Archive for January, 2014

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I’m not sure how to best describe the singular (go ahead, say it — thank God) experience of watching any film from the Ray Dennis Steckler oeuvre. Is “watching” even the right term to use, or do Steckler’s flicks just sort of play out in front of you? Active viewer participation certainly isn’t required — nor is it even rewarded — but regardless of how much or little attention you’re paying to events as they unfold, you do, somehow, find yourself thinking back on what you saw/barely saw/really didn’t see much of at all.

I think what I’m looking to say here is that Steckler’s movies just sort of happen, and whether or not you want them to, they tend to stick with you even if, by all rights, they shouldn’t. Ray did things his way — whatever you think, want, or expect is purely surplus to requirements.

Which isn’t to say that he couldn’t display an astonishing degree of competence, given his legendarily limited means, when he wanted to. Even his most listless affairs — think Blood Shack or The Las Vegas Serial Killer — are obviously done by a guy who is capable of more than a “mail-it-in” effort, even if he lacked the necessary ambition (plus, of course, finances) to prove it. And each of them, somehow, weaves a bizarre post-hypnotic spell in the viewer’s mind that compels him or her to give the movie in question another go sometime soon, if only to prove it wasn’t as dull and pointless as it seemed the first time out.

Don’t ask me how he managed to do this. And don’t ask him, either — Ray is, sadly, gone now, but even when alive he seemed completely oblivious to the occult power his works accidentally displayed. Some variation on “I did what I could with what I had” is his most common answer to questions about his various films’ production, and anybody who doesn’t think there’s some sort of low-intensity genius inherent in such an outlook is fooling themselves, because goddamn it, there most certainly is.

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Case in point : 1969’s Body Fever (an inexplicable title given the film’s subject matter, I assure you, but no more or less completely out of place than the other handles it was released under, namely Super Cool and Deadlocked!), Steckler’s attempt at doing a Sam Spade-style detective “thriller” that’s utterly lacking in thrills, intrigue, suspense, or even common sense. Which is, of course, the true beauty of the whole thing.

Dullard private dick Charlie Smith (Steckler himself, as shown above) is hired to track down a missing girl (Steckler’s gorgeous wife-at-the-time, Carolyn Brandt) who’s gone and gotten herself mixed up in L.A.’s seedy heroin underworld. B-movie stalwart Gary Kent plays — no surprise here — tough guy Frankie Roberts, who gets in our man’s way from time to time but never really amounts to much of a genuine threat. Some time-killing strip club footage is thrown in. We learn that a “connected guy”-type hood named Big Mack is somebody not to be trifled with. Charlie finds his girl and ends up falling for her. No less than low-budget directorial legend himself Coleman Francis turns up as the owner of a coin-op laundromat who constantly bitches about his customers trying to cheat him. Are you intrigued yet? Of course you are.

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It’s probably fair to say that the most mesmerizing thing about Body Fever, besides looking for the various creative ways Steckler goes about killing his 78-minute runtime, is the utter incongruity on display in the two leads’ performances. Steckler appears to be playing things strictly for laughs (and why not?), while Brandt gives the impression that she is, for all intents and purposes, sleepwalking. If this is any sort of accurate representation of their marriage in microcosm, it’s no wonder things didn’t work out.

Still, for all its flaws — or perhaps precisely because of them — Body Fever emits that same siren call of “watch me again” as all things Steckler inevitably do. Andre Brummer (working here under his frequently-used pseudonym of Henri Price) probably has a lot to do with this, as his straight-out-of-another-dimension soundtrack music makes repeat viewings a genuine treat, but there’s more to it than that. I hesitate to invoke an cliche as over-used as je ne sais quois (Christ, did I even spell that right?), but Steckler’s flicks have it in spades. You can’t put your finger on precisely why any of his films worm their way into the back of your head, but they always do.

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Body Fever is available on DVD from Media Blasters, who released it under the auspices of their “Guilty Pleasures” sub-label, and while it’s not as packed-to-the-gills with extras as some of their other Steckler titles, it does feature and extensive on-camera interview with the director about the film (among other topics, of course), there’s a “lost” Steckler Super-8 short included, and the requisite trailers for his other masterpieces available from Media Blasters round out the package, The remastered picture and mono sound are both rough — as you’d expect — but perfectly adequate, and all in all the disc makes a nice addition to your home exploitation library.

Just don’t ask me why.

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Hey, look — I’m with you. I never thought this was gonna happen,  either, much less under circumstances this bizarre — and yet last week, at my local comic shop, there it was — Miracleman #1. And bearing the Marvel Comics imprint, no less.

My enthusiasm for seeing this material back in print for the first time in forever was tempered somewhat by Joe Quesada’s truly awful cover, which makes Miracelman/Marvelman look flat-out fucking evil, but beyond that, I gotta admit, finding this on the new release racks was definitely a “pinch me, I must be dreaming” moment.

The story particulars first, then, for those of you unfamiliar with the proceedings — Miracleman is, as you’ve probably surmised by now, the same thing as Marvelman, a uniquely British riff on Captain Marvel/Shazam! created by UK comics legend Mick Anglo at the height of Cold War atomic unease that was resurrected by a young-at-the-time writer named Alan Moore and artist Garry Leach in the pages of the legendary, incredibly-short-lived anthology series Warrior at the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power — a time, not conicidentally, of even more atomic unease. As one of the first of the “revisionist” super-hero strips, it achieved instant notoriety for its challenging and timely content, and when Moore skyrocketed to prominence in the US thanks to his groundbreaking work on  Swamp Thing and Watchmen, American publishers suddenly got very interested in exposing stateside audiences to this material ASAP.

There were just a few hang-ups, though. And that’s where our admittedly brief story recap ends (honestly, if you haven’t read this stuff before, the less you know the better since it’s best to experience its majesty with no pre-conceived ideas going on — and if you have read it, well, you know what you’re in for, and why you absolutely need to read it again) and our examination of various behind-the-scenes machinations begins.

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The copyright arrangements behind Marvelman (as it was only known prior to 1985) were complex, to say the least, but here’s what it boils down to — 1/3 of the ownership of the character was held by Quality Communications, the original publishers of the comic, 1/3 was held by Moore, as current (at the time) “caretaker” of the property, and 1/3 was held by the company that eventually was granted US publishing rights, Eclipse Comics. Make sense so far? Good. Because things are about to get even more convoluted.

Moore’s run was unfinished when Eclipse picked the book up, Warrior having folded up shop a few years previously, so the first arrangement to be made was for him to finish his story, which he did — along with artists Rick Veitch and John Totleben, who did positively lavish  work. It took 16 intermittently-published issues, and the better part of a decade, for Moore to complete his epic (a term, I assure you, that I do not use lighlty) and then the reigns were handed over to Neil Gaiman, who wrote a six-part story entitled “The Golden Age,” superbly illustrated by Mark Buckingham, That 1/3 copyright ownership Moore held? That went to Gaiman as well with, by all accounts, no fuss and no muss.

Then things got complicated  — again. Two issues into Gaiman and Buckingham’s second run, “The Silver Age,” Eclipse finally went the way of most independent publishers in the late-’80s/early-’90s and gave up the ghost. As a result, Miracleman, as it was then more widely known (more on all that in a moment) was left unfinished — for a second time.

And so things have remained for just over 20 years.

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Most of us figured this was one of those projects destined to remain in limbo forever, and the only way to read this material would be too pay top dollar for back issues, either on eBay or, if we were real lucky, at our LCS (don’t hold your breath) — but demand remained constant, and sometime in the last year or so, the weirdest possible breakthrough of all happened.  But first we need to backtrack one more time to provide even further context.

Ever wonder why Alan Moore refused, from day one, to ever work for Marvel’s US arm? The answer goes back to the first attempts to bring Marvelman to these shores. Marvel, you see, had major problems with the character’s name, even though it had been around since the 1950s with nary a word of protest from their UK division. In fact, at first they threatened legal action to prevent Eclipse re-printing the Warrior material at all, much less continue the story with new chapters once the old stuff had run its course. The solution : Eclipse simply changed our erstwhile hero’s name to “Miracleman,” and the rest is history. But Moore never forgot, and consequently held a deep antipathy toward Marvel that, bless his heart, remains in full force to this day. So much so, in fact, that he’s requested to have his name removed from these new Marvel reprints and the credits merely read “Written By The Original Author” instead. Say what you will for Moore, but the man never compromises his principles, and for that he deserves our heartiest congratulations.

But how did Marvel end up with the publication rights at this late date in the first place? Well, I did hint about an unlikely “breakthrough” just a moment ago —

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Gaiman, now apparently 2/3 rights-holder of the property with Eclipse out of the picture, is reported to have cut a deal with the self-proclaimed “House Of Ideas” at about the same time that he sold he and Todd McFarlane’s rights to the Angela character (originally from Spawn, now appearing in Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy) to not only publish all extant Miracleman material,  but to finally finish his “Silver Age” storyline, as well. And so the character Marvel tried their damndest to prevent from ever seeing the light of day in the US is now in their stable, and while Moore might be less than thrilled about it, he hasn’t uttered a word of complaint publicly, just quietly asked to have his name excised from the project. Fair enough.

All of which means that, whether we’re new to this book or not, we’re all in for a wild ride. Miracleman starts a bit rough on the story front — Moore doesn’t really find his footing until a few issues in — but the art, whether by Leach, Veitch, Totleben, or Buckingham, is uniformly exquisite, and once the narrative gets going, trust me when I say it really gets going. This is a series that honestly rivals Watchmen in terms of sheer impact, and does so much more lyrically, poetically, and hauntingly. It’s quite simply one of the best comics ever made by anyone, period.

Marvel’s first issue boasts a fair number of “extras,” as well, to help justify its hefty $5.99 price tag — look for extensive backstory, an interview with creator Mick Anglo, and reprints of some early B&W Anglo stories among other goodies. All in all, an impressive package to commemorate a genuinely historic return. I’m over the moon, friends, and once you start picking this title up — assuming you haven’t already — you will be, as well. Get to your comic shop — now! KIMOTA!

NECROMANIA

Whenever I think of the last years the iconic Edward D. Wood, Jr. spent on this Earth, I — like you, I’m sure, dear reader — can’t help but feel a deep and abiding sadness that permeates right down to the fucking core of my being. If he’d just been able to hang on for a few more years, who knows how things could have ended up for the guy? Ed passed away in 1978, and by the early 1980s he was being celebrated as “the worst filmmaker of all time” even though we all know he wasn’t/isn’t. But when he died — of heart failure brought on by years of chronic alcohol abuse — he was homeless and crashing at a friend’s place, just another Hollywood has-been who was forever dreaming up one “big comeback” after another that never materialized.

He deserved so much better, didn’t he? Think of the untold hours of joy his work has brought to a legion of fans that continues to grow to this day. Shit, it’s not hard to meet people who have watched Plan 9 From Outer Space alone dozens, if not hundreds, of times. How many folks would love to have had the opportunity to shake the man’s hand and just say “thank you”? I know I count myself among that number, and it’s a fair bet that if you’re reading this, you do, as well.

The ’70s were by far Wood’s toughest decade to endure (as evidenced by the simple fact that he didn’t endure them completely), and it’s not hard to see why — the man who gave us Bride Of The MonsterGlen Or Glenda?, and other singular works of celluloid vision — the man who defined the term “outsider artist” before it was even coined — was reduced to writing dime-a-piece porn novels and living in unimaginable squalor. Diving the bottom of a bottle of Imperial Whiskey must have probably seemed like a pretty good option given the cruel hand fate had dealt him, even if his boozing only made matters (much) worse.

So let’s not hold 1971’s  Necromania — apparently his last film, although he wrote and directed another skin flick, The Young Marrieds, that same year, and which actually came first is a bit of trivia that’s been lost to the ages — against him too much, shall we?

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I don’t know a whole hell of a lot (okay, anything) about Cinema Classics Production, the outfit that hired Wood to helm this softcore (with hardcore inserts filmed,  but not added at the time) stinkbomb, but whoever was behind this one-and-done operation, they do deserve thanks for giving Ed two days and $7,000 to realize his admittedly meager vision with this flick and, hopefully, to feel at least somewhat alive again.

Anecdotes about the production of this film — whose complete title is the admittedly bizarre and gramatically incomprehensible ‘Necromania’: A Tale Of Weird Love! — are few and far between, but according to the Bible of all things Wood, Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare Of Ecstasy, Ed was positively in his element while on set. Sober, on top of his game, directing his miniscule cast with enthusiasm — hell, he even worked in drag and didn’t give a shit what anyone had to say about it. He tackled his assignment, by all accounts, with positive zeal.

Not that any of this shows in the finished product, mind you, because even by early-’70s softcore standards, Necromania is an interminably dull slog. But since a breakdown of the particulars of a film’s “story” is part and parcel of any good review (or, hell, even a review written by me), here we go : a young couple , Shirley (legendary skin starlet Rene Bond, who would also go on, tragically, to drink herself to death)  and Danny (Ric Lutze) are having problems in the bedroom. Specifically, Danny can’t get it up. So they do what any newlyweds in their predicament would, I guess, in the days before Viagra — visit the home of an occult practitioner of sexual magic.

The lady of the house, one Madame Heles, is apparently nowhere to be found, but her lovely young assistant, Tanya (actress uncredited — actually, everyone is uncredited, but it’s no chore to figure out who three of the four “major” participants in the proceedings are) invites them in and selects among her supposed plethora of “marital aides” a purportedly magical dildo that, when left on one of their bedposts, will solve all their problems.

Hey, that was painless, right?

Cue one boring sex scene after another — Shirley and Danny get it on, Shirley gets it on with some random chick, Tanya motor-boats a plastic skull before getting it on with some random guy — and then it’s time for everyone to go and meet Madame Heles (Maria Armold), who’s crashed out in, I shit you not, the very same coffin that the one and only Criswell apparently slept in every night, and a rather listless orgy of sorts ensues before everybody lives happily ever after.

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As boring as all that was to write (and no doubt to  read) about, I assure you that watching it is worse — there’s nothing going on here beyond typical “point and shoot”-style filmmaking, the canned library soundtrack music is, like the “action” on screen, just kinda there, and frankly it’s impossible to imagine even the most hard-up and desperate individual finding anything to get hard and/or wet about here, even if Rene Bond is, as always, drop-dead gorgeous to look at naked. It’s all pretty below-standard stuff for a genre whose standards were, almost without exception, appallingly low to begin with.

Still, shit — it’s Wood, ya know? And even if precisely none of the director’s signature tropes were anywhere on hand, people were going to be looking for this thing like it was some kinda Holy Grail of sleaze, at least for completeness’ sake if nothing else. Until 2001, only a partial (under 60-minute) print survived, and this was released on VHS by Something Weird Video as part of their “Frank Henenlotter’s Sexy Shockers From The Vault” series. Come 2001, however, a for-all-intents-and-purposes unedited (as far as we know) print was discovered, complete with unused hardcore footage, by aforementioned Wood biographer Rudolph Grey at, apparently, a yard sale, and this was subsequently released onto DVD by an outfit known as Fleshbot Films, who have remastered the full frame image and mono sound to what one supposes to be their best possible standards (it still looks and sounds a little rough, as you’d expect), and so now we can, in fact, see Necromania in all its — and I use this term loosely — “glory.”

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Whether one is watching  either the softcore or hardcore edits available on this disc, though — and I give Fleshbot credit for presenting it either way, since one is (again, as far as we know) “complete,” while the other is the version that was seen in Kleenex-providing theaters ( or at least would have been — all prints of the film quickly disappeared, and despite a few different companies being listed as “distributors” of it, whether or not it actually played on any screens anywhere is something of an open question) — the end result is the same : sheer ennui of the sort that leaves one pondering the very fundamental question of when did watch people fuck (or at least pretend to fuck) become so boring?

I can’t answer that any more than I can answer why a film that has absolutely nothing to do with having sex with the dead should be called Necromania, but I do know this much : only the most die-hard of Wood completists are likely to find anything of interest here, and even for them it ain’t gonna be easy.

I take a look at the first issue of George Romero’s “Empire Of The dead” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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Normally I’m not one for hype, but Marvel’s advertising tagline describing their new series from the father of the modern zombie genre, George A. Romero, as a “comics event” actually strikes me as being a fairly accurate one. I mean, when the guy who gave us Night Of The Living DeadDawn Of The Dead, and Day Of The Dead eschews the silver screen to tell his newest “living dead” story in the comic book format, that’s big news, right?

And from the word “go,” issue #1 of Empire Of The Dead (okay, fair enough, its complete title, according to the copyright indicia,  is George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One, Number 1) has a suitably “big” feel to it, and even though artist Alex Maleev approaches his work in a sketchy, rough, “stripped-down” style — which is flat-out gorgeous, by the way — the overall…

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I take a look at “Devil’s Due” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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So, it’s January, and you know what that means — “found footage” horror is back.

Seriously, just when you think this cinematic trend has breathed its last gasp, it’s back —  usually during the post-holiday period, when studios are eager to dump off material that they think is going to play to a limited (at best) audience. And then something funny happens — one of these “hand-held horrors, ”  sometimes even a pretty lousy one at that, ends up ruling the roost at the box office for a week or two (The Devil Inside, anyone?), easily recouping its meager production costs, and the Hollywood suits decide to green-light a few more similar productions figuring that, hey, there’s life in this old horse yet.

And so there seems to be. But you do have to wonder — again! — if this persistent sub-genre has finally run its course, now…

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This probably isn’t the time or place to launch into an in-depth analysis of the motivations and warped psychology behind more or less every single flick ever made by New York’s king of the celluloid gutter, Andy Milligan (and besides, Jimmy McDonough has already done that in his superb biography of Milligan, The Ghastly One — easily one of the most compelling and essential film books ever written by anyone) — suffice to say that it’s a safe bet most regular readers of this site (not that such a beast has ever actually been found in the wild, but I keep writing this shit, so I assume there’s an audience out there somewhere) are already Milligan “fans” to one degree or another and are well-aware of the fact that, to be gentle about it, the guy had issues. He had issues with women. He had issues with men. He had issues with sex. And,  most glaringly obviously of all, he had issues with himself.

In much the same way that devotees of Hitchcock take their greatest pleasure in piecing together clues about the director’s own personal psychology when watching his films, the small but devoted legion of Milligan admirers (if that’s the term we’re even looking for here) aren’t watching his bargain-basement, shot-on-16mm-short-ends costume dramas so much for their stories as for what those stories are telling us about Andy himself. And while it’s never what you’d call a “pleasant” experience to spend 60 to 90 minutes wallowing in his plain-as-day, deeply-rooted sexual psychosis, it’s always, at the very least, an interesting one.

Still, once in a blue moon Andy would get a wild hair up his ass (which is probably a lot less painful than what he usually had up there) and try, for some reason known only to him at the time, to crank out a flick that might have some sort of appeal beyond his usual audience of rock-bottom 42nd Street heroin junkies, transvestite hookers, slowly-expiring derelicts, and low-rent hustlers. I know, I know — what a sellout, right?

Such an endeavor is 1974’s Blood, a decidedly “toned-down” affair by Milligan standards, but one that nevertheless can’t quite seem to find its way to being even a “normal” piece of ultra-low-budget drive-in fare despite its director’s best attempts to “just say no” to the more nagging voices in the back of his always-festering mind.

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Here’s the deal : the mad-doctor son of a werewolf (Allan Berendt) is living in wedded less-than-bliss with the daughter of none other than Count Dracula himself (Milligan stalwart Hope Stansbury) and trying to work out a cure to both their conditions (lycanthropy and vampirism apparently being inherited genetic traits) from their home in rural 1930s  Britain (by way, of course, Milligan being Milligan, of Staten Island). But being this is no ordinary couple, it’s no ordinary home, either — the garden is full of mutant man-eating plants, and their domestic staff appear to double as unwitting guinea pigs in their evil bosses’ schemes.  Oh, And bloodthirsty rabid bats are, for some reason, plaguing the nearby town.

Okay, look, the plot doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, but it’s noteworthy for Milligan “scholars” to see how firmly sublimated his usual psycho-sexual obsessions are in this one, and how he’s substituted genuinely effective Gothic atmospherics in their usual place in his story’s foreground. This is probably among the most atmospheric of the director’s works, and even though it’s more or less all shot in the same house (namely, his), it feels less claustrophobic, even downright suffocating, than his standard fare tends to.

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The good news is that it still feels like a movie that absolutely couldn’t have been made by anybody else other than Andy, even though he’s doing his best to tone down his act here. Sure, the cellar-dwelling production values have a lot to do with that (IMDB lists the budget for this one at $25,000, but that seems exponentially generous), but I think there’s more to it than that — simply put, you just know a Milligan flick when you see one, and even with the primordial soup of his psychopathia sexualis locked away in a strong box, something still oozes and slithers out. It may not be announcing itself as loudly as usual, but it’s still fucking there, informing everything he does, like a stain that won’t wash out.

Sadly, despite the recent (and most welcome) uptick in interest for all things Milligan, Blood remains unavailable on DVD for whatever reasons(s), and copies of the VHS release are notoriously difficult to come by. Fortunately for us all, a kind and generous soul has uploaded the entire thing onto YouTube, and I’ve included a link above so that you too, dear reader, can enjoy this hard-to-come by slice of slightly-more-ready-for-prime-time Milligan “goodness.” It may not be his finest hour, but it’s interesting to see just how stubbornly inaccessible even his most purportedly accessible work is.

A Dissenting View On “Her”

Posted: January 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

I take a look at Spike Jonze’s much-hyped “Her” for Through The Shattered Lens website —

Through the Shattered Lens

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Right off the bat, I’d like to say that even though I wasn’t nearly as enamored with Spike Jonze’s new film Her as fellow TTSL scribes Leonard Wilson and leonth3duke were, both of those gentlemen wrote fine, in many istances very personal, reviews of this movie that made me actively want to like it going in — which is no mean feat considering that I’m much more ambivalent abut Jonez’ work in general than are a lot of self-declared cineastes out there (not that I, personally, decalre myself to be one, mind you, but you get my point — to the extent that I have one).

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Being John Malkovich as much as anyone else at the time (although it doesn’t particularly stand up to repeat viewings once you know the proverbial score), but most of his creative output since then has left me…

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