Day 19 (Killer Kids): Cathy’s Curse (1977)/The Children (1980)
Let the record show that 2017 is the year of Cathy’s Curse. Sure, it’s been 40 years since its release, but Severin rescued this one from public domain obscurity, restored it, and lavished an incredible Blu-ray release upon it. Finally, everyone else can witness the madness a few of us (well, mostly Brian Collins—I think it’s illegal to mention this movie without giving him a shout-out) have talked about for years now. Honestly, it almost felt a little weird knowing I’d be seeing a cut that restores 10 minutes to the run-time, resulting in a presumably more coherent version of Eddy Matalon’s weird little Exorcist/Omen tax shelter rip-off.
Emphasis on “supposedly:” it turns out that Cathy’s Curse still refuses to make 100% complete sense, even when its director was able to supervise a restoration. As gloriously wacky as ever, the film is a delight based solely on Randi Allen’s performance as the titular Cathy. It feels like Matalon surveyed a landscape swarming with Exorcist rip-offs, looked around the room Matt Hooper style, and insisted “I got that beat.” His Cathy is a positively insane creature with a venomous disposition towards women especially, who are often referred to as “bitches” and “whores.” Of course, it’s not really Cathy, but the spirit of her dead aunt, who perishes in a fiery car accident before the title card appears here—just in case you’re wondering how long it takes for this one to feel thoroughly bonkers. Between Matalon’s commitment to hurling deranged bullshit and that distinctive, dusty tax shelter aesthetic, Cathy’s Curse hits a sweet spot that I hope to always enjoy.
The Children is one of those notorious titles I feel like I should have seen years ago. Better late than never, though, and this one mostly lives up to its infamy. For starters, its premise is unrelentingly screwed-up: a school bus full of laughing carefree children passes through cloud of nuclear waste from a nearby plant and become an undead, homicidal horde. I’ll resist referring to them as “zombies” since they’re not interested in feeding on human flesh; instead, they’re much more disposed towards melting the hell out of everyone that crosses their path. Those gruesome bursts make for obvious, gory highlights, but The Children is effective beyond that, as there’s a muted creepiness to the whole thing, particularly its sleepy, rural setting. It also only takes all of one minute to figure out Harry Manfredini is scoring this thing since his familiar piano clanking and violin shrieks sound exactly like the ones in Friday the 13th, which was released the same year. To his credit, it heightens the unsettling mood, but this might be Manfredini at his most shameless self-plagiarizing.
Day 20 (Sci-fi): The Man from Planet X (1951)/War of the Satellites (1958)/Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
I noticed a distinct paucity of pre-70s selections during this month, so my mind naturally gravitated to 50s B-movies for this theme. They’ve always been a favorite, but the sheer volume of them means there’s always plenty to catch up with, and The Man from Planet X is among the most major of the bunch. Along with The Quatermass Xperiment, it’s often cited as one of the most influential science fiction films of the decade, as it established the “visitor from space” template that later films would riff upon for years. This one is set on the Scottish moors, where an astronomer has been tracking a previously unknown planet as it makes it way towards Earth. No, you didn’t misread that—the entire fucking planet is set to collide with our own.
Luckily, though, the planet has also dispatched a spaceship that might illuminate the situation, and an American reporter joins the astronomer’s ragtag bunch (which includes his own daughter) in unraveling the mystery. Of course, there’s also a space monster housed inside the ship, one that’s capable of turning earthlings into zombies to do its bidding. It might be fair to say that this one is more influential than it is great—it’s certainly quite good, and Edward G. Ulmer brings a gothic sensibility with moody photography and an emphasis on fog-drenched suspense. Later films (and Quatermass itself) would improve upon the formula, though.
War of the Satellites was not one of those films. The fact that Roger Corman was riffing on this theme 7 years later says all you need to know about Planet X’s influence and the King of the Bs’s tendency to just keep churning out knock-offs even early in his career. It should come as no surprise that War of the Satellites is a bit of a misleading title, as no warfare breaks out between satellites. Instead, the title refers to a United States space program that’s attempting to push a satellite beyond a mysterious space barrier blocking deep space. It turns out a race of advanced beings has erected the barrier because it believes humans to be too primitive, according to a sternly-written message (in Latin!) that goes unheeded.
Sensing they need to up their game, they straight up murder the lead scientist and possess his body to intentionally sabotage the mission. Even though it’s a ramshackle, low-budget take, War of the Satellites is fun enough, amiably breezing along on its retro charms and a plucky lead performance from the always great Dick Miller. While it takes on the tenor of a B-monster movie, there’s a punchy sort of optimism to its outlook on exploration that anticipates the likes of Star Trek.
Both of these 50s efforts were so breezy (their combined runtime is barely 140 minutes) that I had time to squeeze another movie in, and it dawned on me that I never got around to completing the Godzilla re-watch I started back in…uh…2013. Holy shit. Anyway, I had made it all the way up towards the tail end of the Heisei era, which you might recall began with an effort to reboot Godzilla into a more grounded milieu. A cursory glimpse at Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II reveals that Toho eventually circled back to its signature weirdness. Not only does this one feature a Godzilla defense force tasked with fending off the beast with its own Mechagodzilla, but it also tosses in Rodan, a baby Godzilla, and telepaths. Needless to say, this one gets pretty far out there, though it is still grounded in the Heisei era’s tactile, sort of gritty production aesthetic. It’s got the soul of that late-era Showa silliness but still looks like a Heisei effort, a pairing that works almost in spite of itself. I love the commitment to big, practical effects, and the climactic monster mash is pretty killer. Slowly but surely, this stretch of Godzilla films might be becoming my favorite.
Day 21 (Free space): Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987)
You can’t revel in a month-long celebration of exploitation junk without crossing paths with Andy Sidaris at least once. One of America’s preeminent trash mavens, he made one crucial addition to Godard’s cinema essentials, as Sidaris required a girl, a gun, and a G-string. Specifically, the formula often called for scantily-clad Playboy playmates romping around on beaches toting machine guns in some of the most ridiculous and shameless action movies ever produced. Amongst the most ridiculous is Hard Ticket to Hawaii, a thoroughly bodacious romp straight through Sidaris’s id. All of his preoccupations are on display, most notably a totally wacky plot involving a couple of undercover operatives tackling a drug lord on a private Hawaiian island. I know that doesn’t sound especially nuts, but just know that it also involves a poisonous snake, razor Frisbees, and the best goddamned scene featuring a bazooka and skateboard that I’ve ever seen in my life. Do yourself a favor: read nothing else about this movie, go to Amazon, and drop $6 on this 12-movie Sidaris DVD set. You’re welcome.
Day 22 (Video Nasties): Toxic Zombies (1980)/S.S. Experiment Camp (1976)/The Driller Killer (1979)
I wanted to use this day as an opportunity to knock off the ever-dwindling list of Nasties I haven’t seen, which seemed like a good idea until I realized there’s a reason these titles were among that shallow pool. Neither of these films have stellar reputations beyond their notoriety as Nasties, so, in a roundabout way, earning that designation might have been a boon in the long run.
At any rate, Toxic Zombies is easily the more tolerable of the two, if only because you can at least detect a genuine sense of enthusiasm from Charles McCrann, who wrote, produced, edited, directed, and acted in this scrappy, no-fi effort. To his credit, he scripts a whopper of an excuse to conjure up some undead carnage, as a shady government outfit tries to eradicate a weed harvest with a toxic pesticide that turns the drug farmers into zombies. Unfortunately, the rest of Toxic Zombies can’t quite keep up with the ludicrous premise, as it mostly exists to show off a pretty routine splatter reel. Some of the gags are pretty inspired (with one even managing to reach the insane heights of Italian splatter classics), and there’s definitely a mean, disreputable streak to it, especially whenever it’s dealing with a mentally-handicapped character and his sister. Between that and the gore, I suppose it’s easy to see why Toxic Zombies earned the ire of British censors, but I’m mostly just impressed they were able to trudge through it and catalog all of its offenses.
With S.S. Experiment Camp, it’s very possible that they didn’t even bother watching it, as its marketing—which, as you can see above, features a girl being tortured on an upside-down cross—caused enough of a stir to land the film on the Nasties radar. Like most Naziploitation I’ve come across (which is admittedly not a whole lot), it seems more offensive than it actually is. In fact, one could argue that its biggest offense is being a fucking bore. Sometimes, it feels like this genre coasts on its provocation—“oh shit, look at these Nazis doing horrible things!” they say without putting any kind of cinematic charge behind it.
S.S. Experiment Camp is among the worst offenders, as it drags along through long stretches of virtual silence and dead air thanks to a muffled dialogue track that makes it impossible to hear anything. Not that any of the dialogue seems to be all that necessary since it’s pretty easy to follow a movie that’s mostly preoccupied with Nazis performing sexual experiments on men and women to strengthen the German race (or something like that). Torture is often involved, as is a subplot where one of the superiors looks to regain his severed testicles by harvesting replacements from one of the experiment’s volunteers. Imagine making a movie with that plot point and having it turn out to a total bore.
These two choices were so disappointing that I refused to end the day on a down note, so I finally caught up with Arrow’s Blu-ray release of The Driller Killer, which you can read about here.
Day 23 (Barbara Campton): Castle Freak (1995)/Road Games (2015)
If you had any doubts about the crew at F This!, surely those can be set aside with the knowledge that they dedicated an entire day to genre goddess Barbara Crampton, and it’s a testament to her enduring popularity that this day presented a wide array of choices. I eventually settled on revisiting Castle Freak because A.) it rules, and B.) anytime you get the urge to watch Barbara Crampton battle a monster in an Italian castle, you follow it. Castle Freak hails from the halcyon days of the mid-90s, when Full Moon still ruled the video store like no other direct-to-video label, this Stuart Gordon effort is certainly in the conversation of best 90s DTV efforts.
Very loosely inspired by Lovecraft, it finds a family of three hauling off to a family castle they’ve recently inherited, which seems nice until you realize it comes with a complimentary psychopath roaming the bowels. Even worse, the spooky events pick apart old wounds, as this family recently suffered a tragedy that resulted in the death of a son and the loss of sight for their surviving daughter. Some early flashbacks make it seem like an honest mistake on the part of John (Jeffrey Combs), but we eventually learn it definitely was not since he’d been drinking on account of losing his job for being an asshole.
As you might imagine, this allows Combs to play another terrific jerk under the direction of Gordon, who lets him do so with gusto. When John reaches his lowest peak, he trawls a bar for a prostitute that he promptly takes back to his castle, which is a bold strategy when trying to reconcile with an estranged wife. Needless to say, what initially appears to be a throwback to the refined gothic horrors of yesteryear swiftly degenerates into a schlocky gorefest, complete with a killer, grotesque creature makeup and plenty of blood and guts to splatter around. Twenty years later, and Castle Freak still rules and provides a potent reminder that Combs, Crampton, and Gordon make for a hell of a trio.
Of course, Crampton is still quite busy these days too, as evidenced by the very solid Road Games, which you can read more about here.
Day 24 (Zombies): Zombies on Broadway (1945)/Shock Waves (1977)
We usually associate exploitation with its heyday decades (namely the 60s, 70s, 80s), but its spirit stretches back further than that. While one would hesitate to say major studio RKO specialized in straight-up exploitation, there’s no doubt it knew how to churn out cheap, marketable horror movies to cash in on certain trends. Zombies of Broadway is a prime example and features layers of exploitation to sift through, from the way it casually riffs on White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie to the way it boasts Bela Lugosi’s marquee presence for all of about 8 minutes.
What’s more, lead duo Alan Carney and Wally Brown was RKO’s answer to Abbott & Costello, so the whole thing has a weird, kind of off-brand vibe to it that feels straight out of the exploitation mold. The film itself is breezy and agreeable enough, as it follows a couple of huckster goofballs trying to procure an actual Haitian zombie for a gangster whose club is set to open on Friday the 13th. Hijinks ensue at a rapid clip, as they bumble and stumble their way into a mad scientist’s (Lugosi) grisly plot to enslave the undead. Carney and Brown are quite good at reproducing the usual Abbott & Costello shtick (right down to the witty banter and wordplay), and Lugosi is always a delight. The madcap climax—which sees the duo scrambling to produce that zombie—is also quite a hoot.
Shock Waves holds a weird, fond spot for me because I distinctly recall it being one of the earlier non-Romero zombie movies I tracked down on DVD, so it had been a long while since I last watched it. Unfortunately, revisiting it provided a reminder that sometimes those fond memories are better off left in the past. Over a decade ago, there must have been a novelty to it—I mean, holy shit, Nazi zombies has an obvious appeal, and that killer artwork can’t be denied. It’s just too bad that’s about all Shock Waves has going for it outside of a brief appearance by Peter Cushing, some awesome shots of the zombies rising from a lake, and a weirdly effective downbeat ending. Otherwise, not much happens for the other 75 minutes or so, as the film utterly wastes a cool premise and an atmospheric setting by not having anything really happen. Gore is minimal, characters are practically non-existent, and the film moves at a snail’s pace. What a disappointment, but what else do you expect from a bunch of Nazis? Maybe that’s the big takeaway from Junesploitation: fuck Nazis.
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