Tonight we pay tribute to three unique talents in the history of B filmmaking – wildly inconsistent, fuelled on the smell of an oily rag, and completely out of their trees. Three visionaries in their own way, three Schlock Kings who bring us gifts of gold teeth, Frankenstein and meh.
First is Ray Dennis Steckler, a true original American DIY auteur whose eccentric takes on pulp culture and almost expressionistic editing look and feel like the films of the Kuchar Brothers but sillier and without the self-conscious artiness. Free-form to the point of experimental, his movies Rat Pfink A Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Monsters are a triumph of determination and imagination over a complete absence of budget. There’s no denying Steckler’s charm; you just need a special kind of eyes to appreciate his innate genius.
So to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies, Steckler’s second film after 1962’s Wild Guitar for Arch Hall Senior and Junior. It’s billed as the world’s first Teen Monster Musical, and I’m certainly not going to argue the point. Set in a carnival that by 1963 was already looking like a more seedy version of Nightmare Alley, we meet the boozy Marge Nielsen (Steckler’s then-wife and favourite muse Carolyn Brandt), a lush whose endless tangos with the bottle are putting her dancing career on the skids. She crosses palms with Estrella, the carnival’s resident fortune teller with an accent that would make Bela Lugosi blanche and with a wart the size of Romania, but the prognosis isn’t good.
It’s then “teens go wild”, in one of the film’s many schizophrenic leaps in internal logic. Meet Jerry and his mate, a pair of cheerful would-be delinquents who look suspiciously like Nicolas Cage’s old man and Sean Penn Senior, as they pick up Angie, a good girl with a yen for adventures with bad boys. Jerry – played by Steckler as his on-screen alter ego “Cash Flagg”, who obviously fancied himself as a receding Jimmy Dean - ditches his girl to watch the bump-and-grind routine of the exotic gypsy dancer Carmelita, who just happens to be the gypsy crone’s sister. Between the two and their grotesque chain-smoking henchman (an unspecified rubber-faced stereotype that Goebels would have been proud of), they hypnotize Jerry with a crazy hypno-wheel.
We’re never quite sure if Estrella the gypsy hates all men, or just the ones with penises. Whatever the reason, Jerry is now one of her back-room collection of hypnotized “zombies”, hideous acid-scarred creatures (and I’m not talking about hippies here): hood up, eyes bulging, and going hammer and tongs at Carolyn Brandt with a knife. Fading in and out of the hypnotic state, he’s haunted by visions of a bloodied Carolyn and, in the film’s most perfectly realized scene, has an extended hallucination – it’s Salvador Dali’s dream sequence from Spellbound, but with ballerinas, go-go dancers and gorillas.
Words can’t describe the experience of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, and its twisted variety format crossed with old-fashioned spookshow, only with real-life Muppets. At times dreamlike and hyper-real, with stunningly garish colour photography by Vilmos Szigmond, the film’s weirdness is heightened by a seemingly endless parade of musical numbers, all filmed over one day on the same threadbare set until the dancers were on the point of collapse. The Rockettes they ain’t, but the costumes are fantastic. You’re left with the impression it’s a scriptless Bollywood production where most of the meager budget’s been spent on papadums and silly putty.
Roll back to 1963 when The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies first opened – during the Freaks-inspired ending, hooded “zombies” would run through the crowd in rubber masks holding rubber knives, and scare the living Bejeebers out of an already-befuddled audience. I wish I could be in your house now, but like Santa Claus, there’s a lot of children to visit. So, just imagine I’m coming up behind you as we let loose The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies.
The Eye Creatures
Now to Larry Buchanan, a self-described guerilla filmmaker based for a good deal of time in Dallas, Texas, who is notorious for his Z-grade clunkers made on the fly between pretentious art films like the deliberately Bergman-esque Strawberries Need Rain. This from the director of Mistress Of The Apes and Mars Needs Women, who claims to have hung out with Lee Harvey Oswald? There’s definitely more going on under the surface – unfortunately they truly ARE under the surface, as Larry took many of his secrets to the grave in 2004. If only there’s a way of digging him and squeezing it out of him….
The phenomenal success (relatively speaking) of Buchanan’s 1963 picture Free White And 21 led his distributor American International Pictures to approach him on a suicide mission. With the lucrative world of late night TV starting to pay off, Buchanan was commissioned by AIP to deliver eight remakes of their classic 50s science fiction titles, all to be shot back to back on 16mm with budgets of less than $30,000 each, then sold as part of a TV package. Less than $30,000? That’s barely more than most porn budgets. And, like most cheap-assed companies, they wanted them yesterday.
So began Buchanan’s mad rush over the next eighteen months that would yield his Z-grade octet known as the “Azalea” pictures, after his production company. First came The Eye Creatures, a deliberately old-fashioned quickie, modeled on AIP’s 1957 teen schlocker Invasion Of The Saucer Men. A good chunk of the small pile of change was spent on “name” star John Ashley, the B-Elvis from 50s juvie classics as Motorcycle Gang, Drag Strip Girl and High School Caesar. Ashley, ever the trooper, took time off between his Beach Party films and jungle adventures in the Philippines to head a no-name, not to mention unpaid, cast of misfits, aging teens, and would-be comedians in an almost Quixotic fight against time and money – not to mention aliens in sneakers and body stockings.
The Air Force is sent into a typical backwoods town to investigate a possible UFO landing. Ah, Small Town USA - where all the kids ever do is make out, while being spied on by a pair of chucklehead Radar operators. Hip to the saucer landing (footage stolen from the 1953 Invaders From Mars) is a pair of con-artists looking to make a quick buck from showing a dead alien on ice, as well as John Ashley (playing Stan) and fiancée Susan Rogers, who plan to elope as her father, a respectable lawyer, doesn’t approve of Stan. Maybe that’s because Ashley, at 31, is the town’s oldest teenage delinquent?
In their haste for a quick honeymoon, Stan and Susan run over a “thing” – a weird shapeless blob who wrecks their car, forcing them to Old Man Bailey’s house in the middle of the woods. Bailey’s a suspicious old coot who doesn’t like people, and has declared war on smoochers who use his property for their all-night gropefests. And it’s just as well – these ham-fisted, hormone-driven teenyboppers might actually save the world.
Naturally the cops think the kids are hopped up on goofballs or on the moonshine, so when one of the conmen turns up dead, Stan and Susan are blamed. Despite the Official Denial from the Air Force, Stan knows better, and claims the aliens framed him by bending his fender. Now THAT’s paranoia for you! The kids escape from custody in a stolen police car… unbeknownst to them their passenger is a disembodied claw!
And here’s your full lineup of effects: one hubcap flying saucer, one claw, and a trio of bubble suits that look like clusters of Rice Crispies over a huge gaping mouth (or is it an open sore?). No “eyes” stand out, but I guess The Mouth Creatures would be the kiss of death on late night Channel 31 (is anyone still watching?). The whole film’s eighty minutes takes place in one night, though you’d never tell – Buchanan’s day-for-night photography, which looks like midday at the equator, is unconvincingly spliced between night-time studio shots.
The Eye Creatures is riddled with government cover-ups and alien conspiracies, of which Buchanan was a firm believer, although he never labeled himself a conspiracy theorist. Talk about being in the right spot at the wrong time: Buchanan was inadvertently caught up in the JFK assassination, having shot part of his 1963 film Naughty Dallas at Jack Ruby’s nightclub, and his acquaintanceship with JFK’s supposed assassin led him to film the fictitious Trial Of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1964. All he would say about Dallas: “All kinds of weird things happened down there.” A much later film, Down On Us/Beyond The Doors, focuses on a CIA plot to assassinate Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – all of which, Buchanan claimed, is based on fact, of which he had proof.
If the aliens ARE real, I’m sure they’re watching right now, assuming the Channel 31 transmitter can make it past Clayfield, tucking into a bowl of Rice Crispies and having a good old laugh at us Stoopid Humans, as we run around in circles trying to make sense of Larry Buchanan’s non-fictional The Eye Creatures.
We’ve played most of the collected works of Arch Hall Junior and Senior recently on Schlock Treatment – now to their first film The Choppers, a juvenile delinquent (or JD) tale filmed in 1959 when Arch Hall Jr was just sixteen, but not released until 1961. It a tale of “Youth Gone Wild”, one of a whole slew of offensively preachy tomes: a plea for parents to watch their kids, make them stay in school, and just one step from blaming comic books or lack of prayer. Instead the message is this: Broken homes lead to broken lives, and the spawn of overly indulgent or alcoholic bums for parents have an insatiable craving for attention, cheap thrills or worse.
The Choppers is not a biker film as the title would suggest, but about a gang of car-part thieves or “Choppers”, five boys aged sixteen to eighteen, and just like the bikers the JD films would step aside for, the kids have cute names like “Torch”, “Snooper” and “Cowboy”. They’re strippers – not that kind of stripper, but they can strip the cars of unsuspecting motorists, referred to as “Square Johns”, in less time than it takes to peel off your Reg Grundies. Young Arch is their unofficial leader Jack “Cruiser” Bryan, the scariest kind of delinquent of all – a thinking delinquent. He’s also cold, sociopathic, and spouts lines of beat jive like “Peel off those cabbage leaves!” written by the squares he claims to despise.
The cops have no clues, nothin’, not even at the chop shop they sell the parts to, run by the crusty but tight-lipped Moose played by B-regular Bruno VeSota, who I swear looks like a tall dwarf. Even Tom, an insurance investigator whose girlfriend (Marianne Gabar, Playboy Playmate from September 1959) is over 25 years younger, gets his car stripped while making out and not coming up for air. Naturally the kids get cocky, and plan elaborate heists, even posing as hicks while using a chicken truck as a decoy. And man, dig those crazy walkie talkies that are the size of a child’s coffin! On a down moment, out comes the guitar and bongos, and with the Choppers and truck load of chickens as his only audience, baby-faced Arch, only sixteen, sings the fried would-be beat babble of “Monkey In My Hatband, I can do a handstand…” I could be wrong, but I suspect THIS is the golden Arch moment, the pinnacle of his music career, and the one single moment in The Choppers where his true genius peeks through.
Of course the Choppers can’t sustain their monumental egos; real-life Daddy-O Arch Senior, unmitigated ham that he is, plays famous radio reporter Jim Bradford, who in redefining the term “slow news day”, does a blow-by-blow description in painful detail of the Choppers’ arrest. Remember kids: I understand you have the burning need to urinate on a cop car, maybe set fire to a police station or two. Just wait till you’re older. Meanwhile RESPECT YOUR TEETH AND BRUSH YOUR PARENTS. Both won’t be around forever, so use them while you can. This has been a public announcement brought to you by The Choppers.