"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Astro-Zombies

With the recent passing of Ted V. Mikels and Herschell Gordon Lewis a few days within each other, the last of a generation of exploitation filmmakers that thrived in the 1960s are finally gone. Along with Russ Meyer, Mikels and Lewis made low-budget genre movies that were done outside of the Hollywood system and were usually shown at drive-in movie theaters. Their influence would later be apparent with filmmakers like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, but for the most part they each had their own dedicated cult following.

I read about Mikels’ movies before I ever saw them thanks to Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films book, which was one of my most treasured cinematic tomes as a teenager. I would look at the stills from his movies and try imagine what they were like. Flash-forward many years later and for Halloween one year my wife got me a copy of The Astro-Zombies (1968) – my favorite Mikels movie – from his website. In addition to the DVD, which he signed, he also included an Astro-Zombies bobblehead, promotional postcards and a copy of the press book from his own collection, all for free and unsolicited. That was the kind of guy he was.

The Astro-Zombies begins with a woman arriving home only to be brutally murdered in her garage after getting out of her car by a superhuman monster, her blood splattering dramatically on the door. Cut to the opening credits playing over a cheeky montage of toy robots fighting toy tanks.

After being dismissed from a government space agency for experimenting on cadavers, scientist Dr. DeMarco (John Carradine) has gone rogue. He had been working on a system that transferred information from a computer to a human brain via a thought wave transmission system. He has created a zombie that runs on batteries from the organs of victims that have been murdered. It ends up going on a killing spree, which gets the attention of a couple of police detectives and a spy gang led by Satana (Tura Satana) who want to use DeMarco’s innovations to create their own astro-zombies and take over the world.

Early on, the movie is heavy on exposition dialogue as we not only learn about what DeMarco is up to but also see him in action as he works on another astro-zombie. These scenes feel like something out of a 1950s mad scientist science fiction movie. John Carradine is certainly committed to his role and makes for a believable scientist (at least within the context of this movie) but he is upstaged somewhat by William Bagdad playing his leering, hunchbacked assistant Franchot (love that name) who doesn’t appear to have any dialogue but makes the most of his expressive body language.

The legendary Tura Satana looks fabulous as always and gets to play another ruthless ballbuster. At one point, after torturing a cop by burning his face with a lit cigarette, she orders an underling to kill him and when he fails to comply does the job herself! In another scene, she even continues shooting a cop ever after he’s been killed. You have to admire that kind of commitment to a role.

Mikels certainly knows how to create a show-stopping set piece, like one where the police detectives go see a nude dance routine in a nightclub by a woman covered entirely in psychedelic paint – far out, man! I don’t know what that has to do with the story but it does get your attention. Seemingly unconcerned with the urgency of their investigation (people are dying, remember?), one of the cops even entertains his cohorts with a party trick, which has a nice touch of the absurd.

Ted V. Mikels came up with idea of heart transplants years before they were actually performed and decided to incorporate it into a horror movie: “I’m usually accused of being a few years ahead of whatever’s going on,” he said in an interview, “but many times I don’t find the money until it’s too late.”

Mikels co-wrote the movie with Wayne Rogers, who would go on to play Trapper John on the popular television sitcom M*A*S*H. It was the third movie they collaborated on. He had seen and liked Mikels’ first movie, Strike Me Deadly (1963) and wanted to put the filmmaker under contract. Mikels refused and they ended up working together anyway.

He was about to make The Astro-Zombies when an agent mentioned casting Tura Satana. He had seen her performing as an exotic dancer in Las Vegas in 1959 and never forgot her. She came in to read for him and Mikels ended up rewriting her character especially for Satana, “to make her a ‘Dragon Lady.’” They became good friends and he cast her in future movies.

Mikels made the movie for very little money – only $37,000: “When you realize we had people like Wendell Corey and John Carradine in the studio, I’m almost aghast when I think what tiny, tiny pennies we made the picture for.” It was very profitable, making $3 million.

The Astro-Zombies is vintage exploitation fare, complete with beautiful, scantily-clad women in peril, bloody violence, ruthless baddies, and a mad scientist run amok. For a movie shot on a very small budget, it looks pretty good and is ably directed by Mikels whose passion for filmmaking is evident in every frame. It shouldn’t be taken too seriously and appreciated for what it is – a fun romp that revolves around a ridiculous premise and goes for it unabashedly.

Mikels’ passing sadly marks the end of an era and a particular kind of exploitation filmmaking that is no more. There was something pure and unfiltered about his movies and that of his contemporaries for they were not bound by the constraints of classic Hollywood filmmaking because they existed outside of that system. This allowed them to pursue their passions no matter how strange or unusual and that is something sadly lacking these days.


Grimes, William. “Ted V. Mikels, Master of Low-Budget Cult Favorites, Dies at 87.” The New York Times. October 18, 2016.

Rice, Boyd. “Ted V. Mikels.” RE/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films. Edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno. Re/Search Publications. 1986.

Tucker, Ed. “Velveeta Las Vegas! Ed Tucker Interviews Cult-movie Legend Ted Mikels.” Crazed Fanboy.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Fearless Vampire Killers

“Parody was never my intention. I wanted to make a fairy tale, something that’s frightening as well as fun, but also an adventure story.” – Roman Polanski

Fresh from psychological thriller Cul-de-Sac (1966), filmmaker Roman Polanski shifted gears with his next effort, the horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), where he would meet, cast and fall in love with his second wife, Sharon Tate. It saw the director in a playful mood – as if he was cheekily thumbing his nose at the successful Hammer horror movies populated with beautiful, busty women, bright red blood, and exotic Eastern European settings, usually filmed on a set. He proceeded to turn many of these elements on their head. So much so that distributor MGM decided to market the film as a farce and changed the title, saddling it with the clunky addition, Or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, as well as cutting several minutes out. Over the years, the excised footage has been restored and the film can be seen as it was originally intended.

“Deep in the heart of Transylvania,” we meet Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) as they hunt for vampires. It’s a cold night as they make their way through a snowy landscape. Their sleigh is set upon briefly by a pack of wild dogs that only Alfred seems to notice, which establishes a slightly ominous tone. They arrive at a small village where Abronsius has to be thawed out. As he and Alfred warm-up, the older man notices strings of garlic hanging all over the inn and the nervous owner is afraid to mention the nearby castle – their ultimate destination. While staying overnight, they encounter Sarah (Tate), the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter, whom Alfred becomes fond of, and hobbies include taking numerous baths.

Polanski creates an off-kilter vibe during these scenes as he establishes the relationship between Abronsius and Alfred and the goings-on in the inn, which they inadvertently get mixed up in to comic effect. There’s a nice moment where Alfred charms Sarah by making a snowman only to get hit with a snowball by some meddlesome local children. Polanski gradually eases us into the main story by sprinkling little moments of comedy among a study of the villagers as a hard-working, superstitious lot.

Watching these early scenes with Alfred and Sarah flirting with each other one can’t help but think about how Polanski and Tate were falling in love with each other in real life. He was no doubt captivated by her considerable beauty, and this is evident in the way he films her, with close-ups that highlight her radiant face. It’s obvious that the camera loved her.

Almost 25 minutes in and Polanski masterfully orchestrates a riveting scene where, while taking a bath, Sarah is attacked from above by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) that begins with her noticing flakes of snow falling around her. Krolock appears and savagely bites her neck. As she struggles desperately, Polanski shows the splashing bath water drenching the nearby door, which an unsuspecting Alfred is behind. It is a sudden, jarring attack that is very effective in shaking things up after all the light comedy that came before it.

Another beautifully orchestrated set piece, and the one that the film is most famous for, sees the Count introduce Sarah as the latest addition to his undead “family” as the other members partake in a minuet that is quite a sight to behold – ghouls pretending to be aristocrats – while our heroes attempt to masquerade as one of them. It is a sequence that best typifies the film as a whole – the deft marriage of horror and comedy. It’s a tricky balancing act that Polanski maintains throughout. Unlike a lot of horror movies, he doesn’t wallpaper the film with scary music. He uses it judiciously and knows when silence, like when the vampire hunters sneak into the Count’s castle, is more suspenseful with just sound effects.

Abronsius is a methodical, wise old man but also physically frail, and Alfred is his bumbling, timid apprentice. They are hardly the heroic, able-bodied men of action like swashbuckler Captain Kronos in the film of the same name, but that’s the point of The Fearless Vampire Killers as Polanski deliberately goes against this convention for laughs. Jack MacGowran and Polanski play well off each other with the former trying to teach his assistant the ways to detect and kill vampires because he is getting too old physically, while the latter is too clumsy to do the job, stumbling over each other, bumping into things and generally being inept. They have their moments of competency, though, like when Alfred gracefully skis down the snow-covered countryside in pursuit of a newly turned bloodsucker.

The idea for The Fearless Vampire Killers came to Roman Polanski while on a skiing vacation in Austria during post-production on Cul-de-Sac. He and his co-writer Gerard Brach had been thinking about making a “vampire spoof” for some time. Polanski remembered seeing horror movies in Paris and audiences laughing at them. He said, “Why not make a film they could laugh with, rather than at?” He also wanted to eschew the “tatty rural location situated conveniently near a film studio,” for “swaths of frosted pine trees, massive snowdrifts, and majestic mountain peaks.”

Accompanying Polanski on this trip was his producing partner Gene Gutowski. As they were putting the finishing touches on Cul-de-Sac, the latter met with American producer Martin Ransohoff, joint head of Filmways, a production company financed by and had a distribution deal with MGM. He liked Cul-de-Sac and agreed to distribute it in the United States. He also wanted to work with Polanski and Gutowski on their next project, then-entitled, The Vampire Killers.

Ransohoff had a reputation for clashing with filmmakers and Polanski was no different. The director wanted to cast Jill St. John in the role of Sarah because he envisioned the character as a redhead, but the producer wanted Sharon Tate, a young actress he had been grooming for stardom. Polanski felt that she didn’t look Jewish enough for the role but finally agreed to do a screen test with her. Once he saw Tate in a red wig and her character’s costume, he was convinced that she was right for the role.

Polanski wanted to cast himself in the co-lead role of Alfred but neither Gutowski or Ransohoff thought he was right for the part and were concerned that he wouldn’t be able to juggle double duty as director and actor. Polanski had experience as an actor and to appease his producers did a screen test. Co-head of Filmways, John Calley, was convinced and pressed his business partner to go with the choice.

Gutowski scouted locations and found an Austrian castle in a snowbound area in Northeastern Italy. The production was all set to film there but a day before they were to fly out an unexpected change in weather caused all the snow to melt! The production scrambled to find another suitable location and settled on a snowy plateau near an Italian ski resort. There was no castle and so sets would have to be built at the studio for an additional cost, causing the budget to increase from $1 million to $2 million.

Filming lasted five months and had its share of difficulties. Principal photography took place in a snowy environment and the crew had to haul heavy equipment through the snow over long distances every day. After shooting there, the production moved to the confines of the studio backlot in England. Due to the late start in filming, their time was limited because Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was taking up a lot of studio space. As a result, the production moved to nearby Elstree Studios.

Ransohoff did not like the time it took for principal photography to be completed or the number of takes Polanski would do – sometimes over 40 for a given scene but Gutowski defended his friend’s methods. The lengthy shoot, coupled with a busy shooting schedule at Elstree, forced the production to move yet again to Pinewood Studios.

Polanski finished his rough cut and then showed it to Ransohoff and Calley in Los Angeles. Ransohoff didn’t like it and told Polanski that it was too long and needed to be reworked, which was his right contractually as the studio could cut their own version in North America while the director could release his own version internationally. After he went off to make Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Polanski had a chance to see the version with Ransohoff’s changes and was horrified to find that he changed the title to Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, redubbed all the actors so they would sound more American, tweaked the score, and cut 20 minutes out. Understandably upset, Polanski said at the time, “I’ve called them and asked them to have my name removed because I don’t want credit for a film I didn’t really make. The one now showing is far from the one I filmed.”

In addition, the truncated version received negative critical notices and MGM cut their losses, barely giving it a theatrical release. It didn’t screen in L.A. until almost a year later at midnight showings. Polanski’s film did find a second life at regional college film societies all over the country that rented 16mm copies of it due his rising popularity with the success of Rosemary’s Baby.

While the film’s humor is hardly subtle – it relies a lot on physical gaffs – it isn’t quite as broadly slapstick as, say, Young Frankenstein (1974). The Fearless Vampire Killers has the occasional moments of dread. It was an approach that Polanski would apply again in the underrated supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate (1999). The film ends in a fashion that is consistent with many of the filmmaker’s other efforts: pessimistically as Alfred’s love for Sarah proves to be his last inept act that he is unable to bumble his way out of thereby dooming humanity, much like the ill-fated protagonists in Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown (1974). As Glenn Erickson put it so well in a review, the ending shows “the ineffectualness of virtue in the face of organized evil.”


Nuiman, Philip and Constantine Nasr. “Dancing with Vampires: Roman Polanski’s Homage to Fangs, Fairy Tales and Fearless Vampire Killers.” Little Shoppe of Horrors. October 2011.

Friday, October 14, 2016


David Cronenberg’s early career saw him create several memorable body horror films that involved the destruction of the body via parasites (Shivers), or disease via surgery (Rabid) or mutation that results in telepathic powers (Scanners). Videodrome (1983) marked the apex of this period with the filmmaker masterfully fusing notions of the body horror genre with his fascination with the blurring of the boundaries between man and technology in very provocative ways. The end result was a rare horror film that incorporated elements of science fiction in ways that were as smart and thought-provoking as they were gory and scary.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the unscrupulous president of a small, cable television station that appeals to the lowest common denominator. He’s fully committed to his job, willing to visit a sleazy dive hotel to meet with Japanese businessmen peddling softcore pornography in order to find programming that will “break through,” and is “something tough.” This leads him to Videodrome, a violent, pirate broadcast of an anonymous woman being tortured. Intrigued, he has his resident technician, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), use their satellite technology to find and record more of these illicit broadcasts.

While defending the unsavory aspects of his T.V. station on a local talk show, Max meets and shamelessly hits on Nicki (Deborah Harry), a beautiful woman who hosts a self-help radio program. She publicly criticizes his station but when they go out on a date, reveals a kinky side to her personality. While having sex, she has Max perform several sadomasochistic acts on her while watching the Videodrome tape. Nicki ends up being Max’s entry into the world of Videodrome as the boundaries between his reality and what he sees on television begin to blur. Is it live or is it Videodrome?

Max’s search for the origins of Videodrome lead him to seek out Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), head of the Cathode Ray Mission, a refuge for homeless people, giving them a safe haven to watch T.V. He believes that T.V. plays an important role in everyone’s lives. O’Blivion never actually meets with anyone, preferring instead to communicate via messages on videotape. He sees Videodrome as the next step in human evolution, the merging of flesh and technology as a revolutionary act (“Long live the new flesh!”) – something that Max eventually experiences first hand. As the film progresses, he peels back the layers to discover more insidious intentions behind Videodrome that have political implications in ways that he could never have imagined.

James Woods has never been afraid to play unlikable characters and the amoral Max is certainly one of them and yet the actor’s natural charisma makes his disreputable broadcaster somewhat sympathetic – especially once his life gets progressively weirder. Max is one of Cronenberg’s trademark protagonists whose inherent curiosity leads them to seek out and uncover secret, underground groups while undergoing a personal transformation in the process. A musician by trade, Deborah Harry is excellent as the mysterious and very uninhibited Nicki whose sadomasochistic tendencies fascinate and horrify Max. She is his guide through the looking glass as it were.

What is most striking about Videodrome is how ahead of its time it was in anticipating people’s fascination and access to the illegal and the forbidden. Max’s obsession with the obtaining and broadcasting of twisted, sexual fantasies has now become even more prevalent with the widespread proliferation of the Internet. Cronenberg’s film also anticipates the notoriety of snuff films like the Faces of Death tapes of the 1980s. Like the Videodrome transmissions, they supposedly showed real deaths and acts of torture (it was later revealed to be staged footage). The program featured in Cronenberg’s film has no story or plot, anticipating the torture porn subgenre by many years.

There is some truly disturbing, uniquely Cronenbergian imagery on display in this film as Max begins hallucinating because of his exposure to Videodrome. At first, he mistakes his personal assistant for Nicki and then sees a videotape pulsate like a living organism. Cronenberg deftly blends reality with Max’s surrealistic hallucinations, culminating in the iconic set piece of a living, breathing T.V. set that threatens to absorb Max. It transforms into a throbbing, sexual object – an extension of Nicki – that seduces him. It is media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message,” represented visually.

Videodrome also continues Cronenberg’s pre-occupation with secret organizations that operate beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and permitted. They work towards a greater goal that involves the next step in human evolution. In the case of this film, it is the merging of man and technology as one character, Professor O’Blivion, exists entirely on videotape. In fact, he comes across as quite the McLuhan-esque figure with such proclamations as, “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye.”

Videodrome arguably best represents Cronenberg’s obsession with the merging of man and technology, flesh and electricity. In this respect, it was very influential as evident with the same kind of ominous presence and surrealistic effects of electricity as in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). The dangerous manipulation of a video image would also be explored in Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). Videodrome’s influence can also be seen in the music video world with the notorious Broken music video collection (that played with staged snuff film imagery) by Nine Inch Nails as well as Japanese horror films, like the Ringu series, that were released in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Cronenberg’s film was also a game changer in how it commented on the invasive nature of technology in our lives – something that Cronenberg would revisit with Existenz (1999) years later – and has only become more prevalent since, making Videodrome even more relevant today.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

These days cinema is lacking in provocateurs that aren’t afraid to stir things up and polarize audiences with bold, distinctive films. Sure, Lars Von Trier is still around, but he isn’t as prolific as he used to be and Gaspar Noe is a mainstay on the international festival circuit but where is the younger generation of filmmakers willing to challenge the status quo? Leading the charge is Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn whose 2008 film Bronson established his name on the European art house circuit.

It was Drive (2011), starring Ryan Gosling, that introduced Refn to an even wider audience and it became a commercial and critical darling. The filmmaker struggled with his newfound notoriety, making the visually stunning yet narratively muddled Only God Forgives (2013), which divided critics and tanked financially. Undaunted, he regrouped and continued to follow his cinematic obsessions with The Neon Demon (2016), a psychological horror film that fuses the sensibilities of Suspiria (1977) with Black Swan (2010).

Right from the get-go, Refn presents us with a provocative image: a beautiful young woman lying on a sofa, her neck slashed with blood running down her arm and collecting in a pool by her feet. It’s a beautifully ornate yet horrific still life that turns out to be a photo shoot. It is also the image that best encapsulates the film itself.

The model is Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old newly arrived in Los Angeles. She lives by herself in a motel room and soon meets a makeup artist by the name of Ruby (Jena Malone). They go to a party that Refn drenches in purple and navy blues while the bathroom is saturated in fuchsia. At the party, Jesse meets two rival, older models – Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) in a scene that comes across like some sort of female hazing ritual as they interrogate the visibly uncomfortable girl. The rest of The Neon Demon follows Jesse as she navigates the dangerous waters of the L.A. fashion scene through Refn’s distinctive filter.

As with Drive and Only God Forgives, Refn eschews a traditional narrative in favor of mood and atmosphere, using Jesse’s experiences in the fashion world as a jumping off point on which to craft stylish set pieces that expertly marry arresting visuals with a hypnotic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. For example, there’s a scene where Jesse arrives back at her motel room after a date and spots something in her room. She gets the manager (a shady looking Keanu Reeves as a frightening sexual predator) and his flunky to check it out only to find a mountain lion loose in her room! It makes no logical sense but does add to the overall sense of unease that permeates the film as Jesse always seems to be at the mercy of others.

Elle Fanning has a knack for conveying heartbreaking vulnerability as evident in a scene where Jesse offers an honest assessment about herself: “I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I can’t write. No real talent. But I’m pretty. I can make money off pretty.” It’s a quietly astonishing bit of acting as Jesse is frank about her shortcomings. She has her dreams but doesn’t know how to achieve them. Her first professional shoot starts off worryingly enough as she’s left alone with the photographer (Desmond Harrington) and instructed to take off her clothes in a moment reminiscent of a scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) in which Patricia Arquette’s femme fatale does something similar but then the mood becomes hypnotically transcendent as he proceeds to smear gold paint over her body and takes photos. Fanning delivers a fully committed performance as she continues to pick daring and adventurous roles.

Keanu Reeves plays a creepy motel manager that has a truly unnerving moment with Jesse that turns out to be a nightmare but is also real…for another girl next door when he can’t get in to Jesse’s place. It’s a gutsy role for a movie star of Reeve’s stature to take on and he’s nastily effective, providing a real sense of menace. The always-watchable Jena Malone plays a rather enigmatic character that we’re never sure if she’s Jesse’s friend or regards the young girl as a plaything to toy with for reasons known only to her. It gives her performance an unpredictable quality that is exciting to watch, like the disturbing scene between Ruby and a corpse, which is one of the film’s most audacious moments.

The Neon Demon explores how the fashion industry churns through young, thin models, regarding them as nothing more than disposable mannequins to promote their clothes. It presents a cold, unforgiving world where only the strong survive. This is evident in a scene where Sarah is rejected and humiliated in front of her peers when the client prefers the younger, fresh-faced Jesse to her. The model’s reaction is devastating but her subsequent confrontation with Jesse is unnerving.

Martinez’s moody, pulsating synth score that, at times, evokes the 1980s work of Giorgio Moroder and Goblin, by creating a tangible, foreboding mood throughout, compliments Refn’s striking visuals. Martinez’s music achieves a divine vibe in one scene and a disquieting one in another. Adding to the surreal nature of the film is the deliberate, often stilted way the cast delivers their dialogue, which is reminiscent of Lynch.

While The Neon Demon doesn’t say anything new about the fashion industry, it is how Refn tells Jesse’s story that feels fresh, creating his own unique world and populating it with beauty-obsessed grotesques – gorgeous-looking people that are ugly on the inside. By the end, he represents the cutthroat world of fashion literally in a truly upsetting climax.

To that end, some have claimed that The Neon Demon is a misogynistic because of how women are treated in it and yet most of the violence against women is perpetuated by other women. Furthermore, women are objectified by both men and women. One gets the feeling that Refn’s film is commenting more on how women treat each other within the context of the fashion industry. It explores the subtle and not so subtle shifts in power and how this ties into the notions of age and beauty. Older models are constantly looking over their shoulder because there is always some younger, more beautiful model ready to take their place. Refn takes it to the next level by putting this world within the horror genre as rival models literally kill their competition. The last 20 minutes are where Refn either keeps or loses his audience as the film risks slipping into absurd territory in order to make its point but at least he has the courage to go there and that is admirable in and of itself. After the pretentious twaddle that was Only God Forgives, Refn has finally got something to say and does it in a way that feels personal.