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Sunday, April 28, 2024

Bad Movies For Bad People Vol. II


At the time of this writing, it has been two years since the death of my best friend Jeff Siegrist, aka the Marquis de Suave. A few months after his passing, I paid tribute to him in the form of a blog post to which this will act as a sequel. I had meant to follow that post up sooner, and revisiting it now it seems that it's well-past time to do just that. 

Without further ado:

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952, William Beaudine)

I remember Jeff being very excited to receive this one on bluray, and even more excited to show it to me when I dropped by one night. As the title indicates, Bela Lugosi is front and center as the diabolical Dr. Zabor- a mad scientist hiding himself away on a remote jungle island so he can perform experiments in turning men into apes. Crashing into his secluded island world, otherwise populated with depictions of natives very indicative of when the film was made, are Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell- the poor man's Martin and Lewis. Hilarity of sorts ensues, and the whole movie plays like an alternate dimension knock-off of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or perhaps, more appropriately, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Petrillo is uncanny in his Lewis-esque persona, and at times it's easy to forget you're not actually watching a young Jerry Lewis. He had built his brief career off of the impersonation, originally working with Jerry but eventually drawing his ire for stealing the act. He faded into obscurity and, as Jeff told me with a chuckle, ended up doing a send-up porno called Keyholes Are for Peeping in 1972- playing the part of a peeping tom. ...Broklyn Gorilla was meant to be the first in a series of movies featuring Mitchell and Petrillo, but it also turned out to be the last.

I have rewatched this movie several times, and consider it the very best of the films where Lugosi plays opposite a man in an ape suit- of which there are a surprising amount.

The Holy Mountain (1973, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

In the first "volume", I mentioned Jodorowsky along with David Lynch and Kenneth Anger in the final paragraph as being Jeff's favorite directors. While on any given day he might have given a different answer when asked about his favorite movie, I know with a fair degree of certainty that The Holy Mountain would have been close. I had hesitated to include some of these movies, favoring the more obscure and silly ones, because I am not nearly the cinematic analyst he and other cinephiles present themselves as. Simply put, I don't always feel equipped to speak to the more epic cult movies, and in attempting it grew an even greater appreciation for Jeff's reviews. Writing about movies is more difficult than it seems!

I also had the concern that the title "Bad Movies For Bad People" would be interpreted as a sleight to movies like this- although I think it's clear at this point that genuine appreciation for the movies is the order of the day, and that the title is just a play on the title of a Cramps album. Incidentally Jeff hosted a college radio show called "Bad Music for Bad People". 

With that hedging out of the way, The Holy Mountain is not an easy film to watch. It's long, and there are a lot of mystical overtones and characters to keep track of, mixed in with imagery ranging from the absurd and comedic to the off-putting and disturbing. In Jeff's own words "...only in the psychedelic era could such a surrealistic vision be produced with a high budget. Nothing else in cinematic surrealism has pushed as many boundaries as this masterpiece." The budget was largely due to Allen Klein, who had managed the Beatles. Jodorowsky plays the guru character, the Alchemist, which Jeff saw as equal parts pretentious and self-reflective in an ingenious way. 

If you haven't seen it, set aside the time and do nothing but watch it. Don't fiddle with your phone. It's a movie that demands your attention and rewards you for it.

It's a Bird! (1930) and: There It Is (1928), Charlie Bowers and Harold Muller

This double-dose of obscure "two-reelers" from the days of early sound pictures is really something special, and the kind of thing you only become privy to by friendship with a real film geek. Bowers and Muller worked on a string of films together, only some of which survive. Bowers starred in them as well; an interesting character, he claimed to have been kidnapped by circus people as a child and grew up learning how to perform on tightropes and other such carnivalesque arts. In addition to his onscreen performance, writing, and directing, he was also an animator- and found novel ways of combining live action with his animations. The effect has a level of uncanniness to it that can only adequately be described as surreal; as goofy as these films are, which were intended as comedy, they feel something like a fever dream when you watch them.

In There It Is Bowers plays a detective from Scotland Yard sent to investigate a haunting of sorts in New York. In his attempt to investigate the "Fuzz-Faced Phantom", he brings along an assistant called MacGregor, pictured above. It's not really clear what MacGregor is, but he's tiny, animated, and really weird looking. The story plays out like a lot of the old haunted house / mystery films of the era that came prior, beginning with Georges Melies' La Manoir du Diable (1896), in which the setting is a launchpad for impressive visual effects. It's a Bird! is probably a little less extravagant in that regard, but is impressive enough to feel like a film that should not have existed in 1930. The effects seem too good to be true, yet weirdly crude from our modern standpoint. This short film is really about a guy biting off more that he can chew after capturing a bird who eats metal. The plot is thin, but the short film delivers in weirdness what it lacks in story.

Both short films can be found on YouTube for your enjoyment.

Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey)

Carnival of Souls is an example of an amateur director trying his darnedest to make a good film on a small budget for the love of doing it, and Jeff argued he achieved more in that respect than many such filmmakers. Contrasted against other examples like Manos: Hands of Fate, it's a masterpiece. It has a cult following, and I've always loved it as something that achieves a type of spookiness in spite of its reputation as a "bad movie". Jeff would go further, and say that Harvey's ambitious drive to emulate Jean Cocteau and Ingmar Bergman as a guerilla filmmaker actually worked pretty well. He saw the movie as a dreamlike, eerie depiction of alienation in its purest sense. More than a ghost story, or the spooky tale I always loved it as, Jeff saw deeper meaning in it- and held high regard for it. Herk Harvey appears in the movie as a mysterious, ghoulish phantom who menaces the main character- a young woman who moves to a new town after a car accident. Looking at some of these weird movies the way Jeff did, one can find ways to appreciate aspects of them that perhaps the director or cast never intended. Secret meanings are to be found all the way from the trash strata to the divine, and Carnival falls somewhere in-between- floating like a car being dragged out of a river.

Kiss Me Quick! (1964, Peter Perry Jr

I had considered doing a whole volume of "NSFW" Bad Movies for one of these posts, as Jeff considered himself an aficionado of sleaze cinema and of pornography. His love of outsider art extended to the most puerile movies, and he would quite literally watch pornos for the plot sometimes. He was unabashed in his interests there and even described himself at times as a pervert.

The thing is that he would, as previously mentioned, cater his choice of movies to whichever friend was dropping by- and in my case, that usually meant something really off the wall but less on the pornographic side. I'll admit to being a bit of a prude, and in light of that and the limited amount of those flicks I actually took in with Jeff, this movie will have to suffice... for now.

Kiss Me Quick! is a truly bizarre movie in the very odd genre of "nudie-cutie" flicks. Being the prude that I am, this minimal exposure to the genre made me appreciate the appeal. Being mostly a send-up of science fiction and horror motifs, blended in the most incongruent ways as a means to showcase scantily clad women, it boggles the mind in its choices. More than anything, it's weird how well it works.

My understanding was it was supposed to be a nudie film parody of Dr. Stranglove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but for some reason they weren't able to do that. The only remnant of the idea is in the mad scientist's name, "Dr. Breedlove". Breedlove is visited upon by a dopey alien named Sterilox, from the "Buttless Galaxy", where his race has evolved past the need for sex (I think) but needs to reintroduce the idea with some female specimens. Dr. Breedlove is a Dr. Frankenstein of sorts, who creates sexy robot ladies in his lab, and proceeds to showcase them to Sterilox. All of this is goofy as hell, and if you're in it just for the nudity is just filler, but the details are so damned odd they demand explanation.

Breedlove looks vaguely like Strangelove at a glance, but his voice is that of a cartoon version of Lugosi's Dracula. His sunglasses and prosthetic seeming nose evoke Claude Rains' Invisible Man, and all the while he's supposed to be a mad doctor. Sterilox is like the bastard child of TV's Frank from Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Stan Laurel- he's inexplicably doing a pretty dead-on impression of Stan the entire time he's shopping for robo-ladies. Breedlove gets increasingly frustrated as Sterilox proves to be a picky customer, booming out terrible lines in a mock Transylvanian accent while his face remains static and unchanging. Every cut to a nearly naked woman the mind is still cycling through questions such as "Why? Why Stan Laurel? Why this combination? Why am I enjoying this movie?" Invariably such thoughts might lead one to an existential crisis, but thankfully the movie isn't terribly long and throws in just enough B-Movie madness to keep you entertained. It should get tiresome, or annoying, but instead inspires a consistent supply of chuckles if for no other reason than the overabundance of absurdity in it.  

The Music Box (1930, James Parrott)

Since I referred to Stan Laurel in the previous movie write-up, it only makes sense to end with a Laurel and Hardy movie. I loved Stan and Ollie as a kid, and really hadn't gone out of my way to watch them in adulthood until Jeff collected the movies. I think he and I agreed that The Music Box contained the most laughs per frame. We watched it together a bunch of times, along with some of the other short films by the classic duo, and had an inside joke that Stan was just stoned all of the time. As such, "getting laureled" became a code word for certain illicit activities which these days are legal in some states. In addition, he would always say "We need more productivity around here! Less Stan Laurel, more Oliver Hardy!"

In actuality, in their offscreen lives Stanley was the driving force. He would write the scripts, come up with the gags, and plan most of what was to happen. Their affection for each other and commitment to their working relationship comes through in the old pictures, and it's incredibly sweet to see. There were many great comedy teams throughout the history of film, but there's a quality to Stan and Ollie that is as unique to them as it is hard to define. They're inseparable pals, and after Ollie's death Stan refused every offer to partner with anyone else- and the movies they made together remain immortal.

The Music Box is the best example of the short film version of a Stan Laurel story. Their feature length movies are good, but the short film (whether silent or sound) was where they really shined- unencumbered by any complicated plot, they would fill 16-30 minutes with the most wonderful pratfalls, camera-mugging, and slapstick anyone ever performed. The plot in question here is simple: Stan and Ollie have been hired to deliver a player piano to a house. All that stands between them and their destination is an incredibly tall flight of cement stairs on a hillside. Most of the movie revolves around the Sisyphean effort to move the heavy item from the street to the top of the stairs, and the rest with getting it inside the house. One of the only other characters in the film acts as a foil to the boys, Professor Theodore von Shwartzenhoffen, M. D., A.D., D. D. S., F. L. D., F. F. F. and F. He's played by Billy Gilbert, who Stooges fans will recognize as the crazy guy in the classic short Men in Black.

I often felt as a kid that I was alone in my appreciation for classic comedy. In the 80s the average school kid might be familiar with the Three Stooges, but less so with the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, or the Little Rascals. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were just names to other kids, and Laurel and Hardy were largely unknown because they were just old black and white movies. The grown-ups knew them, but no one my age. I only mention this as a way to say: if you're younger and have never bothered with some of the old comedy stuff, give The Music Box a watch. It might be old, perhaps a little corny, but it contains timeless qualities about it that lead me to believe it will never be completely forgotten. Let's have some productivity, shall we?

That should do it for this Volume of Bad Movies For Bad People. I hope the reader enjoyed exploring some of the mind-bending and great cinema Jeff felt the need to show me, and do hope you check out any of these selections. Until next time, stay weird, keep it sleazy (within reason) and try to avoid getting mixed up in fine messes.


Saturday, April 6, 2024

That Literary Spirit and the Ghosts Between the Lines

"Sing in me, O Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending..."

The opening line to The Odyssey makes it very clear that Homer is not the author, and perhaps implies that no mortal is capable of spontaneous creation. Homer is acting as a medium, through which the goddess of poetry can amplify the memory and myth of Odysseus to his audience and then continue on, down through the ages. In order to make sense of the world, humanity has always needed stories, it seems. The craft of telling stories, through poetry, song, or prose then is something of a magical affair. We divine the quintessence of our mundane lives and the systems that sustain them through the words and tales of others; it is the job of the writer to act as the intermediary between the mortal realm and the otherwordly.

The earliest known writings attributed to an author are hymns to the goddess Inanna, written by Enheduanna, daughter of the emperor Sargon of Akkad. Sargon ruled over the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd century B.C.E., and Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon goddess at Ur. There is debate about the extant writings, and whether they can rightfully be attributed to the ancient priestess, but be that as it may there is considerable evidence that the earliest works of what we now call literature were in service of a divine purpose. Propitiation to the gods, giving meaning and direction to the common person using the spoken and written word allowed for an evolution of sorts in the human psyche. If, as some scholars claim, the hymns were written down centuries after Enheduanna died and recorded in her name to preserve the lineage of Sargon, the point is still very interesting- in a sense, Enheduanna herself has become elevated to a plane of existence above our own. Achieving immortality, like the gods she worshipped, she becomes our earliest example of an author from the Other-Where.

As virtually any writer can attest, the act of putting words on a page can at times be magical and invigorating. Each word spills out quickly and without effort, with brief breaks for congratulation to one's self for their own brilliance. Other times the blank page becomes an impassable void, an abyss that defies traversal. Demons at the threshold, in the form of a blinking cursor perhaps, mock and dishearten the writer. "Go back", they say. "No one wants to read your writing anyway." A writer must summon the fortitude to continue on in spite of it, and it can certainly feel miraculous when the words begin to drown out the diabolical chatter.

It's little wonder then that modern writers would seek methods by which a Muse might sing through them. The confluence of the Occult and supernatural with the arts is such a broad topic that it would seem there's no end to the examples which could be brought forth. Even just in literature, or modern literature, the history is rife with the ectoplasmic residue of spooks on every page. For our purposes today, then, a brief sampling of the ghosts hidden in the margins of well-known writers is in order.

The Ouija Board is an ever-controversial object in our popular conceptions of the supernatural. Often used as a plot device in horror films, and hotly debated in various sectors of paranormal investigation, it has also been used to conjure poetry and stories. More than simply a plot device, it has been a device for developing plots itself. Whether one believes that the board has the potential to connect the living with the dead, or whether it is simply the ideomotor effect causing the participants to subconsciously spell out words is irrelevant. In particular, where poetry is concerned, the act of writing could be characterized as summoning the difficult emotional thought from the subconscious, and translating it to verse. However one defines the Muse does little to negate its existence.

Sylvia Plath famously used an Ouija Board to contact an entity calling itself "Pan" to aid in her poetry writing. She was introduced to the board through her then husband, Ted Hughes, who was much more interested in the Occult than she was. The story of their marriage is a tragic and rocky one, mired in controversy and myth-making, culminating in their separation and eventually Plath's suicide. The séance sessions occurred during a happier time for them both, and Hughes was quoted as saying that she possessed a natural psychic talent "strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them." His influence in bringing Occult devices and concepts to Plath were in service of increasing the volume of the well she drew from in her writing. A talented and prolific poet, Plath seemed to find new boundaries to push throughout her life. Whereas Hughes, even in early works such as The Thought-Fox, was naturally inclined to a mystical bent and describing the poem as a creature slipping in from the darkness of the natural world, Plath had to learn to eschew her pragmatism. She described the sessions as "more fun than a movie", and in her poem Ouija captures the mood of a "god of shades" communicating his own form of verse to her. Where life is filled with turmoil, joys and struggles jockeying for attention, poetry is perhaps a meeting-ground between realms.

At around the same, poet James Merrill, along with his partner, artist David Jackson, began a series of Ouija Board sessions which over the course of decades inspired a trilogy of books.  Originally winning acclaim for more traditional and formal poetry, his 1959 poem Voices From the Other World was an early example of where his work was to go. The poem was the first to include material channeled through the board, and after decades of such sessions he released The Changing Light at Sandover, a 560 page epic including previously published works. In it, voices such as those of poet W. H. Auden and friends of Merrill's such as Maya Deren are conjured. Channeled messages contain warnings about contacting the dead, and some in Merrill's social circle worried about his obsession with the Occult device.

Poetry seems adaptable to channeled messages from an Ouija Board, but what about a novella? In 1919, two children named Virginia and Robert Wauchope accomplished it when they wrote The Invisible Inzi of Oz. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz and its sequels, had passed away earlier that year. While it's unclear that the children, aged between 9 and 14 at the time, actually channeled Baum or were just clever enough to write convincingly in his style, the story was sufficiently Oz-like that Baum's widow deemed it part of the canon. It was originally published in 1925 in a series of sections in A Child's Garden, and later in 1980 in the Oz fan magazine The Baum Bugle. It should be noted as well that Baum and his wife Maud were members of the Theosophical Society, and some have read Theosophical meanings into the Oz stories. Baum seemed to think the idea for the book came fully formed, as though divinely inspired- that he was merely the most convenient instrument for "The Great Author" to use in getting the story down.

The idea of authors being channeled to continue their work, or in some cases, to complete unfinished works, is an old one. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collects a few such examples in his book The Edge of the Unknown. While primarily remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the author of the mystery stories featuring him, Doyle was also very interested in Spiritualism and psychical phenomenon. He was a proponent for the existence of Fairies, and famously promoted the Cottingley Fairies as proof. Where Holmes is depicted as being shrewd and brilliant, sussing out the truth with limited information, Doyle is seen by many today as a gullible old daydreamer by the end. In writing about alleged channeling of famous writers, he considers himself as an author to be uniquely equipped to determine the legitimacy of the written results. He felt that the charm, or the spirit of the author would come through in a diminished form- his conception of the afterlife led him to believe that any effort to write from beyond would be hampered by the trauma of death and the adjustment to another form of existence. After all, writing is hard enough in the material realm! Further to that point, Doyle thinks of gross imitation of style as parody, which itself is a talent he contends not many mediums have.

A particularly novel channeled author he looks at is none other than Oscar Wilde. Remembered for works during his lifetime such as The Importance of Being Earnest and  The Picture of Dorian Gray, there are some spooky connections as well. His mother, Lady Jane Wilde, wrote extensively about fairies and folklore from Ireland after the passing of her husband, Sir William Wilde, who had collected manuscripts on the subject. She wrote under the pen name Speranza, and was also an activist for women's rights. When she was on her deathbed, Oscar was in Reading Gaol and not allowed to visit her. She is said to have made the visit in spectral form at the moment of death.

Oscar Wilde's own return to the land of the living from the great beyond came by way of a medium named Hester Dowden, aka Hester Travers Smith. She worked with a man named Soal, who transcribed her messages. These came both in the form of automatic writing and through an Ouija Board, and in the flowery prose Doyle was convinced that none other than Wilde could have composed them. As one might expect, Wilde didn't lose his wit and humor in the afterlife, at one point saying "Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married, or dining with a school-master." He also takes shots at W. B. Yeats, who, it should be mentioned, inspired the aforementioned Hughes, Plath, and Merrill with his mystic poems derived from automatism. "I knew Yeats well- a fantastical mind but so full of inflated joy in himself that his little cruse of poetry was erupted only with infinite pains over the span of many years." One wonders if Yeats has ever come through in a séance session to add to his terrestrial portfolio, or to give comment about Wilde. Doyle is convinced in his assessment of the legitimacy of the channeled Wilde work, considering it to be just as good as anything Wilde wrote in life. To his mind, if it were an imitation, it was a superb one- while Wilde himself might have said "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness". 

All of literature and poetry is imitation or channeling in a sense. Doyle himself, through his enduring character Sherlock Holmes, continues to spawn imitators to this day while the character seems to never go out of style. Yeats is hailed as one of the most influential poets of all time, and even if his methods aren't used as in the case of Plath and the others previously mentioned, the spirit of his writing is. Authors and the personalities that emerge from their works bound along, like the sprites Lady Wilde wrote about and Sir Doyle believed in, through the pages of novels and collections of poetry from Enheduanna all the way to the present day. This brings us to our final example, for now- that of Charles Dickens and his unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In 1873 Thomas Power James, a printer living in Brattleboro, Vermont, claimed to have channeled the recently deceased Dickens and finished the story of Edwin Drood. Other attempts had been made to finish the tale, which had been published incompletely when Dickens died in 1870. Critics hated it, and Conan Doyle, while more sympathetic and thinking it had elements of the purported ghostly author's style, found the plot and resolution wanting. He wrote in his review of it that "it reads like Dickens gone flat". Fortunately for Doyle, he had the chance to talk to Dickens personally in a séance conducted by Florizel von Reuter. He was convinced von Reuter wasn't familiar enough with the work of Dickens to have faked her way through a conversation concerning the unfinished story. From the other side of the veil, Dickens himself disavowed any involvement in James' version of his story. When asked about particular plot points, Dickens returned with a perplexing quote: "What about the fourth dimension? I prefer to write it all out through you." Shortly thereafter, he gives a few hints about where the story should have headed- which one assumes implies that he wished for Sir Arthur to finish the story.

While the mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood may forever be unsolved, ghostly hints notwithstanding, there is another strange bit of Dickens lore that is worth considering. On June 9, 1865, he was traveling by train with his friend Ellen Ternan and her mother when suddenly it derailed. A section of the rail was missing  on a viaduct in Staplehurst, Kent, and the train had no time to slow down to avoid it. The man stationed to flag down the train was too close to the viaduct, costing the engineer precious space to brake. The rail crash killed ten people and injured forty; Dickens was fortunate to be among those with minor injuries and helped others escape. Some died in his presence. The following year, he published a ghost story called The Signal-Man, a first-person tale about a man working at the signal box in a train tunnel who is visited upon by a spectre who acts as a harbinger of disaster on the rails. The setting, a train tunnel, may have been inspired by The Clayton Tunnel collision of two trains a few years prior, but one can't help but imagine his own experiences played into the narrative. In the story, the titular Signal-Man has a premonition of his own death- and Dickens died, with unfinished business, on June 9, 1870- five years to the day after surviving the Staplehurst crash.