Friday, November 6, 2020

Massage Parlor Murders! (1973)

Where has this marvelous movie been all my life? Well, apparently there was no home video release for this until 2013, but this is 2020 so I have no excuse for ignoring this rough gem for too long. The production quality is up and down throughout the movie - some scenes have a Doris Wishman quality, with dialogue dubbed in without actually showing the person speaking on camera. The framing is off in a few scenes, and the sound level of the dialogue is a bit sketchy in at least one crucial scene. Most of the acting is similar to what you might find in a porn flick that attempted to have some kind of plot. Also like porn, long periods of the film don't feature dialogue, and are instead accompanied by a very groovy soundtrack.

All the amateurishness aside, if you judge this on sheer entertainment value, this movie really delivers. The ultra 70s decor alone could have made this a must-see - this is definitely a Furniture Movie for me - but you also get some magical footage of New York City in the early 70s, with some particularly lingering shots of 42nd Street grindhouses. The scenery looks even better due to the incredible transfer Vinegar Syndrome did with this film.

There's not much of a script, but the movie does have the right idea in certain regards, such as the depiction of two police detectives who both have sleazy secrets in their own lives. Rizotti (George Spencer) sleeps with prostitutes (sorry, "massage girls") while on duty, then goes home for long evenings of ignoring his wife, whose bids for his attention have turned into epic tirades of nagging and bitching. She's like the sister of Beverly Hills from "Invasion of the Bee Girls", or at least a client of the same beauty salon. Rizotti's partner, O'Mara (John Moser) is sincere but inept; while staking out a nude club (and doing as the Romans do while in Rome himself), he decides to chase a suspect on foot, commandeering a civilian taxi while wearing nothing but a short towel he managed to grab on the way out. He then endangers countless citizens of New York by instigating a high speed car chase that devolves into a demolition derby, only to corner the suspect and somehow apprehend him - still barefoot and wearing nothing but a towel. Those naked super hero hijinks aside, this cop is so short-sighted that he knows someone is murdering massage girls, yet doesn't even give his girlfriend any protection when she goes to her a massage girl. Later, Rizotti and O'Mara both know the killer is about to strike, but still decide to get something to eat and have a few drinks first. When they arrive too late and miss all the action of the movie's staggering grand finale, they discover that the final would-be victim didn't need any help from them, thank you. (I hope she got to keep that money, she sure earned it.)

OK names, names - Brother Theodore has a brief scene in this, where he gets to recite some of his monologues. Fans will recognize them immediately from his recordings and appearances on The David Letterman Show. He plays a kooky astrologer and possible suspect who gets slapped around by our two fine examples of the NYPD. They also kick the shit out of George Dzundza, who doubles as the Assistant Director of this movie. Maybe he directed his own physical assault? Look fast for Beverly Bonner from "Basket Case" in a brief scene as one of the massage girls who (luckily) doesn't get singled out by the murdering creep. The only female character the movie allows us to get to know at all is played by none other than Sandra Peabody from "Last House on the Left".

The violence is hardly realistic in the way a movie like "Last House" might be, but "Massage Parlor Murders" still manages a few visceral surprises. When it's time for the film to reveal the fate of a character we've become at least reasonably invested in, it does so in a shockingly rote manner, a cold and clinical view of a bloody crime scene. The on-screen carnage is often reaching for a little more than the movie's special effects can deliver. A scene where a victim is dispatched with a shattered glass object doesn't look particularly convincing, yet also manages to make you squirm just a little. Most of the lovely female corpses blink, so nobody would ever accuse this movie of being a snuff film. You may be more shocked by how far over the top and out into left field "Massage Parlor Murders" is willing to go in the non-sexual and non-violent scenes, like when we see a large group of naked strangers in a co-ed bath house cavorting in a giant Olympic-sized pool full of balloons, or a kinky voyeurism scene where a chubby guy in a leotard dances a crude form of ballet with a topless woman to "In the Hall of the Mountain King".

The film received a reissue with an alternate cut entitled "Massage Parlor Hookers", with an obvious refocus on the hooking parts of the movie as opposed to the murdering parts. That's exploitation, baby. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Guru, The Mad Monk (1970), directed by Andy Milligan.

The Middle Ages were hard times for mad monks. Father Guru (Neal Flanagan) is a corrupt chaplain in the 15th Century, employed in a bizarre prison complex. Assigned to deliver the last rites to condemned prisoners, Guru also carries out punishments like heating up an iron cross and then searing the flesh of sinners while they kneel before him. When prison guard Carl's girlfriend Nadja (Judith Israel) is locked up, accused of murdering her newborn baby, Carl (Paul Lieber) appeals to Guru to save his girlfriend from execution. In return, Guru enlists Carl's help to acquire corpses to sell to medical schools for profit. Carl also finds himself indebted to Guru's secret mistress, Olga (Jacquelin Webb), who gives him the drugs necessary to fake Nadja's death.  Olga demands that Carl allow her some alone time with all the recently deceased corpses at the prison so that she may drain their blood for use in her 'experiments'. What she really meant to say was "meals", since she is a vampire.

Are you still following this?

"Mirror on my chamber wall, who's the maddest monk of all?"

Guru, who not only likes to date vampires but also has two-person conversations with himself in the mirror, is resentful over the fact that the mother church refuses to send more money to his parish. When Nadja is revived, they hide her in a tower chamber, where she spends her days looking out the window and noticing that people keep coming to the church and never leaving. Sometimes Guru kills them for Olga, and sometimes Olga kills them herself, but Guru has a knack for picking the right ones, especially when they say things like "Nobody knows I came here." Nadja can't wait to tell someone about it, bored in her tower chamber while Carl is on a long body-collecting journey for Guru. She also befriends Guru's hunchback assistant, Igor, who is clearly so in love that he can hardly speak around her.  He has a memorable freakout moment when she shows him the slightest bit of interest and cheerfully asks him questions about himself.

"Igor, I swear to you, my interest in you as a person has nothing to do with the
fact that I'm currently a prisoner in a church tower and you're the only one I ever see."

I've always thought of Andy Milligan as the John Waters of horror movies. Although he lacked recurring stars as outrageous as Divine, Edith Massey and Jean Hill, his films are driven by a similar manic energy. Not as earnest as Ed Wood's cinematic output, Milligan movies usually don't aspire to be better than they are, they just want to wallow in despicable behavior for an hour and then move on to the next feature.

"Guru the Mad Monk" is one of the better examples of the way Milligan's films take the more ridiculous aspects of the plot for granted. The plot goes on and on with daytime drama involving true love, religious convictions, and the abuse of power, with very little regard given to the fact that one of the characters is a fucking vampire. We are just supposed to accept that she's a vampire, with no explanation given other than a throwaway line when Guru makes reference to when she was "bitten by that animal!" I kinda want the movie to be about that, ya know? But instead, you just have to go with it, because the movie charges full speed ahead right past it. Don't worry, it runs just short of a full hour, so it won't waste too much of your time.

"This won't hurt a bit, my sinning child!"

Like Waters, Milligan has a way with dialogue that has to be heard to be believed. I won't accuse the actors of delivering bad performances with stilted delivery, because actually they are rather convincing in these hopelessly bullshit roles. There's nothing at all going for this movie without the performances, and I was not disappointed by these actors. Judith Israel is particularly good, channelling Mia Farrow from her hairstyle right down to her crisp, accented diction.

"Hey pal, watch the headgear!"

A period picture is an ambitious concept for an ultra low budget film, and "Guru" has Milligan's usual Halloween costume look to it. It's supposed to be the Middle Ages, yet the women all wear modern cosmetics and the lead actress has lovely hair that probably took her Middle Ages hairdresser about an hour to shape for her. I wonder if they came to her tower to do her hair right there. Don't let your guard down or you may catch yourself thinking this is one of the best ways to spend an hour of your life.

Friday, February 28, 2020

8 Traumatic Animal Deaths in Scary Movies

You know how it goes - people can die in horror movies and that's A-OK, but when it happens to an animal, suddenly it feels like things suddenly got way out of control. Here's my own personal gallery of terrors where a much younger version of me was traumatized by the representation of horrible death occurring to an animal.

8. COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) - Erica eats her cat.

This movie has its share of campy vampire action, but there are a few genuine shocks within its reels, one of which is the moment when Count Yorga's victim Erica is discovered holding her dead, bloody cat in one hand while she (presumably) sucks its blood. It's a revolting and disturbing moment I never forgot!

7. HORROR HIGH (1973) - The janitor's cat gets it!

When "Horror High" started appearing on TV, it was retitled "Twisted Brain". Some of the film's most gruesome violence had been trimmed from the original R rated theatrical cut to make a PG version for theaters, namely the removal of an on-screen decapitation with a paper cutter. But for me, the most horrible thing in the entire movie is the death of a gorgeous black cat. It belongs to a mean janitor that works at the school in the movie, and why an employee would be allowed to bring his pet cat to school when he's working is beyond me, but the cat has this fatal hankering to attack whiz kid Vernon's guinea pig, Mr. Mumps. Unfortunately for kitty, Vernon is testing his Jekyll/Hyde formula on Mr. Mumps, who turns into a monster guinea pig and destroys the bully cat. We don't see it happen on screen, but when Vernon discovers the body, he ends up dropping it on the floor where it lies there in a puddle of blood. Instant distress!!

6. DEAD OF NIGHT (1974) - Andy throttles the family dog.

Bob Clark's 1974 creepfest "Dead of Night" (reissued in 1976 with a new title "Deathdream") is about a young soldier named Andy serving in Vietnam who appears to be killed in action, then mysteriously reappears back home as a decaying zombie that needs fresh blood to survive. One of the first things Andy does is to kill the family dog, Butch, when it starts barking at him (because that's what dogs do when they sense that you are an evil zombie). Not only this, he cruelly does it right in front of a bunch of terrified, crying kids. Seeing this happen right there on TV as a child was a real unexpected gut punch.

5. LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) - The little mole is no more. 

One of the most effective elements of this cult fave is the engaging performance delivered by Zhora Lampert. She seems like a genuinely nice person, and when somebody loves animals, that's usually a good sign. Jessica spots a mole while she's out doing gravestone rubbings - ok, she's a little morbid, but still really nice - and she decides she wants to take it home and keep it as a pet. It may be a little misguided of her to keep a mole trapped in a large jar for her own amusement, but something truly uncalled for happens when an unseen person takes a large knife and abruptly puts the mole out of its misery at being imprisoned by a well-meaning woman. Jessica finds it the next day, screaming horribly as she holds the bloody corpse in her hand. Really, Jessica? When our outdoor cat used to bring dead moles home and lay them on our front porch, I never got the urge to pick it up.

4. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) - Snake: it's what's for dinner!

OK, probably not everybody is disturbed by the idea of killing a snake, but this was the first time I had ever seen an animal killed on screen, for real, in a movie. Never mind the faked throat gougings, the decapitation, the killer arrows, the cast iron skillet used as a bludgeon - this murder is REAL!

3. BEWARE! THE BLOB (1972) - Samuel's last meal.

In this sequel to  "The Blob", an absolutely effervescent Marlene Clark has an adorable little kitten named Samuel. Unfortunately, her husband has just brought a frozen chunk of the blob home, where it thaws out and eats Samuel just when he's digging into a big serving of tuna. Hey, I guess it's a blob-eat-cat world after all. I was simply traumatized when this happened!

2. THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976) - Gordon's terrible fate.

This movie is disturbing on several levels, but I'm still not completely over the scene where Martin Sheen, playing the scuzziest perv ever, tortures Jodie Foster's pet gerbil with a lit cigarette and then hurls it into the fireplace. It just seemed to come up so unexpectedly, although I was about 8 years old when I saw this so I could be forgiven for not seeing it coming.

1. RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) - Ginger has a bad trip.

This is the big one, the very first time I can remember being traumatized by an animal's death in a movie. Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit and Lara Parker piss off some devil-cult members by witnessing a human sacrifice, and find themselves on the run when the cultists start following them. They go out to a bar one night and when they return, they are horrified to find their dog has been killed and gruesomely strung up on the door to their RV.