Thursday, May 14, 2009

25th July 2008: "The Horrors Of Lemon Grove" double!

The Horror Of Party Beach

USA 1964 b&w

Director Del Tenney Writer Richard Hilliard

Cast John Scott (Hank Green), Alice Lyon (Elaine Gavin), Allan Laurel (Dr. Gavin), Eulabelle Moore (Eulabelle)

First tonight is a film I used to read about as a kid in the Medved Brothers’ Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time AND in a photo comic that was everywhere in the Seventies – shame the movie wasn’t. The Horror Of Party Beach is the companion film to Curse Of The Living Corpse, filmed back-to-back by director/writer Del Tenney and released as a double bill to huge business on the teen drive-in circuit. It’s a low-budget riff on the then-popular Beach Party movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funacello, with all the essential elements: surf tunes, bikinis, a Von Zipper-less bike gang, the obligatory sand kicked in the hero’s face, and salty corndog one-liners like this:

Beach Babe: “Do you like bathing beauties?”

Surf Jock: “I dunno, I never bathed one.”

There’s all this PLUS the added attraction of some of the dopiest looking gill-things to emerge from a creature feature. It’s tempting to see early echoes of Jaws – but only if you squint like this and wish real hard.

It starts, appropriately enough on a beach, and a love triangle between scientist-surfer Hank, his lush of a girlfriend Tina who’s decided any daylight hour is cocktail hour, and Hank’s boss’ daughter Elaine who’s quietly waiting in the sidelines for Tina to fall off a coral reef – or something like that. Everyone else is ignoring the psychodrama for a sandside danceathon to swinging surf do-whop band The Del Aires, whose deliriously awful repertoire includes the film’s signature tune “Everybody Do The Zombie Stomp”: “Just slam your foot down with an awful bomp. It's the livin' end!” GENIUS.

On the other side of the bay, spilt toxic waste washes over the ocean floor, where a skull (from a pirate skeleton, perhaps?) suddenly grows tissue and limbs – not to mention gills and a sail-fin Mohawk – and rises out of the shallows looking for human blood. Looking like a bulldog-guppy crossbreed doing the Chicken Dance, it could possibly be the only amphibious zombie serial killer in filmdom, featured in an amphibious zombie serial killer Beach Party musical. Not impressed, Medveds? Then hitchhike one-way up your own wazoos.

A pre-hangover Tina’s the first in the creature’s ping pong ball gaze, and before long it’s breeding, either splitting in two or (shudder) by other means. Elaine narrowly misses a pyjama party that turns into a sorority house massacre, while her father and no-longer-mourning beau check their Grade 3 textbooks for possible solutions. Meanwhile the body count rises (though no State of Emergency is called – how convenient!) and the would-be b&w gore is piled on in a coy, early Sixties kind of way. Which makes it more cute than disturbing, more nut-wrenching than gut-wrenching.

It’s preposterous, for sure, and not just because of the fake sciento-babble and bla-bla-rama used to prop up the flimsy excuse for a plot. Most inexplicable is the African-American maid Eulabelle (played by an actress named Eulabelle!), a suspicious sort armed with fuzzy voodoo dolls and who, with her Aunt Jemimah togs, eye rolling, mispronounciatin’ and exclaimations of “Lordy, lord!”, almost single-handedly put the Civil Rights movement right back to the 1860s.

Tenney’s next feature from 1964 sat unreleased on the shelf for seven years, until exploitation showman extraordinaire Jerry Gross paired it with I Drink Your Blood and retitled it I Eat Your Skin. A lurid bookend for a lurid, if unfortunately brief, career, but one that will no doubt be remembered for one film:1963’s The Horror Of Party Beach.

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters

USA 1965/69 colour

Directors Ray Dennis Steckler, Peter Balakoff Writers Ray Dennis Steckler, Jim Harmon, Ron Haydock, E.M. Kevke

Cast “Cash Flagg”/Ray Dennis Steckler (Gopher), Mike Kannon (Slug), Carolyn Brandt (Cee Bee Beaumont), Don Snyder (Don), Ron Haydock (Rat Pfink), Herb Robins (Chooper #1)

Some films shown on Schlock Treatment are so out there on their own planet, you need a compass and a detailed guide map to make ANY sense of them. The films of Ray Dennis Steckler are such creatures, and as always, “Andrew, you got some ‘splaining to do!”

Steckler was one of those film guys out on a limb in the Sixties: a film-literate writer-director AND professional cameraman for hire, a real hands-on auteur who preferred working under guerrilla conditions with his trusted family of cast and crew, and with a laissez-faire method of working which allowed him to work without a completed script, sometimes changing the course of a film half-way through shooting. As such, he had complete autonomy which allowed his almost stream-of-consciousness stories to flow unhindered. Always grounded in genre and B-films, however, he had a framework on which to pin these flights of fancy, and at least wrapped in a recognizable package to sell to distributors.

Steckler was also a child of the Forties, and grew up on the charming comedies of the Bowery Boys, and spent much of his adolescene aping Leo Gorcey’s on-screen mugging. On the set of Steckler’s 1965 feature Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, he and actor Mike Cannon, who did a very passable Huntz Hall, concocted the idea of doing a Bowery Boys tribute in colour, and with a mere $2000, filmed the first of three half-hour shorts shown separately in theatres, and later packaged as a feature called The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Monsters. “The Lemon Grove Kids” (c.1965) evokes the innocent spirit and goofy slapstick of the Bowery Boys to a T - or B - from the sped-up silliness, title cards, cartoon rumbles, and the overgrown Lemon Grove Kids themselves led by Steckler, odd-looking at the best of times but here veering off into Neverland with his ham-streaked, grimacing performance (using his usual screen credit “Cash Flagg”) as Gopher.

Filmed several years later, Short Number Two features Mrs Steckler, Carolyn Brandt, in whiteface and fangs in The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Green Grasshopper And The Vampire Lady From Outer Space, and kicks the trio into a new hybrid of Christmas pantomime, home movie, live spook show, and Monkees-meets-Sid and Marty Krofft kiddie TV weirdness. Number Three, The Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood (also 1969), is by far the weakest, and instead of Hollywood, goes as far as Steckler’s back yard. Famous actress CeeBee Beaumont is kidnapped by a pair of baddies, and it’s up to Gopher to prove he’s leading man material and save the day. Steckler pitched this as a TV pilot and would have made hundreds of further Lemon Grove shorts if given the opportunity.

It’s hard to work out who exactly his intended audience was: the kiddie matinee crowd, the freak scene (of which we’re all clearly members), or Steckler’s extended family and friends, which comprise most of the cast and crew. Steckler’s then-wife and constant muse Carolyn Brandt appears as the alien Vampire Lady AND reprises her role as actress CeeBee Beaumont from Rat Pfink A Boo Boo; there’s Ron Haydock, Herb Robbins from Thrill Killers, and even Steckler’s kids! And if there was any doubt over the boundaries of Steckler’s self-contained filmic universe, Gopher stumbles through the ending of Rat Pfink, and discovers CeeBee Beaumont’s on the payroll of Steckler-Morgan Productions. It’s the fine balancing act of knowing and na├»ve, of homage and parody, of purist and personal, that takes Steckler to a unique level of B-film auteurs.

This could be the cleverest, silliest, or most unwatchable film we’ve ever screened on Schlock Treatment. Whatever your viewpoint, you’re probably right – it just is, as we enter the parallel universe of The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Monsters.

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