacular. Right from the get-go, with various colours bursting out of the screen in the opening titles, colour is all over this film with each set seemingly sporting its own orange, green, yellow or purple colour scheme. Scenes have an unnatural, picture postcard aesthetic to them. Konga doesn’t so much wave goodbye to the b/w film era, but give it a firm kick up the arse, it’s also the antithesis of the de-saturated look favored by 21st century cinema.

Lest we forget, Konga also offered 1960s audiences “the anger and the anguish of Jess Conrad” as the trailer puts it. There to get the teenagers in, and make the ladies swoon, Conrad shows up as Bob, one of Decker’s college students. When both Bob and Decker finds themselves competing for the affections of Sandra (Claire Gordon), another of Decker’s students, Bob’s days are numbered. Decker might come across as a neuter in the company of Margaret, but when Sandra is around it is a different matter “this may not have anything to do with class work, but I can’t get over how you’ve grown” he pervs. Playing mad scientists who can’t control their horndog tendencies might have been Michael Gough’s domain during this period, but it is a shtick that has roots in films like Womaneater (1958), where George Coulouris plays a mad doctor who loses it all over a perky blonde. Decker also beat a path for the headless sex pest Dr Hill in Re-Animator. Indeed Herbert West’s put down of "trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You're not even a second-rate scientist!" could equally be used against Dr Decker, who pursues Sandra, despite evoking “the anger and the anguish of Jess Conrad” in the process. Like so many movie mad scientists, Decker could have conquered the world if only he’d learnt to keep his dick in his pants.

The object of all this onscreen lusting- which must have bored the kids who’d showed up for the monster gorilla- was Claire Gordon, a starlet whose acting might have been a bit flat, but at least the same could not be said of her chest. I must confess it took me a while to put two and two together and realize that the Claire Gordon who appears in Konga was the same Claire Gordon who appeared in several 1970s sex comedies…she was a woman who certainly changed with the times.

Drugs…a footnote to the Profumo Affair…appearances in Derek Ford films…it doesn’t take much reading up on Claire Gordon to realize that you’re talking about someone who led a life of scandalous excess. Sadly like so many who lived life in the fast line, Gordon appears to have fallen prey to exploitative hangers-on towards the end. After her death in 2015, two ‘property consultants’ were accused of fraud and having coercing Gordon –then in declining health- into altering her will in their favour. As a result of which one of them- Iain MacMaster –was found guilty and sentenced to eight years at trial. Hopefully there is a special place in hell for people like Mr. MacMaster.

In a plot twist that must have been crushing for Jess Conrad’s ego, Sandra won’t give Bob the time of day, preferring the attentions of Decker and remaining oblivious to his lecherous agenda. During a field trip, a piece of bad continuity appears to bless Jess Conrad with the same abilities as a religious figure with the same initials. One moment it’s thundering and raining, then Jess Conrad gets angry, and suddenly its bright and sunny again, J.C. performed a miracle!! The ‘religious subtext’ of Konga extents to a scene where Jess Conrad (same initials as Jesus) attends his last supper, where his father is played by ‘Good Old Days’ host Leonard Sachs. All of which surely makes Sachs ‘the face of G.O.D’…..and they say people read too much into that Kubrick film about the hotel!!!

To be serious though, I do find it interesting that Leonard Sachs was able to be in people’s living rooms every week as host of G.O.D and yet also have a concurrent acting career, with the IMDB recording a count of 138 acting roles. Whereas usually, well known TV personalities like Bruce Forsyth and Bob Monkhouse were never accepted as actors when they tried their luck on the big screen. As with Claire Gordon, Sach’s life wasn’t also lacking the odd scandal, with an arrest for participating in the noble art of cottaging in 1984. Alas, Sachs’ fatherly advice in Konga “no woman is worth going hungry for” falls on deaf ears. Not because Bob is in love with Sandra, but rather because he is in love with himself, and darts away from the dinner table when he spots a mirror. Whenever Jess Conrad spots a mirror, Jess just gotta preen. Play it Cool, Jess!!

Everything goes belly up when Decker puts the make on Sandra, and is overseen doing so by Margaret, prompting a fine bit of Grayson Hall style ‘grapping your own throat’ acting from Margo Johns. Realizing that she has been passed over for a younger model, Margaret gives Konga a fix of the jungle juice. Which makes him grow giant sized, and results in Konga making off to London with Dr Decker in his hand. All of which leaves Sandra at the mercy of the carnivorous plants, one of whom chomps down on her arm. The film doesn’t actually make this quite clear, but Sandra is meant to be killed by the plants, thankfully the film’s publicity dept were on hand to clear that up.

Maybe Herman Cohen felt it was a little too downbeat to end the movie with everybody dead, leaving the door open for Sandra to return as an embittered one armed female scientist with a deep psychological hatred of gorillas, men and greenhouses.

Konga has a curious relationship with the original King Kong, it gets frequently written up as a rip-off or cash-in on the 1933 film, but it is a little more official than it first appears. During the production, the makers of Konga paid RKO pictures $25,000 to effectively ensure that they wouldn’t be sued for copyright infringement. Since the last reel of Konga involves a giant gorilla rampaging through a major city, and a gorilla whose name was just Kong with an ‘a’ added, it was probably a smart move for the makers of Konga to cover their asses this way. As the right people were paid off, this effectively makes Konga a fully authorized King Kong movie, as much as the Japanese Toho King Kong movies from the 1960s. The impression that you get though is that this was an 11th hour business decision, since the film itself doesn’t really capitalize on the King Kong angle. It’s only in the advertising that Konga made the most of having greased RKO’s palms, with hype like “Not since King Kong” plastered all over the posters. Some territories however got sold the film as a bona fide King Kong movie. In Malaysia the film was released as ‘Konga is King’ while Argentina gave Konga royal status when the film was released there as ‘King Konga’. It is worth noting though that King Kong was 28 years old by this point, and a property that RKO hadn’t really touched in decades. A situation that probably made them more willing to lease the character’s likeness to any Tom, Dick or Herman. It was only a few years later- when King Kong was remade in the 1970s -that the rights owners appear to have become more vigilant and protective of the character, famously suing the makers of ‘Queen Kong’ for copyright infringement and taking similar action against Paul Leder’s A.P.E when it was being promoted as ‘the new King Kong’.

Compared to the likes of Gorgo, The Giant Behemoth and Mathilda May, Konga doesn’t actually cause that must damage to London. No buildings are leveled, no passersby are trampled, even tomorrow’s milk delivery is spared. Perhaps due to this lack of destruction Konga was allowed to return….not to the big screen…but in an American comic book series (1960-1965), where the character underwent a Rambo like rehabilitation from anti-social menace to action hero…all the while managing to keep his genitals in the shadows…which must have been very painful for Cliff Richard’s old band. VIVA KONGA !!!!!

Saturday, 7 September 2019

The Manson Family Massacre (2019)

(photo taken before i'd seen the film)

The worst thing that ever happened to Sharon Tate was- obviously -being butchered by crazy people. The second was becoming a footnote to the career of a sociopathic cult leader with unquestioning, hero worshipping followers. The third worst thing was becoming a footnote to the career of a sociopathic film director with unquestioning, hero worshipping followers, and the fourth are the cheap, cash-in movies that are currently attempting to ride on the gravy train of her becoming a footnote to the career of a sociopathic film director with unquestioning, hero worshipping followers.

The Manson Family Massacre sleepwalks through recreations of the Manson case and a 1990s wraparound story about a female singer getting bad vibes from the Tate house, but fleetingly becomes screamingly funny whenever it tries to pass off Wales (where it was filmed) as L.A (where its meant to be set). At one point I swear you can see a herd of sheep grazing on the green, green hills of what is meant to be Los Angeles. You occasionally laugh at The Manson Family Massacre, you feel the embarrassment of the actor playing Bernard Crowe who is given dialogue more befitting Rudy Ray Moore, you feel sorry for leading lady Brendee Green (who does appear to have some acting/singing talent) and wish she was in a better film, you feel sorry for yourself and wish you were watching a better film, but most of all…you feel nothing. The Manson Family Massacre is the kind of viewing experience best summed up by that 21st century expression ‘Meh’, surely the last response you’d expect from a Welsh made Charles Manson movie with a supernatural subplot.

For what it is worth, The Manson Family Massacre is surprisingly sympathetic towards Manson. ‘Helter Skelter’ theories are dismissed, and Manson is portrayed as an ambitious career criminal attempting to better himself in life with all this hippie cult malarkey, only to be brought down by out of control followers. The Manson Family Massacre preferring to paint ‘Tex’ Watson as the true villain of the piece. Sharon Tate is the victim of some finger waiving moralizing by the filmmakers, with mentions of marital infidelity, a subplot about missing porn loops featuring her, and the film at one point effectively saying she brought what happened onto herself by living life in the fast lane. All of which makes the end credits’ inclusion of a photo of the real Tate and other Manson family victims (captioned ‘in memoriam’) seem a grossly phoney and hypocritical gesture.

Say what you will about 1970s Manson-ploitation movies, ‘The Love Thrill Murders’, ‘I Drink Your Blood’, heck even ‘Wrong Way’ and ‘Snuff’ at least those films made good on their exploitation film potential, and seemed to give a damn about entertaining an audience. In comparison, The Manson Family Massacre is a dispassionate exercise in letting 80 minutes of film run through the camera and offloading the results onto supermarket DVD shelves. Were you one of those people who spent the 1990s complaining about the lack of low budget horror films being made in the UK? If so writer/director Andrew Jones (Robert, The Curse of Robert, The Revenge of Robert, Robert Reborn) was seemingly put on this earth to make you eat your words. Be careful what you wish for.

The Manson Family Massacre did though produce one of the most amusing pieces of IMDb trivia I’ve read in a long while “Linda Kasabian, who was present on the night of the real life murders at Cielo Drive, was originally included as a significant character in the script. An actress was cast to play the role of Kasabian but she left the production on her first day of filming after the caterer revealed there would be no chicken and chips served for lunch that day.” Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about this film. Bad taste should never be this boring, I’m sure both Manson and Sharon Tate would have fallen asleep through it.

(photo taken after i'd seen the film)