Saturday, February 7, 2009

Corpse Eaters (1974): Eat At Joe's

Behold, the one image from the film that doesn't give you the urge to squint.

We all have our movies that we keep coming back to, and one of the ones I like to revisit a lot is Bob Clark's 1972 film "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things". It's a humble but weirdly effective zombie film before zombie films were a huge thing, with lots of fantastic imagery. The performances were a little grating, but there was a humorous aspect to it took the edge off of that, as if it wasn't to be taken too seriously. Although the zombies don't arrive until far into the movie, once they do it's pretty awesome. Two years after its release came a Canadian film with a similar plot involving a small group of young people who decide to hold a Satanic mass inside a vault in a dark cemetery, provoking the rise of zombies who eat human beings. Produced by a Canadian drive-in owner as a moneymaking feature for his own drive-in, "Corpse Eaters" debuted at the Hiway 69 Drive-In, and... well that's about it. An obscure oddity was born.

It is the early 1970s. We can tell this because the sideburns are long and the clothing looks like it was made out of fabric cut from curtains and bedspreads. The location: the Happy Halo Funeral Home. A mortician named Bill is working on a fresh corpse, when his creepy boss comes into the lab to ask him to work late. The boss mortician looks more than a little bit like Angus Scrimm as "The Tall Man" from Phantasm. Phantasm was a much different movie, though, because you see, in Phantasm you could actually see what was going on. Corpse Eaters is much more coy; the filmmakers knew that to truly engage the audience, you must constantly obscure your film in darkness and tight closeups that rarely allow the film to familiarize the viewer with any visual information.

But I digress...Bill is working on a corpse when Creepy Mortician (he doesn't have a name) tells him that a new job is coming in that night; some guy who seems to have been mauled by a bear. Hmmmm. Creepy Mortician decides to get in his hearse and drive around while Bill does his thing, delivering a voiceover monologue about death before driving right back to the mortuary. Why was he driving around in the hearse think-talking to himself? Never mind. Together they put the finishing touches on the 'bear victim': cottonballs stuffed into the oral cavity. I once heard that artists never really know when the work of art is completed.

Immediately we are plunged into flashback. You will not know this just by watching the film, because there is no real communication going on between the director and the viewer. But take my word for it, you are watching a flashback, and think of it as a pre-Tarantino gesture in cutting edge filmmaking. We witness two frisky young Canadian couples on a day trip via motorboat. Richie and Julie are the "dirty" ones, while Alan and Lisa are the "other" ones. (HINT: Richie is the corpse in the coffin in the introduction--the 'bear mauling' victim!!!!) Together they jaunt out to an island, where they lay down on a blanket so Richie can take off Julie's top and spray a can of Canadian beer all over her Canadian boobs. Readers, I doubt that any of you boob-lovers are going to be turned on by Julie's boobs, but have at it if you are. You get to see them for a nice long time in a scene that goes nowhere; Julie and Richie roll around a little and when Alan doesn't get any action from Lisa, he tries to turn it into a three-way. Julie is having none of that, however, so instead they all go swimming. Naturally!

Afterwards, they plot their next adventure. Bored of "the rock concerts" (?), Richie comes up with the perfect evening: they'll spend the night in an abandoned graveyard and get high on some of his pot. Lisa, the spoilsport that she is, tries to talk everyone out of it, but she's dragged along by the rest of them. The graveyard spooks her out, and things go from bad to worse when they go into a vault that's been left standing open.

Richie, always the instigator, decides to perform a black mass, something he learned from his uncle, who was "always drawing circles". Lisa warns against it, seeing as the uncle "did disappear mysteriously enough". Off the top of his head, Richie's able to recite from memory some words he heard his uncle say. The words just happen to be a Satanic incantation to raise the dead, and before you can say "children shouldn't play with dead things", there are a few dead things wandering around the cemetery. Richie goes outside to investigate a noise, leaving us in awkward silence with some super-tight closeups of Lisa, Julie and Alan as they wait for him. You know how it is when nobody knows what to say. When Richie comes back inside, he's followed by a gang of the hungry dead, who lunge at our heroes. Alan wards off the zombies with a shovel and protects Lisa, but Richie is severely injured. It's curtains for Julie, proving once again that if you show your boobs in a horror movie, you're as good as dead.


Lisa and Alan drag Richie back to the car and speed off. "What about Julie??" Lisa begs, to which Alan replies "Forget her!" Meanwhile, back at the vault, there's some corpse eating going on as the zombies chow down on a bunch of cherry jelly that's suddenly all over Julie's body. Yum! As Alan speeds down the road, the film cuts back and forth endlessly: speeding car, zombies eating Julie, speeding car, zombies eating Julie, speeding car, zombies eating Julie. Do not try and suggest that the makers of Corpse Eaters didn't make every attempt to give you your money's worth, because to say that would be unfair.

When they take Richie to a conveniently nearby hospital, the doctors are at a loss to explain what attacked Richie. They also don't seem to understand the meaning of "emergency", taking their sweet time to get cleaned up and prepped for surgery. It's no surprise when they're unable to save Richie, partly because they are doofuses and largely because we already know Richie winds up as a corpse in a coffin at the Happy Halo Funeral Home. One doc breaks the news to Lisa and Alan, causing Lisa to collapse backwards onto a chair. "Lisa!" Alan shouts, to which the doctor says "Oh she's just in shock, that's all, she'll be alright." Just like it would happen in real life, they put Lisa to bed for the night in a nearby room, while a scary nurse (who resembles a transsexual Howard Johnson's waitress) gives her a sedative to help her sleep. Meanwhile Alan, who still hasn't bothered to remove his blood-soaked tank top, tries to explain to the doctors what happened. Needless to say, what doctor would believe that a group of crusty-faced zombies came along and ruined a perfectly good Black Mass?

"This is Nurse Bobbi....I borrowed your razor...."

In the tradition of all good horror movies, we have a spooky dream sequence as Lisa sleeps. She sees dead people, visits Richie in the funeral home, and sees him rise out of his coffin and kiss her full on the mouth. Did I mention that Richie is supposed to be Lisa's brother? Guess we know how it is in THAT family. Richie leaves blood all over Lisa's mouth, causing her to wake up and bite Alan's neck open. Then she attacks the tranny nurse and stabs her with scissors for about five minutes until she wakes up for real and realizes It Was Only A Dream.
Meanwhile, back at the funeral home, Creepy Mortician is drinking himself blind in his office. I honestly can't blame him, I'd be an alkie if dead people were my business, too. Especially if I looked like Angus Scrimm. So while he's up there getting plastered and falling asleep on his desk, shadowy figures are moving downstairs in the funeral home. Who could these strange visitors be? HINT: If you were a corpse eater, where would you go when you were hungry? A funeral parlor is like a fast food joint in that sense. That's right, Creepy Mortician stumbles down into the viewing rooms and finds our dusty, corpse eatin' zombies chowing down. Richie is also rising up out of the coffin, perhaps signifying that corpse eating is contagious and the graveyards of the world will no longer be safe.

This is where things get a little sketchy. The editing goes haywire here, and the zombies appear to pull out The Wannabe Tall Man's eyes. But then we see him being dragged into a barred room and put into a strait jacket, eyes mysteriously intact, babbling about how he's not insane. The end. What exactly just happened here? We don't want to believe it, but not only did Corpse Eaters pull off the "It Was All A Dream" trick, it also doubles back on itself and pulls the "It Was All In the Mind Of A Crazy Person" stunt!! How many films can you say that about?

Well, fortunately Corpse Eaters doesn't ask for too much of your time, as it only runs a little bit over an hour. It's nobody's idea of a "good" movie, although it could be a rather enjoyable one. The filmmakers don't take it too seriously, and they insert an amusing gimmick into the mix: at the beginning of the film, we see a respectably-dressed balding man sitting in the theater, minding his own business, until he sees something on the screen so horrible that he gags into his handkerchief. This is the signal, viewers, the signal that something terrible is going to happen. A voiceover that sounds suspiciously like a Canadian version of Jack from "Will & Grace" warns the audience that when they see the gagging man and hear the special ululating "buzzer", this is the time to look away from the screen to avoid seeing something that might upset your stomach. Because ya know, I can see how someone with a weak stomach might accidentally wander into a film titled Corpse Eaters.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Baby (1973): Dig it, baby!

By today's soulless standards, the glorious 70s were mostly tacky and cheap, but oh did they have style to burn. Never have I seen this represented in a horror film quite as well as I have in an obscure little gem I just discovered. I intend to ramble on for a moment or three about a repulsive, seductive, and absolutely essential 1973 descent into insanity titled The Baby.

Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) is a pretty social worker who takes on a new case when she visits the oddball Wadsworth home. Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) lives with her two strange daughters, Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Susanne Zenor). There's also a son in the home: the 21-year-old Baby (David Manzy). There is no man in the home, and Mrs. Wadsworth doesn't seem to have a very high opinion of them. Well, what am I saying, Baby is a man if he's 21, right? Well, no. Baby is kept in an infantile state by the rest of the Wadsworths, who dress him in diapers and oversized baby clothes, make him sleep in a crib, and never teach him to talk or walk. Although Ann doesn't catch onto it right away, the family inhibits his development through negative reinforcement, such as zapping him with a cattle prod whenever he does something that a baby wouldn't do.
Bringing up Baby.
Ann immediately accepts Baby's situation, as does seemingly everyone else in the movie. Nobody ever seems to stop and say "Hey wait a minute, why is this man acting like an infant?", a fact that becomes twenty times more astonishing after a scene where the strange family has a house full of party guests who also accept the fact that her 21 year old son acts this way. Ann is no different, as she talks baby talk to him and raves about how 'cute' he is. Actually, he is extremely creepy and looks like he's acting more like a dopey dog than a baby. Mrs. Wadsworth is a tough lookin broad who reminds me a lot of Suzanne Pleshette, especially when she talks. At first she seems to like Ann, but when Ann starts hanging around a lot more than she has to, the whole family gets suspicious of her.

Ann herself isn't exactly playing with a full deck, it seems. She lives in a big, beautiful house with her mother-in-law, and even Germaine wonders how Ann affords her beautiful wardrobe on a social worker's salary. Her husband is nowhere to be seen, and Ann can't seem to figure out if he's alive or dead, since she tells different people different things. When Ann starts talking to Mrs. Wadsworth about putting Baby in a school where he might learn how to develop past the infant stage, she immediately pulls the plug on Ann, calling her supervisor and getting her thrown off the case. Ann reacts with her own fury, declaring war on the Wadsworths and vowing to 'rescue' Baby.  You might think you can see the twist ending coming, and you may be on the right track, but I doubt you'll totally get it until the weird, wonderful and unquestionably bizarre final moments of the film.

I guess The Baby is technically a horror movie, although it's definitely the psychological type as opposed to more typical horror elements. There is a disturbing tone running through the whole thing, including themes of incest; not only does a babysitter wind up in a sexually provocative situation with Baby, Germaine is seen going into Baby's room and getting into bed naked with him. There are a few scenes of graphic violence, but they aren't going to please any gorehounds. The Baby reminds me a lot of one of my other favorite 70s Doom flicks, Don't Look In The Basement, crossed with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. There are elements of other movies here too, including a party scene that echoes Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with its crazy lighting and far out music.

Beyond the Valley of the Baby

Aside from having a great script, The Baby also benefits from a solid cast full of cult movie favorites. Fans of obscure horror films will recognize Marianna Hill from Dead People (aka Messiah of Evil). Alba is played by Suzanne Zenor, and some of you might recognize her from the 70s TV revenge comedy The Girl Most Likely To. I'm not sure of the actress's name who plays the babysitter, but she's a dead ringer for Joy Bang, also from Dead People. Michael Pataki appears as a swingin' guest at Baby's birthday party, and Ruth Roman is absolutely showstopping as Mrs. Wadsworth. She's as scary as Mommie Dearest, and you wouldn't want to cross her, would you?

The sets and art direction are top notch. Kitsch is king in The Baby, with all sorts of wild period clothing, furniture, and lighting dominating the movie. The music is memorable too, coming off as cheesy at first, but really getting under your skin the longer the movie goes on. The uncomfortable themes in The Baby might turn off some viewers. But if you're in the mood for something really strange that you've never seen before, you can't go wrong with this one. It's absurd. It's insane. And it's absolutely classic, unadulterated 70's Doom!!