Posted by Richard Harland Smith on September 6, 2013
Lazy? Hell no! I’m just giving the people what they want!
Rated GP! I miss the old ratings… GP and M… and messed up flicks like MARK OF THE WITCH (1970). It’s the perfect drive-in movie but I actually saw it at a legitimate four-wall cinema, at a kiddie matinee, natcherly, because adults in the 70s were simply Not Paying Attention. They had tennis and liquor parties to go to, meaning we kids got dumped in front of whatever was moving and couldn’t scald us. Hot DAMN, what an education. I pity the poor children growing up under the prevue of helicopter parents who watch their every move and either put it on Facebook or write impassioned columns for Slate explaining why they won’t put their child’s every move on Facebook. To be a kid back then was like working for the Impossible Missions Force – you were on your own. Anyway. MARK OF THE WITCH is a low-rent, handmade horror film shot in Dallas that belongs to a surprisingly diverse subgenre – the Texas witch movie. Shot mostly with Hollywood bit players and local nonprofessional actors, it seemed to me back in the day slightly seedy and disreputable, which only made the supernatural shenanigans all the more convincing. Two scenes that stick out for me are the sort of disco exorcism that caps the film and a moment earlier on in which a girl is seen eating a piece of salami – this I remember because the friend I went to the movie with blurted out at that moment “She’s eating her own lips!” But she wasn’t, it was just salami. This just goes to show you how horror movies back then, particularly cheap ones, were run through with an Anything Goes aesthetic by which a girl eating her own lips would not have been off the table. Sad to revisit this one, as stars Anitra Walsh and Robert Elston both died young, while Gary Brockette (whose next role was in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, as the guy who hosts the naked pool party) passed away in 2010; on the other hand, Barbara Brownell has enjoyed a fairly long and diverse career and was recently seen in P.T. Anderson’s THE MASTER (2012).
One of the cool things about being a MonsterKid in the early to mid-70s was that unscrupulous film distributors (bless them) would repackage old, black-and-white horror movies by tinting them green… making them “color pictures!” At some point in my preteen years my sister Lisa brought me to the Danielson-Putnam Twin Drive-In to see a triple bill of THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1957), THE VAMPIRE (1958), and THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957), projected in Moss-O-Vision (my name for it). Did I care that these movies were then almost 20 years old and their youthful (kind of, not really) stars now my grandparents’ age? Hell no! I think I’d even already seen THE EXORCIST (1973) and yet these old school offerings still parboiled the cockles of my heart. MONSTER is particularly good and full of edgy scenes of people facing off with a big caterpillar, the very thing that used to infest our trees and which we used to shoot with BB guns. I didn’t know then that star Tim Holt had been in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) or THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) or that costar Hans Conreid was the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s PETER PAN (1953)… all I cared about was that this movie gave me a bona fide monster, bigger’n life and twice as ugly, and you could mess it up by shooting it with a fire extinguisher (two years before THE BLOB). The movie holds up really well upon multiple viewings and I have written about its charms elsewhere on this blog.
God, this one… I’m not entirely sure I can even put into words the love I have for it. I knew nothing of the long-running British TV series DR. WHO when I first saw this at a matinee in the early 70s and I may not even have known who Peter Cushing was at the time. Truth be told (and the Devil shamed), the Time Lord business isn’t even one of my favorite things about DALEKS - INVASION EARTH: 2150 A.D. (1966), which is this sort of French resistance WWII drama transposed into a science fiction setting and the thing is that it’s savage! Characters get wasted right and left — bloodlessly, mind you, but still… to be 10 years old and see regular folk being gunned down (after a fashion) by Daleks was horrifying and thrilling. As kids, we thought youthful lead Ray Brooks was cool in a sort of Beatles way and the Robomen fetish costumes were neat. Looking back at this in retrospect I can recognize many of the background players, particularly Christopher Lee’s long-time stand-in and Hammer Studios stuntman Eddie Powell as the bloke who falls through the shop awning in this trailer (he was later the poor sap who gets telekinetically stoned to death by the Martian-possessed Londoners in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) and I really enjoy Philip Madoc’s performance as the slimy profiteer Brockley; the Welsh actor (who died last year) went on, believe it or not, to play the villainous Magua in the 1971 BBC production of LAST OF THE MOHICANS. This is another movie I can throw on now and enjoy just as much as I did when I was small. Earlier today I watched the trailer for the new ROBOCOP remake, which left me feeling depressed and lonely – watching this trailer in followup put me back on my arches.
A good thematic go-with for the above is BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970), the first sequel to Franklin J. Schaffner’s trend-setting, mind-blowing, monkey-ennobling PLANET OF THE APES (1968). I actually saw this movie first, so all the stock footage proved useful to me to bring me up to speed. I absolutely adored this brutal, soul-scarring film back in the day (Hello? I was 8!) and though I can appreciate its deficiencies now, forty-odd years after the fact, it still works for me, warts, cheap optical effects, and all. At the risk of overstatement and generalization, I don’t think you will ever see a Hollywood sequel that will ever again so change-up the equation as this one did. I may be wrong (I might be crazy), but I don’t think you’re ever going to have a major movie star like Charlton Heston tell the producers of a hit film “Okay, I’ll agree to be in the sequel… but only if you kill me in it.” Director Ted Post (who died last month) isn’t known for a signature style or for anything resembling artistry and yet BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES is unforgettable. Maybe it had nothing to do with him, I don’t know. Certainly, the film’s art direction is worth more than half the ticket price… all those sets with melted artifacts from New York City all smooshed up together (Wall Street to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in… eight seconds!) like a box of liquefied Crayolas, the bit in the subway (I’ve always loved movies set, wholly or in part, in the subway), and that apocalyptic shootout at the end that leaves No Man Standing. And characters don’t just get killed, they get slaughtered. People nowadays go on and on about violent video games but, brother, I must have seen about one million people get machine gunned to death as a kid going to the movies. I think at least half of that number comes from this and OPERATION CROSSBOW (1968) alone. (This impression may not hold up under closer scrutiny.) And I turned out okay, right? Didn’t I? Don’t you think?
Does this David Lean joint seem incongruous or laughably out of place in this company? Well, welcome to moviegoing in the 1970s, where you didn’t go to see a “film”… you just went to the damn movies, and you sat your ass down in the seat, and you shut your fat gob and looked at the screen and you accepted whatever was offered. I got in line for RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970) not knowing anything, that the director had made LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) before it, that Robert Mitchum was appearing in a change-of-pace role (I doubt that I had ever seen Mitchum in anything when I first saw this; outside change, I’d already seen FIVE CARD STUD but that would’ve been it), and that it was “a study of the inner workings of the human mind.” You might think I grew restless and bored in my cinema seat as these pale, wool-bearing adults worked out their personal problems and kissed eachother and thought things they wouldn’t say but I have no memory of being bored by RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Even at this tender age I was fascinated by the world of adults and sensitive to their frustrations and unhappiness and this movie gave me some kind of insight, as did many a straight drama for which I queued up back in the day. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969)? I was there. THE HOSPITAL (1971)? I was there. THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS (1972)? I was there. I was a mature kind of weirdo kid. I would sit still for anything, no matter how quiet or thoughtful. Of course, in my hearty heart I was always hoping for something like…
… this. And man, this movie has everything! “A living hell that time forgot” doesn’t even begin to cover what goes on in this Sargasso-set bouillabaisse of intrigue, espionage, adventure, horror, and giant monsters set against an OUTWARD BOUND/SHIP OF FOOLS sort of backdrop. And like so many movies that were offered to us kiddies back in the day, this thing is chockablock with horrific violence, from a poor sap scalded by boiling water to another luckless bastard who gets tangled in a pulley and has his skull split open to another cat who takes a blast from a flare gun right in his breadbasket and another guy who is eaten by a shark and another guy who gets squeezed to death by strangling vines and another dude who gets pinched fatally by a giant crab and… yeah, it just keeps on going. And there’s a girl with enormous boobs, I mean showstoppingly ample, and they’re not hidden under a demure fisherman’s sweater or anything, they’re right there in your face, stealing focus from Eric Porter, who never stops sweating, from start to finish; seriously, the guy only weighed about 110 to start and I think by the end of THE LOST CONTINENT he’s down to two figures. Tony Beckley, who appears here as the piano-playing, bank note-wearing dipsomaniac Harry Tyler, was a childhood hero. Looking back at the film with adult eyes now I see that he’s etched as being a bit pathetic but when I was 10 he was The Man, particularly because he gives up drinking to become a full on action hero and he gets to live and marry the girl with the big boobs (it is implied), which is as good a reason to cut out the sauce as any I can think of. (I mentioned stuntman Eddie Powell earlier… he appears here as the Grand Inquisitor, hidden for most of the film behind a sackcloth hood but revealed in all his ugliness in the fiery climax.) Oh, but these were wonderful years and I am so very glad to have been there for them, even if it means that I’m seriously middle-aged now. I turned 52 this week. Happy Birthday to me!
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