There’s No Business like Zombie Business……

Poster - Zombies on Broadway_02In 1941, the unexpected success of Buck Privates – a whopping $10 million dollar B-movie blockbuster – officially launched the comedy team of Abbott and Costello who became Universal Studios’ most profitable film franchise for more than a decade (The duo made their debut in One Night in the Tropics (1940) in supporting roles but the musical comedy with top billed Allan Jones and Nancy Kelly was not a boxoffice hit). Naturally, it inspired other studios to follow suit but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Case in point – Wally Brown and Alan Carney (no relation to Art Carney), two former nightclub comedians recruited by RKO for a series of low-budget farces beginning with The Adventures of a Rookie (1943), a blatant attempt to ape the formula of Buck Privates. For critics who thought the humor of Abbott and Costello was déclassé, Zombies on Broadway (194) was a further step down but perfect for eight year old boys who enjoyed the simple concept of two nitwits with one (Brown) assuming superiority over his dim bulb pal (Carney).   Continue reading

Mining for B-Movie Gold

Senta Berger is in charge in Jean-Pierre Desagnat's Les Etrangers (1969)

Senta Berger is in charge in Jean-Pierre Desagnat’s Les Etrangers (1969)

It’s a rare thing when a crime thriller departs from the usual formulaic expectations and rewards the viewer with a much more unpredictable and entertaining twist on a familiar genre. Such is the case with Les étrangers (aka The Strangers, 1969), which begins with a carefully planned diamond heist in a remote desert town that goes spectacularly awry before transitioning into a deadly game of cat and mouse between a fleeing fugitive and a couple that offer him temporary shelter. This is a superior B-movie that feels like an A-picture with its iconic international cast of actors from France (Michel Constantin), Austria (Senta Berger), Spain (Julián Mateos) and South Africa (Hans Meyer), a spaghetti western-flavored score by Michel Magne and Francoise de Roubaix, and atmospheric cinematography by Marcel Grignon, who received an Oscar nomination for Is Paris Burning? (1967) and filmed such cult favorites as Roger Vadim’s Vice and Virtue (1963) and Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975).     Continue reading

Richard Lester’s Feature Film Debut with the Mad Jazz Beat

Ring-A-Ding RhythmWhile producer Sam Katzman was busy exploiting the youth culture in the U.S. with quickie productions like Twist Around the Clock (1961) and Don’t Knock the Twist (1962), his contemporary Milton Subotsky was doing the same in England but with a different musical focus. London was in the midst of a British jazz revival driven by the music of New Orleans and Dixieland and this is the sound that inspired It’s Trad, Dad! (1962, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm), which also marks the feature film debut of Richard Lester, whose subsequent film was A Hard Day’s Night (1964) for The Beatles.  Subotsky didn’t just stack the deck with jazz groups though; he also added a generous helping of current pop acts and even tried to scoop Katzman with showcasing Chubby Checker in the new novelty dance, the twist (Katzman still beat him to the punch with Twist Around the Clock which was released first in the U.S.).      It's Trad, Dad! Continue reading

The Secret Cinema Experiment (Feb. 1980 – Dec. 1981, Athens, Ga.)

Secret Cinema program Oct. 1980Have you ever had a fantasy about running and programming your own repertory cinema? Any self-proclaimed film buff probably has and for me it became a slowly emerging fantasy from the time I was seven or older. Unlike those kids who wanted to be firemen, astronauts, professional athletes or other revered professions, I pictured myself as a movie theater owner who could show what I wanted and print availability or attendance was never a concern. While this fantasy faded over the years as I became aware of the realities and headaches of film distribution and theater management, the love of programming movies always stayed with me and for a brief period (Feb. 1980 – Dec. 1981), I ran an invitation only film series out of my home in Athens, Ga. on Pulaski Street that I called Secret Cinema. Continue reading

Beverly Michaels: Wicked Woman

Poster created for Noir City film festival, sponsored by The Film Noir Foundation

Poster created for Noir City film festival, sponsored by The Film Noir Foundation

Voluptuous vixens, murderous golddiggers and greedy femme fatales were a familiar sight in B-movie melodramas of the fifties but Wicked Woman (1953) stands out from the rest of the pack. The look and feel of the movie captures the lurid quality of trashy pulp fiction covers from the same period like Tavern Girl, Passion Has Red Lips or Any Sex Will Do. Even the minimalistic, sparsely decorated sets, that represent a confined universe of dingy boarding house rooms and the neighborhood bar, exude a sleazy authenticity and sense of claustrophobia. And scheming her way through these lower depths is Beverly Michaels in the title role of Billie Nash. Blonde, statuesque and sullen, she is the quintessential hard luck tramp, moving from town to town in a futile search for a change in luck.    Tavern Girl Continue reading

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 Valentine to New York City

A scene from You're a Big Boy Now (1966), filmed on location in New York City

A scene from You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), filmed on location in New York City

Before he broke through as one of the most dynamic and successful directors of his generation in 1972 with The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola had been working his way up from the lower rungs of the film industry since the early sixties in various capacities for producer/director Roger Corman (dialogue director on Tower of London [1962], second unit director on Premature Burial [1962] and others). Although his first full-fledged directorial effort was the sexploitation comedy Tonight for Sure (1962), which was barely distributed even on the grindhouse circuit, Dementia 13 [1963], was really the first indication that Coppola had promise as a filmmaker. Made on a miniscule budget, this gothic murder mystery shot on location in Ireland was a surprisingly stylish and atmospheric genre film that was released on a double feature with Corman’s The Terror [1963]. Yet, it was Coppola’s next feature, You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), that proved to the movie industry and film critics alike that this twenty-seven year old director was already a prodigious talent.     Continue reading

Spider Women vs. Holy Men in a Once-Lost Chinese Film

They look like women but don't be fooled (a scene from The Cave of the Spider Women, 1927)

They look like women but don’t be fooled (a scene from The Cave of the Spider Women, 1927)

Surviving films from the silent era in China are rare. Destruction from wars, government censorship, neglect, and deterioration have taken a sizable toll, so the recent discovery of The Cave of the Spider Women (Pan si dong) from 1927 is a cause for celebration. Even missing its opening scene and a sequence in the middle, the film remains frenetic, pulpy entertainment that was a major commercial success and a career milestone for painter-turned-filmmaker Dan Duyu. Its appeal also stems from glamorous lead actress Yin Mingzhu, one of China’s first major stars. The film’s potent blend of costume drama, fantasy adventure, and choreographed action, as well as slapstick and irreverent sight gags have proved durable conventions in modern-day Chinese cinema.  (This article first appeared in the 2015 program for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival). Continue reading