Monday, July 29, 2013

Hullabaloo & Horror: A Tribute to William Castle

Special thanks to both The Last Drive In & Goregirl's Dungeon for inviting me. Please check them out. They are marvelous!
Hullabaloo is one of the greatest and yet, underused words in the English language. Defined as “a clamorous noise,” it was something that used to be a fun element of showbiz. And no figure brought the sense of pure, wondrous hullabaloo better than the man himself, William Castle. A larger-than-life figure, complete with a big smile and an even bigger cigar, Castle left his indelible thumbprint in the world of cinema around 70 years ago and yet, no one has ever come close to overshadowing him. (Though one of his biggest fans, legendary cult filmmaker and eternal fan, John Waters, has come close.)

The biggest ruse, however, with a cat like Castle is that if he had been only pure hullabaloo, then the odds of this tribute happening are slim-to-none. If you're only icing, people will forget you or best case, you get a size 8 font footnote and filed under novelty. Castle made some of the most inventive and memorable horror films, on top of producing classics like “Rosemary's Baby.” After all, no one retains the level of shock-and-awe by mere schlock alone.

William Castle first came into my life when I saw “House on Haunted Hill” as a little girl. The horror house thrills that abound in that film instantly wooed me. (Not to mention ever since, I've had a thing for guys with Vincent Price mustaches---but only if they can carry it with the same suave-sinister panache.) If you were a horror loving kid like I was, then Castle was your Walt Disney. Titles like “The Tingler,” “Straight Jacket,” “13 Ghosts,” the aforementioned “House on Haunted Hill” and “Mr. Sardonicus” were custom built for people like us.

Not to short-change the gimmicks. Not at all, especially given how bloody good a lot of them were, with my personal favorites being the world-wide beauty contest for “13 Frightened Girls” and the million dollar insurance policy taken out for Hercules, the lead cockroach in 1975's “Bug.” Given the tenacity of some of the roaches in my old apartment, dollars to doughnuts no one still has collected on that one for ole Herc.

But to remember Castle mainly for that is overlooking the fact that there was some good film making involved. Even some of the cheesier films, like “Bug” or “13 Frightened Girls,” have some deft charm. Most importantly, you are never ever going to be bored watching a William Castle film. Others from his era have faded into the fine print in dusty old film tomes, but William Castle, his legacy, his showmanship and his films will live on, shiny and almost new for years to come.

The Candy Web: William Castle's 13 Frightened Girls!

When one thinks of the classic tell-tale images of a typical William Castle film, what exactly comes to mind? An arm rising out of a bloody bathtub? A skeleton tapping a lovely, scared lass's shoulder? An aging Joan Crawford holding an axe? One swanky Vincent Price? How about an intrepid, undercover spy/blonde piece of jail bait in the form of Candy Hull? Okay, the latter more than likely is not the first or fifth thing you think of when it comes to Castle, but exist it does in the form of his 1963 film, “13 Frightened Girls!” 

Despite the spider-web laden trailer, horror fans be warned, this is a total rosy-cheeked, borderline safe for the happiest-place-on-Earth crowd spy film, filled with teenage hijinks and brimming with girlish shenanigans. Proof? The proceedings begin at Miss Pittford's Academy for Young Girls, an idyllic school set in the Swiss Alps (or San Bernandino) for perfectly groomed, clean-skinned and lovely-as-a-Spring-flower daughters of world diplomats. At the head of the pack and narrating is Candice Hull aka Candy (Kathy Dunn), your all-American blue-eyed blonde lovely whose talent in Latin is disproportionate with her driving skills. The latter is used for early comic relief when Candy flips after a tarantula (?!) inexplicably comes down in front of her on the school bus. Scaring teenage girls? Who is this spider, anyways? Ted Nugent? 

Despite the minor wreck, all of the girls safely get to the airport for their school vacation. Candy goes to London, where her father, John (Hugh Marlowe), is stationed. Before greeting Daddy, she immediately beelines for Wally (the always impeccable Murray Hamilton), secret agent and worker for her father. Wally maybe the cat's meow, but he is also engaged to fellow agent Soldier (Joyce Taylor,) not that this deters young Candy. Thankfully, Wally actually has morals and did not attend the Jimmy Page Gentleman's School of Courtship and quickly rebuffs the 16 year old's hormone-laced advances.

The worm soon turns when she finds out, through annoyingly snooping, that Wally's job is in trouble. The main problem being his ability to obtain crucial information at the right time. Slack is an element needed in most jobs, but in the spy world? Not so much. Worried that her #1 crush could end up on the bread line, she ends up taking matters into her own hands. The name Kagenescu (Walter Rode) pops up in her father's conversion with Wally and of course, who does Candy run into while visiting her friend from China, Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon)? Yeppers, Kagenescu.

Continuing her growing trend of being a bad guest, Candy immediately starts (yet again) snooping, traveling via the dumbwaiter. This is one of the best moments in the film, where a cat, randomly out of nowhere, gets thrown at Candy. Is it one helluva goony, not to mention cheap, scare? Absolutely, but it is wonderful in its lack of shame. Anyways, she makes a pit stop in the kitchen, managing to crawl around the most oblivious kitchen staff ever and goes to the freezer. It is there she discovers Kagenescu, hanging from a meat hook and stabbed with her father's letter opener. She manages not to arouse suspicion, amazingly enough, and excuses herself home soon after.

Meanwhile, Wally receives a mysterious note, lettered kidnapper style, along with the murder weapon. Turns out Kagenescu was killed by Mai-Ling's father, all in the hopes of starting international trouble with America. The note, signed by “Kitten,” gives Wally all the juicy info he needs to please his boss. This lights the espionage fire within Candy-Kitten, who puts all of her academic talents into studying the fine art of being a female spy. (All courtesy of a tome entitled, “Methods & Training of Modern Espionage.”) She practices the art of seduction, first to cure some love-lorn drama amongst the girls, then to provide more tidbits to Wally via her Kitten nom-de-plume, ranging from photos of canoodling world leaders to chess games gone hot-headed.

It's when she tries to further use her powers of seduction with a Russian Communist masquerading as a Dutch student, that she starts to truly play with fire. The handsome, in kind of a Quaalude sort of way, Peter (Garth Benton), is planning to orchestrate a student uprising, all in the scheme of having a Communist takeover in a foreign land. Candy narrowly escapes death after being drugged by Peter and manages to get her well bred posterior out of the frying pan.

That is, until Wally finds out who Kitten truly is, all after her Dad keeps putting the heat on him to reveal this independent agent once and for all. Typical teary adolescent drama ensues, only to be cut short by the news that Mai-Ling's daddy has kidnapped Soldier, with the ransom being non-monetary. Like everyone else on the Globe, they want to know who this “Kitten” is and want “him” delivered in person. That's another strange thing, is that everyone assumes that Kitten is a dude, which seems like it would be a very effeminate nickname for a super spy. Imagine calling James Bond “kitten” and you will immediately see my point. 

The rest of the film has some fascinating ziz-zags, some expected, including Mai-Ling getting upset after feeling used by Candy, but others not so much. Especially the ultimate and legitimately surprising twist near the very end.

On the whole phantasmagorical spectrum that is the film work of William Castle, “13 Frightened Girls!” tends to get mentioned a little less. Granted, compared to the big daddies that are “House on Haunted Hill” and “Straight Jacket,” it is easy to see why. First of all, it's not a horror film and even its gimmick, involving a world wide contest to find 13 lucky and comely girls from assorted countries to be featured, seems a little wan in comparison to the more outlandish stunts with the other films.

All that said, the film has a certain winsome charm and knowing cheekiness that makes it a fun ride. Sure, Candy is precocious to the point that someone needs to throw a brick in her general cranium direction and one has to take a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief that this tow-haired teen could pull off half of the antics she does. But that is the charm. It's like Castle is sitting next to you, cigar danging out of his smiling mouth and winking at you, as if to say, “Can you believe this shit?”

Forget believability, it's a fun, candy-shell-coated adventure. On top of that, Murray Hamilton is so good as the warm-hearted and world-weary Wally. Kathy Dunn is appropriately earnest and energetic as Candy. Of the rest of the teenage diplomats, the real standout is Gina Trikonis, daughter of former dancer turned director Gus Trikonis (“The Evil,” “Swinging Barmaids”), as the Russian representative, Natasha. She gets some good lines, including snarking on Candy's getting top grades in Latin while almost killing them on the bus (“a dead language is not worth dying for”) and possessing all sorts of bitchy verve with a nice center. Also worth noting is Alexandra Bastedo as Alex/England, who went on to have roles in the original “Casino Royale,” as well the top role in the horror-exploitation classic, “The Blood Splattered Bride.” There's also Judy Pace, who plays the student from Liberia. Pace went on to have a healthy TV career, having appeared on shows like “Peyton Place” and “Ironside,” as well as acting in notable films like “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Frogs.” Both Bastedo and Pace are given little do here other than smile and look pretty, but it is nice to see that they were able to build respectable careers on top of their debut work here.

“13 Frightened Girls!” maybe viewed as a mere curiosity in the silver screen world of William Castle, but it is sweet, silly and entertaining enough to merit a viewing. The power of Murray Hamilton and random cats compels you!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: One Big Blur Edition

Ever have one of those weeks that is just one long blur? That would be this past week for me. Sadly, it has nothing to do with going all rock-and-roll or committing vast, lurid acts of bad decision fun. If anything, it has more to do with bad sleep. But if there is anything more tedious then having insomnia, it is writing about it, so let's move on.

I've noticed that lately there has been more and more discussion regarding gender and sexism in the fringe film writing field, especially in the horror camp. Over the years, I've been asked occasionally about my own experience being a female writer in a male dominated writing world. It can be weird at times, especially when people try to assign gender to your work. Nobody really asks a male writer to add a “masculine voice” to his work, unless it's for “Macho Beefcake Weekly.” At our core, we are artists before we are anything else. Most guys don't write with their happy equipment and I don't type with my ovaries. (Though if I could, that would be spectacularly impressive!) Don't get me wrong, I am a proud feminist. Granted, I'm the type of feminist that gives more traditional types the hives and I have even been labeled a “bad” one. But I'm not living for them and I wear my love of fringe art on my sleeve. There's nothing more beautifully radical than just being yourself. 

As for sexism, does it exist? Of course, it does, but it is just one part of the experience. For every editor that has talked down to me like I was a poor-dumb-girl, I've had many that have been incredibly cool, smart and progressive. It's like anything else in this world. Most people are fine. Some are awe-inspiring and others are awe-inspiringly stupid, but if we let the hateful and dumb rule our actions, then we have let them win. If someone doesn't want to read or watch your work just because you are a, b or c, then why would you want them as a fan in the first place? Life's too short for that and while it is a cliché, success is the best revenge always. 

For you cult film lovers who have a weakness for revenge-fueled action flicks and strange approximations of the punk subculture, then you will love my latest for Dangerous Minds. This time around, I explore 1990's “Punk Vacation,” another fine release by Vinegar Syndrome. While you're there, check out some of the reader's comments. There is some great info, including mentioning the epic tome Destroy All Movies and even The Dickies appearing on C.P.O. Sharkey. Fabulous.

Keep your peepers open and peeled, since there are some fun things coming up. In the next few days, look for articles on “Oriental Blue,” both a William Castle tribute and a review of “13 Frightened Girls!” for the uber-fantastic William Castle Blog-A-Thon and “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X.”

You can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest & Google+.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: And You Know What This Means? It Means That You Can Earn Some Real Money Edition

Being born creative is one of those double-barreled gifts. It's almost like having a second type vision. You can see life, both good and bad, in richer hues and assorted layers. The downside is that we live in a world that is not really built for artists. Making a viable living doing what you're born to do can feel about as accessible as winning the Mega-millions jackpot while simultaneously getting a deep-tissue massage. That's not even touching the assorted comments you will get from families, loved ones and friends. People that are not writers often have NO idea about the realities of trying to get your work out there. Every real victory you have will mean nothing to some folks just because of out-moded prejudices. Back when I was getting my feet wet with zines, I had friends obviously look unimpressed just because the publication wasn't a)glossy and b) available at your local mass-market book emporium.

Another one is using the term “blogger” like it's an insult. In the past few years of writing, I've been lucky to see people get progressively more open minded about writing online. It was just a handful of years ago where the snobbery towards online writing was massive. Whether it was writing for a blog or a regular website, the prevailing attitude was that it just didn't count. The sheer amount of bullshit attached to that is nearly mind-blowing. Writing is writing. If your work is out there and someone who is not yourself is reading it, then guess what? It totally counts. The fact that literary titans like Neil Gaiman have a blog should be proof right there that being a “blogger” is not and should not be a scarlet letter.

There's been a lot of really fascinating and needed discussion lately about the value of writing, especially for those of us in the fringe/genre film world. The internet is a huge blessing, making everything more democratic than ever. Of course with the landscape bigger than ever, it also means that there is more work to sift through. Even more troublesome is that it also ups the odds of having someone opportunisticly cribbing some of the words that you worked hard to craft. Of course, does that mean you shouldn't put you and your work out there? Hell no! When you're creative, at the end of the day the biggest priority should always be the work itself. If the cult of personality is something that is your main goal, then just be a celebrity and leave the art to the people that actually care. Also, ego? Check that at the door too. Doing anything to be “cool” is about the uncoolest thing in the world.

Writing is a field that will give you ample scar tissue, so to quote one especially mediocre Van Halen song, “you've got to roll with the punches to get to what's real.” The cream inevitably rises and the karmic scale does get balanced. Being a “real” writer isn't just about getting paid and published. It's about getting rejected, having someone leave a shitty comment or an editor bypassing your hard work for one of a lesser quality. Yet it is the negative that makes the positive all the sweeter when it happens. Getting your work out there and connecting with both like minded readers and writers is far richer than any of the annoyances that come with it. The more you explore, the more you realize that the good far outweighs the bad.

Being a film writer has a lot of blessings. That moment of not only moving a reader but sometimes even the artist whom you are writing about is tantamount to magic in this world. It is those moments that make up for any dramas or depression. Getting to explore and write about the language of cinema is what I live for and even when it can drive me crazy, it is without a doubt, my path. It's not even my chosen path, because it chose me long before I chose it and I would not have it any other way. Play people, especially your readers, for chumps and they will return the sentiment two-fold. But treat them with respect and the right ones will always, always get it.

Dedicated to Larry Gibbs and Andy Copp. Two friends that loved film and cut out from this plane too soon. Thank you both for making a special mark in this world and my life.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: The Double Bill Edition

The art of the double bill is a fine one. It's the cinematic equivalent to creating the perfect mix-tape. (Sorry, even in the digital age, they will always be mix-tapes to me.) I love picking out two seemingly divergent movies and bringing them together, forming one most interesting evening. Granted, my personal taste has never been for everyone, so your mileage may vary. I was once banned from picking out movies for some friends of mine one night after crafting the double bill of “Meet the Feebles” and “Desperate Living.” Hey, it maybe a heady mix for the uninitiated but I still stand by that one. Puppets singing “Sodomy” and Edie Massey yelling out “!!!” is sheer perfection, people. 

       Image from

So earlier this week, we had the diverse yet kind of harmonious double bill of the 1970 classic documentary, “Gimme Shelter” and the equally classic 1979 horror film, “Phantasm.” This was my first time seeing the former, unbelievably, and after reading about it for years, it did not disappoint. One of the fascinating things about the Rolling Stones is that within a time span of 10 years, there was not one but three documentaries made about them. The first being Godard's “Sympathy for the Devil” aka “One Plus One” (1968), “Gimme Shelter” (1970) and the infamous and sorely needs-to-be-legitimately- released “Cocksucker Blues” (1972). One could do a whole book about their connection to cinema, starting off with these three films. 

Okay, this has nothing to do with the documentary, but mein gott, Merry Clayton SMOKES it. 

“Gimme Shelter,” made by The Mayles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, documents the band around the time period of “Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!”, complete with a brief shot of Charlie Watts being photographed for the cover, as well their 1969 concert at Madison Square Garden. The latter has some great footage, particularly of opening act Ike & Tina Turner doing a scorching version of “I've Been Loving You Too Long.” Seriously, the latter is total baby making music and undoubtedly made everyone in the audience that night about 200% more fertile. Mick's response to the footage? “It's nice to have a chick occasionally.” Mick? Shut up.

Of course, what “Gimme Shelter” is best known for is featuring the build-up, the firestorm and the aftermath of Altamont. What was supposed to be a sweet-cheeked follow up to Woodstock turned into a festival of bad vibes, abuse and one death, all thanks to some extremely poor organizing and the bright idea to hire the Hell's Angels as security. Because outlaw bikers being paid in beer are a great mix with pie-eyed and huge-pupiled flower children. The thing about “Gimme Shelter” is that even though I went into the film knowing the ride I was in for, I was still floored by the pall that blankets every frame of celluloid. Even the lighter footage, like the band recording “Brown Sugar” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, has a somber undercurrent. It did make me happy to see that my favorite Stone, Charlie Watts, got a lot of camera time. (My other favorite Stone, Ron Wood, was not in the band at this point, though for what it's worth, more folks should give some love to Mick Taylor.) 

After that rock & roll deathshow, “Phantasm” was very much the spirit of the night that was needed. Re-watching it, something hit me that despite it being one of the biggies of horror from the past 30+ years, there is still really nothing quite like it. It is atmospheric, surrealistic, features some great colors and has Reggie Bannister....all wonderful things that should be in every horror film! I definitely wish more genre filmmakers would study a film like this, not to mention all of the Italian greats (Bava, Argento, Fulci) and honor the fact that there is a wide rainbow of gels in the world of lighting. Film is a visual medium, so embrace the colors. Some rich red lighting is way more striking and eerie than muted sepia. Muted sepia is fine for the old timey photo booth at Silver Dollar City, but not a horror film.

  Reggie, in one of the most iconic scenes in horror.

By the way, speaking of Mr. Bannister, he is such an impeccable character actor. The man is like an alchemist. In “Phantasm,” he plays an ice cream man/musician who sports a ponytail with a fading hairline. No one else in the world could make a role like that so indelibly badass, but in the hands of Bannister? Sheer awesomeness. Seriously, the man looks amazing in an ice cream suit and the scene where he joins Jody (Bill Thornbury), guitar in hand, for an impromptu jam on the porch? Awesome and even better, he not only bests Jody but then declares themselves “hot as love.” Holy hell. You can have your leathery, beef jerky skinned aging roid-heads in “The Expendables,” I'll take Reggie Bannister any day of the week.

Also in horror news, I saw the poster for the “re-imagining” of “Maniac,” with Elijah Wood. Now, I have no opinion on the film itself since I haven't seen it, but it did make me wish that more directors and producers would take more influence and less direct ideas from older films. There are good remakes, of course, some even great, but I feel like the past few years have sported a bulk-sized bonanza of them. There maybe few, if any, truly original ideas at this stage of the game, but individual approach, when honest and pure, is always original.

On the writing front, keep your eyes peeled for new material on Dangerous Minds, as well as upcoming contributions to both Rupert Pupkin Speaks, William CastleBlog-A-Thon and Paracinema. Enjoy, cats and kittens!

You can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google+.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Weekly Mondo Round-Up: The Firecracker Edition

 It's post-Fourth of July here in the States but you would not know that around my neighborhood. Lots of noise, smoke and glitter. No mangled bodyparts just yet, but the evening is still young. Earlier today, after stumbling upon a small Farmer's market in a nearby berg, I was reminded of the last time we visited such a thing. There was a local group of hipster-y, psuedo-folk-jug fellows playing, all covers of course. Nothing inherently wrong with that, especially since covers are the groundwork a lot of bands use to build their chops, but I realized that if you're the kind of group that can instantly play “Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard” or whatever that hideous Paul Simon song is, then I instantly never want to hear you again. Imagine hearing someone covering some Coltrane, Les Baxter or Killing Joke? Now, that would be sweet. But good lord, no Paul Simon or any other pap that makes middle-upper class middle-aged white people feel comfortable. The ultimate credo of any artist should never ever be “give the people what they want.” Nay, give them what they deserve. That? Is true love. 

 On a far happier and rewarding note, the latest issue of Paracinema is now available for pre-order. In addition to featuring articles covering everything from the great David Patrick Kelly to action film heroes, it will also have my compare/contrasting article on Stephen Sayadian's two equally brilliant films, “Nightdreams” and “Dr. Caligari.” If you haven't seen these films, then do yourself a favor and seek them out immediately. Sayadian is one of the most standout directors to have emerged in the last thirty years, so it was a pleasure getting to explore these two semi-twin works. For the converted and uninitiated alike, you can check out my friend David Arrate's tribute on his Tumblr, My Kind of Story or view the clip below. If these things don't convince you, especially the dancing toast, then you've got ice in your veins, baby. 

One album that has been getting a lot of play this week in Casa Mondo has been Fallen Angels. This is a band that is ripe for some proper rediscovery. Led by Knox, who also founded the legendary punk group The Vibrators, and featuring the entire rhythm section of Hanoi Rocks (Razzle, Sami Yaffa and Nasty Suicide), Fallen Angels were a terrific, trash-rock band that managed to incorporate some emotional gravitas sans the usual gouda baked overdramatics. From the same family tree that begat the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, Hanoi Rocks (naturally) and Lords of the New Church, Fallen Angels, especially that killer first album, deserves to be placed next to its more well known brethren. 

Currently working on contributions for both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and the upcoming, William CastleBlog-A-Thon, as well as the usual article work. Wonderful things are afoot.

You can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest & Google+.