Sunday, June 24, 2012

Outlaw Riders -- low-budget cycle kitsch


"Outlaw Riders" is a 1971 film that belongs in a time capsule marked Hollywood 1970s derivatve biker film. It was produced by Tony Cardoza, who gave us "The Beast of Yucca Flats" and it's a low-budget mix of "Easy Rider" and "Born Losers." It's a motorcycle gang/hippy cliche-fest. The riders spout words like"split," "make the scene," "fuzz," "crash" etc.

Plot involves an outlaw motorcycle gang headed by two couples (Bambi Allan, Jennifer Bishop, Bill Bonner and Bryan West). The gang is badly hurt by a botched robbery and the four stars, the only survivors, eventually head to Mexico, where they have to combat a gang run by a sadistic Mexican (Rafael Campos). Campos is the only "name star" in the film, although he was far away from his better days in "West Side Story."

I like this film for all its low-budget shortcomings. The mostly outdoor American West setting with long dusty cycle treks give it a nostalgic, time-capsule feeling. Cult film fans will enjoy the short cameo from Ed Wood star Valda Hansen as a nun who treats one of the injured bandits. Rumor as it that Hansen was a paramour of producer Cardoza. Film has the same type of downbeat ending as "Easy Rider."

I have no idea what exposure or success "Outlaw Riders" had in 1971. The color, 86-minute Tony Huston-directed film has a lot of violence but little sex, which might have cut down on its grindhouse potential. It's fairly hard to find today, but not impossible. My video copy is in great shape. It would make a nice DVD offering for a multi-disc set of biker films.
-- Doug Gibson

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Kiss Meets The Phantom of The Park – Schlocky Made For TV Fodder

By Steve D. Stones Even if you’re a die-hard Kiss fan, Kiss Meets The Phantom of The Park really stinks! I remember seeing this made for TV programmer Halloween night in 1978 at the age of six. I was scared by the presence of Kiss band members on TV in their costumes and make-up, but greatly bored by the movie. Gene Simmons in particular left an impression on me with his long tongue and demon headed boots. Kiss Meets The Phantom of The Park greatly suffers from a thoughtful script and production values. Hanna-Barbara Studios, creators of Scooby Doo, produced the film. Guitarist Ace Frehley had a hard time showing up for work in make-up at 7 a.m. from partying the night before, and drummer Peter Criss had his lines dubbed by another actor because his dialogue was difficult to decipher. A stunt double was used for Frehley’s action sequences because he was so unreliable on the set. The entire film was a complete mess. The band was in a meltdown at the time the film was made, and it shows in their performances. Frehley would soon leave the band. Criss followed shortly. The film was marketed as a Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars and Phantom of The Opera. The only similarity is to Phantom of The Opera. A mad, reclusive scientist, who controls the rides and attractions of a fun park, wants to make sure a Kiss concert does not happen at the park. He kidnaps the quartet and places automated clones in their place to disappoint their fans. The Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula monsters also make an appearance in the film with greater acting abilities than the band, unfortunately. Kiss became a pop-culture marketing machine in the late 1970s. They even produced a Kiss comic book with blood from the band members used as printing ink for the comic. Kiss dolls, action figures, puzzles, posters, trading cards and pin ball games flooded the American market. This is what made Kiss a fun and entertaining rock band that no other band could come close to competing with. VHS video copies of Kiss Meets The Phantom of The Park are difficult to find on E-bay and other internet sites. If you own a copy of the film, you may want to hold on to it as a valuable collector’s item. Happy viewing.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The bizarre, boring 'Wizard of Oz'

By Doug Gibson

Ever heard of Larry Semon? That's all right. Few have. He was a silent movie comic. His physical comedy and sad sack face made him very popular in one-reelers, but his character had a tough time creating pathos with viewers. He needed to be seen in small doses.

Semon had ambition, though, and in the mid 1920s he worked with the son of the late L. Frank Baum, to bring Baum's Wizard of Oz series to the big screen. The 1925 film (versions range from 72 to 81 minutes) is a curio. A huge flop at the box office -- it more or less ruined Semon's career -- it is nevertheless fascinating. It's a so-bad-it's-interesting ego trip from a star who desperately needed a director other than himself. Still, there are moments -- particularly at the beginning of the film -- that feature talented slapstick comedy. Yet, in this film are Semon, of course, big fat slapstick veteran Frank Alexander, a very young Oliver Hardy and Semon's very pretty wife, Dorothy Dwan.

Here's the film in a few paragraphs: We start in Oz, where Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) and the citizens are upset with corrupt leaders, including Prime Minister Kruel. The bad leaders consult the Wizard, a con man, who suggests they bring the lost Princess Dorothy back. We cut now to Kansas, where the womanly Dorothy (Dwan) lives with Aunt Em, (Mary Carr) a limp dishrag of a woman, and Uncle Henry (Alexander) a big, fat domestic abuser. He literally punches anyone he meets.

Competing for Dorothy's love are farmhands Semon and Hardy. There is a black farmhand named Snowball. Be advised the film is very racist and the character, played by actor Spencer Bell, is billed as "G. Howe Black." (Later in the film, Semon's character lets loose with a tasteless racist jab at Bell's character) Ths racism was unfortunately the norm for those times.

The film meanders on coherently while the characters are in Kansas. It's cliche-ridden, but there are talented, physical slapstick gags with Semon, Hardy and Alexander. There's a funny bit with bees, and another with a swing. But once the main characters are blown to Oz in a shack it loses all sense. The first nonsensical twist is having Aunt Em -- who is in the wind-guided shack -- disappear when they arrive. It gets worse: Semon turns into the Scarecrow, Hardy the Tin Man and Bell the cowardly lion, but they really aren't these characters. They are disguises. Alexander briefly turns into a good guy, then reverts to being a bad guy. Incomprehensibly, Hardy's Tin Man turns bad too.

Finally, Dwan's Dorothy more or less disappears from the film, becomes betrothed to Prince Kynd, and wants to see Semon's Scarecrow done away with, too! In fact, the film degenerates into a series of bad slapstick gags designed to showcase Semon trying to outwit the Oz folk who want to capture him. The Wizard (Charles Murray) is still hanging around. By then it's really no longer Baum's Wizard of Oz. It's just an overlong, badly paced Semon slapstick show.

As I mentioned, the film bombed. Semon's career was almost ruined. He puttered around in films for a few more years, then died young. Many believe stress over his bankruptcy contributed to his death. For a long time this film was considered obscure and very hard to find. Lately, though it has popped up on DVD, either as an extra to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, or as the feature attraction in a DVD of silent versions of Baum's Oz tales (there are several as far back as 1910). It has also been shown recently on Turner Classic Movies. In fact, it was last on Dec. 26.

I will say one good thing about the silent Wizard of Oz. Semon's Scarecrow very much resembles in looks and mannerisms of Ray Bolger's much-lauded Scarecrow in the later classic. It seems clear that Bolger did borrow from Semon's portrayal and also managed to bring the empathy to the character that Semon could not achieve. Cult movies fans should note that many of Semon's silent shorts can be purchased today via brick-and-mortar and online stores.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lugosi takes on Old Mother Riley

By Doug Gibson

LUGOSI'S FINAL BRITISH FILM ... is NOT THAT GOOD ... BUT it's not as bad as many claim. In fact, it's the final film Bela Lugosi made where he looked healthy and in charge of the production. Its main weakness is that it's a unique bit of very low-brow British comedy that was popular from the 20s to the early 1950s. "Old Mother Riley" was an ugly, cockney, ignorant widow (played by actor Arthur Lucan in drag) who muddled herself into various ridiculous situations, dragging around her fatherless daughter, Kitty, played by Lucan's wife, Kitty McShane.

Lucan and McShane gained a reputation in music halls within the British provinces. They made a string of "Mother Riley" films that earned small profits in England but were not released in the U.S. By 1952, the series was about kaput, and Lucan and his wife were separated. Renown Pictures, which was producing Mother Riley films, noted the success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and used a Renown executive, Richard Gordon, to get Lugosi to make "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Gordon, a frend of Lugosi, had arranged a Dracula stage tour for Lugosi in England. For $5,000, Lugosi, well past his prime, was eager to make the film.

The plot involves Mother Riley getting her mail mixed up with a mad scientist named Von Housen (Lugosi) who thinks he's a vampire. Mother Riley gets a killer robot, Von Housen gets a bed warmer. Von Housen uses the robot to kidnap Mother Riley to his mad scientist house, with sinister servants and secret passageways, etc. Von Housen, delighted to find out Mother Riley has his favorite blood type, serves her lots of rare beef and liver. Von Housen, also seeking uranium to build more robots, has kidnapped a young lovely (Maria Mercedes) and her boyfriend. The girl's dad apparently knows where to find uranium, or something.

It's often not too clear because this movie is not really a Lugosi film. It's a showcase for Lucan's manic Mother Riley, with her rapid dialect that is hard for Americans to understand. Lugosi plays well in the film. As he did in every film, he gave it his all. Lucan's humor is very corny and not too funny. The final half of the film is comprised of Mother Riley trying to get the cops to believe her, a very unfunny battle with the robot, and a wild chase through London. As many critics have mentioned, "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" fails because it makes the bad guys, the "monsters," look ridiculous. "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" succeeds because the monsters stay scary, and only the comedy stars do comedy. The director of the film was John Gilling, who later directed better films, including Hammer's "Plague of the Zombies." The role of a helpful maid, that might have gone to Lucan's estranged wife, Kitty McShane, was instead played by Dora Bryan, who later gained a measure of fame as a serious actress.

Gordon tried to pitch the film in the U.S. as "Vampire Over London," but there were no buyers. Lucan's Mother Riley comedy was too unique to British provinces for the U.S. market. Gordon considered taking out all Mother Riley scenes and shooting new scenes with Lugosi for a film called "King Robot," but Lugosi's soon-declining health killed that idea.

In the early 60s, it was eventually released as "My Son the Vampire," with comedy singer Allan Sherman singing a song with that nonsensical title in the opening credits. That version, which omits a dark Lugosi chuckle at the beginning as well as the actor's screen credit, is what is sold in the U.S. today and plays on Turner Classic Movies. The original British version, which might be interesting for Lugosi completists, can be purchased at AmazonUK as a Region 2 DVD. Sinister Cinema sells a print with the little-used "Vampire Over London" title. The credits at least include Lugosi's name, although there is no Lugosi chuckle.

A footnote: For many years a myth endured that Lugosi's 1952 British Dracula stage tour failed and the actor and his wife were left stranded and broke in London. The myth further states that he made "Old Mother Riley ..." just so he and his wife could have transportation fare to return home. That myth is still repeated in books and on Web sites. It's a fun tale but completely untrue. As authors Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks recount in their book, "Vampire Over London," the Dracula tour provided steady work for Lugosi -- who enjoyed good reviews -- in England for several months. It played the English provinces and suburbs of London. Its only failing was that it was not of enough overall quality to make the West End, Britain's Broadway. The "Old Mother Riley" film was in fact a bonus for Lugosi, a nice windfall -- he and his wife had already earned enough money to easily make it back to the states. ABOVE: Via YouTube, watch the entire film under the title, Vampire Over London. The VOL effort never clicked in the U.S. although it later had a very tiny U.S. release as My Son The Vampire.