Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Happy Birthday Angie Dickinson !! BIG BAD MAMA 1974

A Machine Gun Totin' Angie Blasts Her Way Through Depression 
Era Texas In This Roger Corman Exploitation Drive-In Classic !

"Hot Lead - Hot Cars - Hot Damn !"

"Men, Money and Moonshine : When It Comes To Vice Mama Know Best !" 

     Throughout his career Roger Corman always showed a certain affinity for the gangster film genre as perhaps like the biker films he also worked on the notion of rebels living outside the law appealed to his streak of independence as a filmmaker. Starting out in 1958 with MACHINE GUN KELLY (starring a young Charles "pre- Bronson" Buchinsky) & the fictional I, MOBSTER and later through his first New World film BLOODY MAMA from 1970 which chronicled the story via the drive-in of Ma Barker's gang of drug addled & psychotic offspring with Shelly Winters in the title role (with Robert DeNiro & Don Stroud among her sons). Down the road and his deal with Fox there was THE ST. VALENTINES DAY MASSACRE and Ben Gazzara as a scenery chewing Al Capone in CAPONE. 
     In 1974 Angie Dickinson was a forty something year old actress who seemed to be most famous for being the on again off again wife of singer Burt Bacharach. During her film career in the 60's and early 70's she seemed to have a unique affinity for attaching herself to projects that while maybe not box office gold at the time of release have gone on to be cult classics such as John Borman's psychedelic neo-noir POINT BLANK and Roger Vadim's PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (which was the subject of last years Angie birthday post) along with ones that are looked upon with a new appreciation (Howard Hawk's RIO BRAVO) or now considered "hip" (OCEANS 11) and some that are even waiting to be discovered such as 1972's THE OUTSIDE MAN.

     However 1974 was an auspicious year for Angie, as a couple of serendipitous events occurred for her career-wise. She appeared in an episode of the anthology TV show POLICE STORY entitled The Gamble and was approached by Roger Corman to star in a low budget depression era gangster movie. The Gamble was picked up for a regular series as POLICE WOMAN and Angie went on to star in BIG BAD MAMA for New World Pictures. Corman cannily held up the release for his movie, tying it into POLICE WOMAN's premiere on Sept. 13 as BIG BAD MAMA opened in theatres across the country within a week of the shows first episode (Roger even premiered it in Angie's home state of North Dakota).
    The instant success of POLICE WOMAN along with Angie's publicity fueled BIG BAD MAMA nude scenes (pictures of which that seemed to show up in every men's magazine published at the time) meant that Roger had a box office bonanza on his hands as BIG BAD MAMA went on to make roughly $5,00,000 in ticket sales and played for years on the drive-in circuit. It later (probably a bit too later) spawned a sequel with Angie in the form of 1987's BIG BAD MAMA II (which isn't nearly as bad as some folks say) and there was even talk of a third entry in the early 90's which never materialized.

     Directed by Steve Carver (THE ARENA) and written by William Norton (WHITE LIGHTNING) & Frances Doel (DEATHSPORT) BIG BAD MAMA sticks to the usual New World game plan of blood or boobs every 15 minutes or so and in its 84 minutes barely stops to catch its breath. Along with Corman's biker films it plays up a bit of the "anti-establishment" plot that also channels a bit of Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE from 1967.
    Filmed in various spots around Southern California (filling in for "West Texas" during the plot's first half before moving to a more convenient So Cal setting for the second half), it was shot in a breakneck 20 days for a budget of approx. $400,000. Under that tight shooting schedule Carver obliviously had to set up shots quickly, but there's only the occasional stray contemporary streetlight in the background to betray the film's time frame - although I'm not sure Angie's brightly colored bell bottom slacks were a fashion item in the 1930's.
    Wilma McClatchie (Angie) is a widow eking out an existence in 1930's Depression era Texas with her two daughters Billy Jean (Susan Stennett THE CANDY SNATCHERS and the OZZIE'S GIRLS TV show) and Polly (Robbie Lee SWITCHBLADE SISTERS). After breaking up the impending marriage of the younger & more innocent doll carrying Polly, Wilma hooks up bootlegger "Uncle Barney" played by Noble Washington (FIGHTING MAD). Alternately pawing at both Wilma and her daughters ol' Barney is soon killed by a couple of G-Men led by "that guy" Dick Miller. Wilma unsuccessfully tries to carry on in the bootleg business and while later coming up short as waitress she catches her daughters in the midst of an impromptu striptease performance for a bunch of drunken lodge members whereupon she decides to turn to a life of crime.

      Kick starting their life outside the law by attempting pass a bogus check at a bank Wilma and her daughters are interrupted by bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt ALIEN). Joining together the group begins robbing banks with Wilma and Fred eventually sharing a bed while Billy Jean and Polly look on eagerly from the background. Eventually the quartet hooks with shifty con man William J. Baxter (a post STAR TREK William Shatner - with one of the strangest fading in and out Southern accents ever heard) with Baxter & Wilma eventually doing some nude frolicking together that drives Fred into the bed(s) of Billy Jean & Polly (sometimes both at the same time !).
     Looking to make one big score they kidnap heiress Joan Kingston (Joan Prather THE DEVILS RAIN) which unfortunately leads to their downfall as the growing animosity between the the males (who's getting Angie tonight !?!) along with other sundry sexual tensions and a whiny backstabbing Capt. Kirk all lead to the climatic and bloody shoot-out with Dick Miller's G Men and a whole lot of squibs.
    Although filled out with several bloody shootings BIG BAD MAMA is far more lighter viewing experience then the more sleazy and nihilistic BLOODY MAMA as Angie's crime spree has a bit of humor attached to it while not totally shying away from the blood & violence. It's interesting to compare the fictional Wilma to Winter's portrayal of Ma Barker as their both strong willed woman looking out for their children and desperately trying to keep the family unit intact (although in BLOODY MAMA Ma Barker might be TOO close to her sons). Skerritt's character is only male in the film that shows much of a backbone or isn't there strictly for comic relief as the other men-folk are shown as weak willed and/or stupid slobs who are no more then a nuisance to Wilma's plans.
     She does let men into her world but its never in doubt who is in charge. Probably because of Frances Doel input to the script the film has a strong feminist slant that fits in with Angie's strong performance as a driven woman in a man's world.

    Along with Angie the entire female cast sheds their clothes at one point or another (including a totally gratuitous scene by Sally Kirkland playing a surprised hooker) and as Susan Stennett was just coming off the family friendly TV show OZZIE'S GIRLS her romping about in the all together with Tom Skerritt must have caused a bit of a stir. If there's a fault in the film, its that it attempts to introduce too many characters into the proceedings with the result being some underdeveloped plot points . Although its understandable that Wilma would allow Fred into the fold for his bank robbing expertise, we never really figure out what the heck Shatner is dong there and why Wilma would allow him into the gang (and it would have been nice to get some more Dick Miller). Plus being this close to his STAR TREK tenure Shatner seems to have just stepped out of that episode where the Enterprise ends up on that planet that's based upon gangland Chicago.
    Angie is simply terrific in this as she jumps into her part with total gusto and to her credit has never tried to shy away from her participation or disown the film. On the Shout Factory DVD she shares a light hearted & informative commentary with Corman, relating many amusing stories such as that although she was fine with the crew being around for her nude scenes Shatner insisted on a closed set. She also points out the exact frame that was reprinted in countless men's magazines and has many complimentary things to say about the production and practically the entire cast and crew.

All the above screen caps are from the Shout Factory DVD


Saturday, September 26, 2015



"Do the undead demons of hell still arise to terrify the world ??"

     One of the highlights (and one of the scariest) of early 1960's British horror cinema BURN, WITCH, BURN shares some some plot points with Jacques Tourneur's masterful NIGHT OF THE DEMON from 1957 as they both show how the forces of ancient evil intrude on a modern academic setting. Although dealing more with voodoo BURN, WITCH, BURN does fit neatly in with the British "folk horror" genre of the period. Originally titled NIGHT OF THE EAGLE in England (which as a title is actually more in the tune with the proceedings then the American re-titling), it was based upon the 1943 Fritz Leiber novel Conjure Wife which had previously been adapted by Universal as WEIRD WOMAN (starring Lon Chaney Jr. as one of the Inner Sanctum movies) in 1944.
    Scripted by the one-two punch of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont this was co-produced by A.I.P. who for U.S. audiences added a hyperbole filled opening narration by Paul Frees who intoned a spell to protect audience members against evil. During the initial theatrical run lucky patrons were given a printed copy of the spell to say along with Frees, in addition a special packet of salt was handed out to help ward off the evil spirits (how cool is that.. !)

     Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde - Quint in 1961's THE INNOCENTS) plays Norman Taylor a psychology professor who teaches at suitably Gothic looking English college. Prof. Taylor is currently lecturing on superstitions which he expounds to class by dramatically writing on the blackboard "I Do Not Believe !" (which will figure in the film's nail biting climax). Seemingly having a perfect life (pretty wife, pending promotion, handsome English country home and a cottage by the sea) Taylor also seems oblivious to various back-stabbing and gossip which permeates the college - mostly dealing with the proposed promotion that he's in line for. His highly strung wife Tansey (American born TV favorite Janet Blair) believes that various forces are conspiring against him and that the only way to protect him is by her use of voodoo and witchcraft which she had previously discovered on a Jamaica vacation.
    One night Norman discovers her collection of witchey accouterments including graveyard dirt, petrified spiders, roots and various creepy little bric-a-brac. He summarily burns them in a fireplace (in one the films creepier moments a spider scuttles out of the fire unnoticed while at the same time Tansey upstairs in bed brushes an unseen object off her neck) and is highly disturbed that she had possessed them.

     Almost immediately things began to go wrong for Taylor as a flirtatious student accuses him of rape, her boyfriend threatens physical violence and in a truly scary sequence late one night during a thunderstorm someone (or something...) attempts to break into their home. Later Tansy goes into a trance and attempts to stab her husband with a tell tale limp suddenly afflicting her which helps point Norman toward his nemesis.
    The films basic plot concerning a man of reason & learning coming against unknown and evil forces while all the time trying to explain them away has been used before (such as in NIGHT OF THE DEMON), but BURN WITCH BURN does present the skeptical leading man in more sympathetic terms. Taylor's character is shown as something more then just condescending & bull headed (such as Dana Andrews was in NIGHT OF THE DEMON) and there comes across some genuine affection between Norman and Tansey. They're quite good together and one of more believable married couples I've come across in a genre film and there's quite a touching moment when Tansey offers her life instead of Norman's during one of her ceremonies.

     The film while not a "jump scare" experience is filled with creepy little asides & sounds, unseen things in shadowy corners and close-ups of the unnerving little witchcraft totems used by the film's protagonists - all of which makes it a movie best experienced at night with lights off (and hopefully rain pattering against the window). Beautifully shot in atmospheric B&W by Reginald H. Wyer (ISLAND OF TERROR) this was directed by Sidney Hayers, who though somewhat forgotten today also directed the wonderfully lurid & bloody CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960) and the underrated thriller INN OF FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (aka REVENGE) from 1971.

      Along with excellent work by the two leads the film features a nice compact cast of British character actors including Anthony Nicholls (THE OMEN 1976), Colin Gordon (THE PSYCHOPATH 1966), Reginald Beckwith (THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE 1961) and Kathleen Byron who was unforgettable as a mentally unbalanced nun in Michael Powell's BLACK NARCISSUS from 1946. Best of all however is Margaret Johnson who plays a teacher and rival of Taylor's. With her permanently leering and/or crooked face she makes full use of Matheson's and Beaumont's richly written dialogue as she adds a touch of bile to even her most off-handed remarks and in the process almost steals the entire film from its leads (and you'll never forgot those unnerving close-ups).
      Peter Cushing was originally cast for lead but bowed out to do CAPTAIN CLEGG with Peter Finch next lined up before he too bailed out. As wonderful as Cushing would have been here, there's really nothing to fault in Wyngarde's performance and the plot seems to work better with the two leads being closer in age then Cushing would have been to Janet Blair.
      Previously available on a MOD DVD from MGM, this was recently acquired by Kino for release on blu-ray which features a luminous transfer of the U.S. version and happily ports over Matheson's commentary from the laser disc (that was missing on the DVD- which makes for another laser I can retire) and for a bonus adds a nice little interview with Wyngarde.

All Above Screen Grabs Are From The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray


Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Bicentennial Sasquatch Mayhem From Joy N. Houck Jr. !

      Directed by Joy N. Houck Jr.(NIGHT OF BLOODY TERROR and WOMEN OF BLOODY TERROR), this enjoyable 1976 Bigfoot romp was released in the midst of the 70's cultural explosion of all things related to mysterious & hairy bipeds. In 1972 Charles B. Pierce's LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK became ground zero for 70's Bigfoot cinema along with the much loved Sunn Classics MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS documentary, TV shows such as IN SEARCH OF..  and even THE SIX-MILLION DOLLAR MAN getting in on the action with a few Bigfoot encounters along with subsequent games, books etc. THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK was distributed by Howco, which was founded by Houck Jr.'s father and distributed movies such as THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROS, Ed Wood's JAIL BAIT, MY WORLD DIES SCREAMING among others throughout the southern drive-in circuit from the late 50's through the early 70's.  
     CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE has been criticized because of its slow pace (especially during the first half) but I think that works to its advantage. For a low budget movie there's some pretty good character development here with well defined personalities - and for a bonus you get not one...but two crotchety old guys to warn you away from swamp in the form of Dub Taylor AND Jack Elam. The creature attacks are spaced out nicely (although for a supposed reclusive type beastie he sure seems to make a nuisance of himself) with the climatic monster stomping ratcheting up a fair amount of tension.

     After hearing a lecture by their anthropology professor (played by director Houck) on the sightings of mysterious creatures who inhabit various remote sections of North America two University of Chicago students named Pahoo (Dennis Fimple TRUCK STOP WOMEN  & HOUSE OF A 1000 CORPSES) and Rives (John David Carson PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW) load up their Ford Econoline Van and head down to Oil City, LA. to do a study on a reported swamp dwelling monster (a monster that we've been made aware of by a pre-credit sequence showing a fisherman being dragged from his boat).
     Upon arriving at their destination the two immediately run into the patriarch of small southern towns as far as 70's drive-in cinema is concerned - the grouchy heavy set sheriff, here named "Billy Carter" (!) - although this being 1976, I'm not sure how many people knew of Billy Carter, so this might just be a coincidence. Sheriff Billy warns them against looking in the swamps and making the towns folk all appear as "stupid rednecks" to the outside world, but to the credit of screenwriter Jim McCullough & director Houck the character never slips into the stereotypical buffoon as in the films climax he showed to be a capable and sympathetic authority figure.
     The two main characters of Pahoo and Rives as portrayed by Fimple and Carson are also written with clearly different personalities as the younger Rives is a bit of a smart alack (he seems to enjoy baiting the sheriff) and know-it-all with long hair while Fimple is the more eager to please and down to earth one (he seems to be interested mostly in girls and hamburgers). There's dialogue alluding to Fimple's service in Vietnam and both characters motivation and their comradeship change several times through the course of the movie.

      The plot sets up some of the "fish out of water" scenarios as to be expected with the two "Yankees" (even though Fimple is clearly southern and dialog mentions him being from Georgia) treated as suspicious outsiders as they attempt to question the townsfolk under the watchful eye of the sheriff. Glowering in the background is grizzled trapper Joe Canton (Jack Elam) who's partner had previously been killed by the monster. Not finding much co-operation the eventually meet up with Orville Bridges (played by writer Jim McCullough Jr.- who was also the producer with an over the title John Carpenter-like credit on the poster) whom as a youngster witnessed his parents being killed by the monster and he invites the two back to his home.
      His father (Dub Taylor) is initially suspicious of the visitors and invites them in for dinner, but Pahoo mentions the monster upsetting the family and the pair of researchers spends the night in the Bridge's barn, where they record some fearsome howling during the night. The investigation continues as the guys pick up a couple local girls (with one of them being the sheriffs daughter) inviting them back to their campsite and later they hook up with the crusty old trapper Joe Canton who relates the story of his encounter with the swamp critter (Elam does an excellent job with this sequence and it shares some similarities to Robert Shaw's Indianapolis speech in JAWS).
      The guy in a hairy suit (monster) is kept fairly hidden with quick glimpses, rustling underbrush and the fearsome howling announcing its presence. One of the criticisms leveled at this occasionally is its lack of "monster attacks", but what the heck - its set up as a reclusive presence, so it can even be argued that the attacks shown might be overdone.

      As mentioned CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE has a very character & dialogue driven plot which does lead to some slow parts (especially during the first hour or so) but this is balanced out by having some leads that have a bit more depth to them then you see typically in low budget drive-in films and for the most part avoid broad stereotypical characterizations. For many of the secondary roles Houck used locals (much like Pierce in BOGGY CREEK) and although there is a stiffness to their parts they help with the authenticity and add to the documentary feel to the film. This also represents an early DP credit for future John Carpenter cinematographer Dean Cundey (who also shot ILSA HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA and BLACK SHAMPOO the same year).
    Although not shot as pseudo- documentary, CREATURE attempts to channel the same sort of LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK atmosphere with its lingering shots of swamps and various critters. Like BOGGY CREEK, this was filmed in the actual location, here being Oil City (which is in the far NW corner of LA.) and is only about 50 miles from the location of Pierce's film in Fouke, AR with the two regions sharing the legend of the "Fouke Monster". The location shooting helps immensely with the atmosphere of the film as you can almost feel the mosquitoes buzzing around and the sticky humidity.
    Joy N. Houck also directed the interesting NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER which was just released by Vinegar Syndrome and was the subject of an excellent recent write-up over at Cool Ass Cinema. CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE is available on several budget labels and multi-packs, but Synapse has announced a blu-ray edition for future release.