Happy Birthday Peter Lorre! - Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Since today would have been Peter Lorre's 107th birthday I decided to celebrate by watching a few of his movies I've had laying around. I'm not sure if I've ever broached this subject on my blog but Mr. Lorre is easily my favorite actor. Not only because I have a huge lady-boner for him , but also for his magnanimous screen presence. He's stolen the show in every movie he appeared in, even if the part was small.  There's a reason Charlie Chaplin referred to him as "the greatest living actor". Sadly many of his best films haven't gotten much attention. Of course we all love M, as we mother-fuckin' should! As a result of him being a "character actor" he was often limited to small roles with minimal dialogue. He's best known for his miniscule part in Casablanca which I'd hardly say challenged his incredible acting range. Then there's Mr. Moto, which is my favorite of the white-person-who-clearly-is-not-asian film series' that were popular at the time. Even when he got old and toady he still did wonderful things of the spooks run wild variety for Roger Corman alongside Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Any way you dice it, Peter Lorre is an international treasure. His life and work should be celebrated, and his birthday a national holiday! It will be for me anyway...

To get the ball rolling I started with Stranger on the Third Floor. A low budget RKO noir thriller about a journalist who witnesses the aftermath of a murder. He walks into a diner to see the owner with his throat slit and a man standing over his body. The man claims that he found him already dead but the journalist, Mike Ward (played by John Maguire) takes for granted that he must be the killer. Despite a very convincing argument, the man is arrested and put on trial for murder. Mike's testimony may put an innocent man on death row. Filled with moral qualms he goes home to see a strange man lurking around his building. When he attempts to ask the man what he's doing, the bugged eye Peter Lorre runs away. Shortly after, Mike realizes that his constantly snoring neighbor is dead silent. He convinces himself that his neighbor has been killed by the intruder and that he will be the prime suspect. We're shown several flashbacks of Mike and his neighbor exchanging words, particularly when the neighbor rats him out for having his girlfriend over and Mike threatens to kill him in front of multiple people. He slips into a state of dementia where he has this Kafka-esque dream of being on trial and no one believing that he didn't do it. No one believes that there was a "stranger" at all. When he awakens, he's completely distraght and decides that he has to know if all of it is in  his head or not. He barges into his neighbors apartment to see his throat slit in same way the owner of the diner. This validates his prior freak-out so he impulsively decides to skip town. He calls his girlfriend Jane to meet him in the park to give him some money. Thankfully, she talks some sense into him. He calms down and decides to do the right thing and call the police immediately. The police and DA have an element of doubt but they still heed his warning and follow up on his description, but it's not until Jane goes out of her way to seek this sad eyed villain that any headway is made in the case.

My first complaint about Stranger on the Third Floor is a major lack of Lorre. He doesn't have his first line until the last 15 minutes of the movie and before that we only see him creeping in the shadows and peaking around corners. Although that's where I'd expect to find a Peter Lorre character I was hoping to see more of him in this film. I found myself losing interest in Mike and Jane's romance. John Maguire's nightmare sequence was pretty interesting, but with this film falling right over the one hour mark and having very minimal Peter Lorre screen time it falls a bit short at time. However, this is known to many film historians as the "first" noir film. On top of that the art direction was done by Van Nest Polgase who would go on to do Citizen Kane the next year.

I'm almost ashamed to say I didn't fall in love with this movie. I did so want to! Perhaps it's that I was so bent on seeing Lorre's lovely creep-face. I personally wouldn't upgrade my VHS copy for the Warner Archive release, but it's by no means an unworthy film. Especially given it's credible background. I would most definitely give it a look if you're a completest or you just happen to cross its path. For those who aren't serious noir fiends or Peter Lorre fan-girls, it's really not a matter of urgency.

The celebration isn't over yet! This was a double feature. I might not get around to posting it tonight but be sure to check back for my review for the extremely out of print Face Behind the Mask in which Mr. Lorre THANKFULLY has a starring role!


The Hypnotic Eye (1960)

The film opens with a beautiful young woman walking into her apartment and going straight to the kitchen to wash her hair. She puts the shampoo in and starts to lather, she turns on the stove and begins to scrub harder and harder over the fire. We see this all from the burner's point of view. Her hair quickly ignites setting her whole head and face a'flame. An unforgettable opening sequence for any time period.

This young woman isn't the first to be found apparently self mutilated. One has washed her face with sulfuric acid, another stuck her face in an electric fan blade. None of the victims remember anything about their accidents. Detective Steve Kennedy thinks the incidents are related and that somehow someone must be influencing them. That same night Steve takes his best girl Marcia and her friend Dodie (played by Merry Anders) to a lounge act featuring a handsome french Hypnotist named Desmond  (Jacques Bergerac, ex-husband of Ginger Rogers). He encourages the audience to participate then calls up the three most beautiful women in the audience, even tells an old lady "no, not you" when she excitedly thought she was chosen. Of the three, the pretty girl he favors goes into a special trance.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this. That night, she'll go home and  be found hideously disfigured the next day. When Dodie becomes the next victim, Marcia gets suspicious. Of course Detective Kennedy has asshole-b-movie-cop-syndrome which makes him obnoxiously skeptical of what's plainly right in front of him. It's not until Marcia uses herself as bait during another show that things begin to add up. She successfully evades the on-stage hypnosis by closing her eyes and pretending to be under his spell. After the show she explains to Detective Kennedy and his Doctor friend (played by Guy Prescott) that he holds a "real eye" in his palm that emits a strange blinking light that lulls you into a deep sleep. She then mentions that his final command is a suggestive whisper in her ear to visit his dressing room after the show around midnight. She's compelled to go so Detective Kennedy and the good doctor decide to follow her and make sure she comes out safely. When Marcia finally does leave she robotically gets into a cab with Desmond, obviously having fallen into the same trap as the other girls. The two follow her on a "date" with the hypnotist. He wines and dines her, they end up at a smokey Beat Club (The Gas House in Venice, California) where we get to see several famous beatniks. Eric "Big Daddy" Nord who was a San Francisco based poet, owner of the famous Gas House and also made appearances in several genre films of the day. The other is Lawrence Lipton who was a famous journalist and also father to James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio. Marcia has clearly been bewitched by Desmond but it's not until his lovely assistant, Justine played by the magnetic Allison Hayes (shortly after her starring role in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), is brought into the forefront of this diabolical plot against beauty do the pieces start to fall into place.

There are a lot of notable aspects of the Hypnotic Eye that make it a quirky and enjoyable addition to the myriad of b-movies coming out during that time period. Two names popped in my head when the story began to unfold, firstly, William Castle. Castle is incontestably the King of Gimmicks. He brilliantly and almost single-handedly created a very special and exciting element of the theatrical experience. Audience participation, most notably with the Tingler's "Percepto!" in which vibrating devices were inserted into the seats so you'd feel a tingling sensation during a climactic scene of the movie. He re-worked the gimmick throughout his career also including props for the audience to incorporate into the experience, such as the "Illusion-O" ghost viewer given out at screenings of 13 Ghosts. It became extremely trendy for a while in the late 50's - late 60's to use such gimmicks. The Hypnotic Eye is certainly one such film. Towards of the end of the movie Desmond would have the audience interact with some simple parlor trick hypnosis. Good clean fun and undoubtedly intended for we, the film audience, to participate in (I'd be lying if I said I didn't try a few). There's even a Hypnotic Eye balloon given out to the audience in the film to use in a particular bit and I'd bet a pretty penny those same balloons were handed out to the film going audience as well.

The other name that came to mind was Herschell Gordon Lewis. Why? Because this was OBVIOUSLY an inspiration for the Wizard of Gore. They're almost identical in plot except for the twist at the end of Hypnotic Eye. Wizard of Gore is a mega-cheesey yet straight forward pre-splatter film about a magician who puts female audience members under a trance then butchers her as a shocking "trick" for the crowd. With the wave of a hand she's unharmed only to go home and be found dead in the same fashion in which she was maimed by "Montag the Magnificent". A more gore-centric spin on the same idea, I'd be very surprised if H.G. Lewis wasn't a fan of the Hypnotic Eye.

This is a charming lesser known cult movie. Many fans from it's original release say it can't be enjoyed outside of the theatrical setting and although I'm sure it helps, I found it to be a delight even if disgraced by my home video set-up. Problems with the film? Not many. I would have liked a bit more information on the eye itself or the background of the villains. The tie-together is fine but with so much exposition and build up a little bit of back story wouldn't have hurt. Overall there's a lot of fun to be had here. At times it reminded me of some of those wonderful Criterion b-movies that were released a several years ago such as Fiend without a Face. The print looks great, it's nice to see Warner Archive has finally given it a little but of much needed attention. Although those discs can run a bit pricey and be a gamble, I can assure you that if you're a fan of 50's/60's camp the Hypnotic Eye is a fantastic no-filler example of cult cinema at it's finest sure to satisfy your need for the preposterous.


Rivals (1972)

My interest in Rivals was aroused when I realized the leading child actor was played by none other than Scott (Bad Ronald) Jacoby. As I would soon find out, he's just as big of a creepy weirdo in this unsung masterpiece of WTF Cinema.

Jamie is an awkward 10 year old kid who has an obsessive relationship with his Mom. His dad died in a skiing accident and ever since Jamie can't stand the site of another man around and appears to be trying to fall into the role of husband. Not completely abnormal, but on top of all this it's made clear he has an above average IQ and obviously an accelerated awareness of sex. He's constantly having these Freudian flashbacks of being in the bathroom with his parents, over-hearing pillow talk, and even a disturbing conversation where his Mother is discussing with a friend that his birth was like an orgasm to which the friend suggests if it was a sexual experience for her it must have been a sexual experience for Jamie. I think she's onto something there, this kid definitely has some sexual hang ups.

Then the Mother, Christine (played by Joan Hacket) meets Peter, a charming Robert Klein. He's impulsive, goofy and crazy about her. They begin dating, but for months Christine won't take Peter home or tell Jamie about this man she becomes involved with. By the time she she decides to break it to Jamie, the two have already decided to get married. Jamie immediately starts displaying jealous and aggressive behavior. This kid is clearly disturbed. He has dreams that are combinations of dark orgies and re-living his father's death. He talks to kids at school about sex in a very advanced way, and even gets himself into a bawdy situation with his babysitter (to say the least).

He obviously suffers from a textbook Oedipus Complex and displays symptoms you'd read about in Psychopathia Sexualis. Then he comes to the conclusion that the only way to take control back is by killing his stepfather. I won't give away the outcome but you can be sure to expect a fiery climax.

Rivals is all over the place. Based on the title and knowing relatively nothing about it, I assumed it was a typical child vs. step-parent movie only perhaps a bit more lurid. I should have known better with Scott Jacoby's involvement. In fact now that I've seen it, "Rivals" is kind of a misleading title. Robert Klein's character is pretty laid back, so there isn't a whole lot of rivalry going on. The mother is constantly molly coddling her pre-pubescent son, and she really doesn't know what to do with him when he acts out. It doesn't bother Peter until she hastily cancels vacation plans without talking it over because of some school problems Jamie's having. The stepfather is treated like the child with no say-so while Mother and Son have their own personal and awkward quality time. Peter exhibits an amplitude of patience with both character's adjustment and receives nothing in return. Christine is too fixated on her son's immediate well being to see the big picture. Jamie however, being one hell of a smart kid, had complete insight into what was happening. Unfortunately his Mother unintentionally continued to cater to her son's warped frame of mind which didn't do anyone any favors.

There were a lot of interesting editing and musical choices. Many scenes reminded me of old episodes of Sesame Street. Montages of people, particularly kids, playing and goofing around in New York set to very jovial and jazzy children's music. Then for Jamie's flashbacks or dreams the editing would get choppy and the audio was a collection of experimental music and sound clips from his distorted memories.

 Although there was much subject matter I found disturbing in this film (kids and sexuality can make for an uncomfortable viewing experience), it was also immensely fascinating. Like watching a Norman Bates in the making, or Bad Ronald for that matter. I can also see why this movie has faded into obscurity. It's very eccentric and perhaps a little uneven. It never quite found it's audience, not even it's cult audience as it would seem. It definitely deserves a closer look. A few years ago Code Red gave it a nice release. So if you're interested, pick up a copy and give it a spin. I think it's time for Rivals' revival.


Hookers, Homos, Rapists, Supervans and Gary Busey.

I've really let this blog go to slacksville in the past month or so. I have a pretty good excuse this time though! My mom flew in from Florida for vacation. I spent a good week domesticating this place before her arrival and obviously didn't get around to watching many movies while she was here. She left over two weeks ago but since I had taken several days off too, I experienced a little bit of post vacation shock. Have you ever had  that? It's the like the first week of school, you can't really find your groove because you got used to not having any responsibilities. Anyway, I've been trying to take it easy and in turn have watched many movies, several of which I'm going to touch upon bulk review style.

I'll try to do this chronologically. While my Mom was in town she wanted to hit up as many thrift stores and yard sales as we could so she could hunt for treasures to sell in her vintage Etsy store. This worked out well for me when we hit the jackpot at an Echo Park yard sale in the VHS department. Stacks of b-movies spanning from the 60's-80's! After Mom's departure I partook in some much overdue Hookersploitation with the 1984 film Angel.

 I'd been wanting to see this for years. I know it's available on DVD now, but it's so apart of my forbidden video memories that such an upgrade seems unorthodox. I'm used to seeing it staring back at me while browsing for video nasties when I was a kid. I was scandalized and hypnotized by the cover and could only imagine the sleaziness to behold. So finally, I sit down to watch it, and it's NOTHING like I expected. It's not sleazy, it's kind of pathetic. She doesn't really want to be a hooker, she's more of a victim of circumstances. It plays out a lot like an afterschool special, thankfully, there is a serial killer. You know the type, He butchers street walkers for kicks. He helps move this emotionally wrought story along, giving it more of a punch. Despite my love for a good movie killer, the best performance in the film is BY FAR Dick Shawn who plays Angel's drag queen friend and fellow floozy. Dick Shawn has a way of stealing the show in all of the movies he's made an appearance in, Angel is no different. His best scenes are those shared with Angel's "Jew-Dyke" land lady, played by the fantastic Susan Tyrell! Just as bat shit crazy as you'd expect from Queen Doris. All in all, Angel was a little more heavy handed than I would have liked. They make it seem like whoring your body out is a bad thing. Pfft. Not in a low budget 80's movie, my friends.

A little later that week I watched the Stanley Kramer classic, the Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as members of a chain gang. The paddy wagon they're being transported on wrecks creating a perfect oportunity to make a run for it. Completely at odds and bound by chains, they're constantly at eachother's throats. This is the late 50's (and a Poitier movie no less) so you can be sure there's lots of racial tension. In fact, "tension" is probably an understatement. Despite social taboos, they're both criminals and have to work together if they have any chance at freedom.

A wonderful premise for the times although the end confused me a little bit. SPOILER ALERT... Because of injuries Tony Curtis sustains he is unable to hop the train they're supposed to escape by, so what does Poitier do? Jumps off to stay with his friend. I understand that by this point in the film they've accepted one another and have even made a few sacrifices to keep each other alive but this seemed a little absurd to me. I loved the movie so much but the end, however so charming, left me scratching my head a little. It didn't quite add up. So I do a little research to discover that apparently there's this WHOLE homosexual sub-text that I didn't even pick up on. During that time of course gay relationships were terribley watered down in Hollywood films, so it's not unreasonable that this could be overlooked. It makes complete sense in retrospect. There's a lot of cuddling and a general disinterest in women. Sure, Poitier had a wife, but really what does that matter? Especially back then when most homosexuals found wives despite their sexual preference due to social obligations. Curtis, who had quite the reputation in real life, comes close to using an older marm-ish woman as an escape plan but eventually realizes he's better off with Poitier. The scene where he's rinsing his buff body in front of her is almost taunting. Both men are at their sexiest in the Defiant Ones and when they're at odds you can almost feel the flames through the screen. This is all muddled down with obvious racism, which was much more of a commercialized form of biggotry. Interacial homosexuality? Un-fucking-heard of. With lines like "You're married to me alright, and here's the ring!" *rattles chain*, there's an undeniable message. I don't mean to say this is all physical, but now that I've given this some serious thought there's definitely a strong emotional bond between them by the end of the movie that inevitably dictates their fate as a team.

aw, kinda sweet :-)

I finally got around to seeing the 2004 Belgian horror movie Calvaire. Meh. all it really accomplished was reminding me why I don't usually make time for modern horror. Very slow to start, keeping your interest only by making you wonder where the hell they're going with this. The end result was a no frills torture porn that tries to immitate the most harrowing aspects of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, with of course none of the artistry or ingenuity.

It's dismal, ugly and not in the least bit scary. The borderline illusive narrative that lingers in this film dissipates after it's realized that everyone is just fuckin' insane. Lots of rapey-ness too. Ohhh, how they rape. Butt raping, pig raping, suggestive cow and dog raping. The gratuitous sex crimes wore on me, especially the manner in which it's presented. Calling the male victim a bitch, beating him bloody, shaving his head, crucifying him, et-fucking-cetera. It's all about humility and shock. I've seen these kinds of images before in film and it got me thinking about rape as a plot device in horror movies. When I was younger I had more of a unphasable curiosity about such visions of suffering. I could definitely attest to my skin being much thicker in my late teens. Now when see these visuals I feel a combination of boredom and revulsion. I need more than just grotesque imagery to appease my horror fandom. I do enjoy storytelling, character development and a little bit of finesse. This isn't about budget, lord knows I've fallen in love with many 'a zero budget movie. This is about content. Calvaire is completely insubstantial and is a good representation of what I don't like about most modern horror. To my personal taste suspense is what controls the terror I might feel watching a horror movie. This trendy international lackluster snuff fad is hopefully a passing one. Perhaps it satisfies other cinepheliacs blood lust but as for me I'll stick to my regularly scheduled programming of films forgotten by time.

After Calvaire I needed something drastically uplifting to wash the taste of dried blood and asshole out of my mouth, so I went with the most redorkulous movie in reaching distance, Supervan! It's a title I've come across many times in my b-movie wanderings but when I saw the cover at Amoeba a few weeks ago it hit me in a different way. I took time to study the creation itself. It's beautiful physique. It may just be the most amazing  vehicle I've ever seen. I decided I was in love with it and that I had to leave my husband and cats and marry it. Yes, that's the power of Supervan. So I purchased it on the spot and as fate would have it a few days later a shitty torture porn movie would put me in a bad mood and my soul mate, Supervan, would be waiting on the shelf to comfort me in my time of need.

The story follows a guy who's going to enter his souped up van in a contest called "the Van Freakout of 1976", which is basically a love-in with  cool vans and a brief cameo by Charles Bukowski as a wet t-shirt contest judge. While saving a young woman from being raped by bikers, his van gets trashed in a junkyard. Thankfully he has a scientist/inventor friend who's created the Supervan! It "takes on all comers...laser blasting...solar powered...WATCH OUT!". The plot's a little runny, I found myself not really interested in the characters. It's obviously rip-off of Smokey and the Bandit only with vans and no Jerry Reed (which I tend to think helps most movies). Nothing else really matters in this movie except the Supervan. That's the real star here. I'm fascinated with the whole Van culture of the 70's. I've never been into cars at all and (normal) vans always seemed kind of lame. With movies like this, and of course The Van, not to mention a random plethora of 70's drive-in classics that feature tricked out vans I'm starting to see the appeal. At the end of the movie we're treated to a showcase of all the cool airbushed and muraled artwork on the vans from the contest, but you can be sure nothing can top the chic sci-fi wonder-mobile that is Supervan.

Supervan with it's real life inventor George Barris

I know what you're thinking "but Scumbalina, why haven't you been watching any Gary Busey movies?". Never you worry my dears, I saved the best for last. The 1988 action packed classssssssssic Bulletproof.

He may be Bulletproof, but he's not love proof. Busey plays Frank McBain, a tough cop who earned his nickname from having taken 50-something shots in his career. He even keeps the bullets as souvenirs. He's given a top secret assignment to rescue a Supertank (litterally, the tank version of Supervan, this cinematic synchronicity is nothing short of kismet). It's SUPER spectacular, indestructible, impenetrable and infinitely unfuckwithable. An added bonus is that his militant GI Jane ex-girlfriend has been abducted by the terrorist bad dudes as well. Henry Silva leads this incendiary mission of world domination via Supertank high jackery. He plays a stereotypical bad-guy Muslim who unrelentingly rapes insubordinant women in the name of Allah. We get to see Gary Busey coming out ahead in all kinds of situations despite his general ineptitude. In all of his radiant awkwardness we get to see him crotch dive onto Danny Trejo from a rafter and also spinning down a hill on what appears to be an oversized cable roller. If you're not convinced that this is one of the 80's best accomplishments then you just need to get your priorities straight, Butthorn.

On that note, I'm spent. That was a mouth, er...handful, eh, butthorn-ful. I'm going to go dream of Supervan and Busey-isms. Stay cool.