The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965)
by Steve Habrat
In 1963, American International Pictures ignited the beach party movie craze with the release of Beach Party, a surprise hit that inspired countless knockoffs from other studios. The beach party genre hit its peak in 1965 and found the genre daring to depart from the typical teenage fun in the sun. Filmmakers started blending the surf and sun with the musical genre, science fiction, and yes, even the horror genre. One of the most well-known beach party horror movies is director Jon Hall’s corny B-movie The Beach Girls and the Monster. Heavy with soap opera melodrama and light on legitimate scares, The Beach Girls and the Monster is basically The Creature from the Black Lagoon in Santa Monica with only a forth of the budget. More of a whodunit than a straight up monster movie, The Beach Girls and the Monster runs only about an hour long, but that is an hour too long. The film features one of the most glaringly fake monsters to ever terrorize the silver screen and it fills itself out with long stretches of surf stock footage, kids laughing, joking, and singing around a campfire, and plenty of hip shaking from bikini-clad babes from a local Hollywood night club. It is perhaps the weirdest summer cocktail of a movie you may ever sit through. Seriously.
After almost losing his life in a car accident, Richard Lindsay (played by Arnold Lessing) has given up a promising career in favor of a life of sand and surf. He spends his days hanging out at the beach with his girlfriend, Jane (played by Elaine DuPont), and his nights sitting by a bonfire and strumming his guitar for his free spirit friends. This behavior has greatly displeased his oceanographer father, Dr. Otto Lindsay (played by the film’s director, Jon Hall), who is busy dealing with his cheating young wife Vicki (played by Sue Casey). After one of Richard’s beach bunny friends is brutally murdered on the beach by a monstrous sea creature, the local authorities begin to suspect Richard’s handicapped friend Mark (played by Walker Edmiston), a sexually frustrated artist who was with Mark during the accident. But the kids who hang out on the beach are convinced that there is a sea creature lurking on the beach and any one of them could be the beast’s next victim.
Considering that The Beach Girls and the Monster is one of the most well known beach party horror mash ups out there, you’d think that there may be a bit of suspense lurking down around the beach. Sadly, the film lacks any sort of tension or spine-tingling moment that will have you yelling at the characters on your screen to turn around and behold the terror creeping up behind them. Nope, instead the monster, which is CLEARLY a person wearing a cheap rubber Halloween costume, awkwardly lumbers into the frame with its arms outstretched like a zombie and then wraps its claws around a bikini clad chick who wriggles around like a worm. These sequences are more effective at delivering laughs than they are at making you scream. The surprising aspect about these attacks is that the victim is usually left with bloody scratch marks across their face, neck, chest, etc. Besides for some blood and torn flesh, nothing else really stands out about any of the so-called scares. Plus, maybe someone should have told the director that it is pretty tough to freak the audience out when you have surf rock guitars strumming over the soundtrack. You half expect the monster to steal a surfboard and start hitting the waves before slashing someone to ribbons.
When you’re not yawning or chuckling over the monster, you’ll be astonished at the melodramatic acting that would have been more at home in a daytime soap opera than a horror movie. Lessing is all forced rebellion and cheesy sun baked cool as he dashes around the beach after babes or thrills over a film reel of surfer dudes catching waves. He shares a number of “serious” moments with Edmiston’s crippled Mark, who tries to convince Richard to restart his once promising career. The uptight and repressed Edmiston is a bit more convincing than Lessing, but you’d never guess in a million years that he is crippled. They have to continuously remind both the audience and Edmiston that he is crippled and that he should be walking with a limp. DuPont’s Jane basically blends in with the scenery, pretty eye candy for the male viewers and a sidekick when the big chase/investigation kicks in during the final ten minutes. Casey is sexy and commanding as the unfaithful Vicki, a seductive siren that makes dates right under her scowling husband’s nose. Hall is suspicious and testy as Richard’s disapproving father, Dr. Otto Lindsay, the man called in to take a look at the strange footprints found in the sand. Hall probably gives the best performance of the entire film, but you can tell he is really digging deep to keep things from totally sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
At barely over an hour, The Beach Girls and the Monster is desperate to fill itself out any way it can. There are drawn out sequences of girls doing the twist to surf rock blaring from their transistor radios. To make sure the gals put on a good show, Hall enlisted the help of “The Watusi Dancing Girls” from the local club Whiskey a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard and they certainly put in 110% for the cameras. They almost wear the viewer out with all their shimmying and shaking. About the only thing that The Beach Girls and the Monster has going for it is the toe-tapping surf rock soundtrack that will have you dashing to your computer and searching high and low for a copy of it. The opening credits claim that Frank Sinatra Jr. provided the music, but he is only responsible for the film’s theme song. Still, it is some of the most fun beach music that you may ever have the pleasure of hearing. Overall, with plenty of skin, surf, sand, sun, rock n’ roll, sleaze, sex, monsters, and tongue in cheek violence at its core, you’d think that The Beach Girls and the Monster would be the perfect drive-in movie for a slow summer night. Instead, the party is busted by stiff dramatics, cheap production values, amateur performances, and more technical flubs than an Ed Wood movie. At least the go-go dancers showed up!
The Beach Girls and the Monster is available on DVD.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
by Steve Habrat
In 1956, cheeseball writer/producer/director Edward D. Wood Jr. began work on a small science fiction horror film that would become famous among horror fans and cinema buffs for being absolutely terrible. That film would be Plan 9 from Outer Space, which would go on to be released in 1959 and become the most famous film of Wood’s outlandish career. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a glob of bumbling acting, some of the worst dialogue your ears may ever hear, felt costumes that look like they were made in a twelve-year-old boy’s garage, generous amounts of stock footage, flying saucers made of spray painted plates, and sets made from construction paper, glitter, and super glue. It’s hilariously awful. It’s also probably one of the most enthusiastically made motion pictures you may ever see. Plan 9 from Outer Space is the work of a goofball, that I will not deny, yet there is something to be said about this sloppy B-movie that burst forth from the Atomic Age. It’s not particularly smart or skilled and it is made by a bunch of amateurs, but Plan 9 from Outer Space actually works in a so-bad-it’s-sort-of-good kind of way. It also works its way into your heart because Wood stands tall by his picture from beginning to end, telling this absurd story about saucer men, UFOs, and the living dead without ever cracking a smile, even if we are in tears the entire time. You really have to hand it to this guy. Plus, to be honest, he does deliver a resurrection scene that is just way too cool to be in a movie like this.
Plan 9 from Outer Space begins with an unnamed old man (played by Bela Lugosi) grieving the death of his wife (played by Vampira). After the funeral, two gravediggers begin working on filling in the woman’s grave but are spooked after they hear several strange noises. Just as they are about to flee the graveyard, the gravediggers are attacked and killed by the resurrected corpse of the woman. A few days after the attack, the grief-stricken old man is killed in a freak automobile accident. While burying the old man, the mourners stumble upon the bodies of the two gravediggers. A team of police officers led by Inspector Dan Clay (played by Tor Johnson) show up at the graveyard to investigate the bodies, but soon after their arrival, Inspector Clay is attacked and killed by the resurrected woman. Meanwhile, airplane pilot Jeff Trent (played by Gregory Walcott) and his co-pilot are in midflight when they suddenly spot what they believe is a flying saucer. The two men report their sightings but the government swears them to secrecy. One evening while sitting on their back porch, Jeff breaks down and tells his wife, Paula (played by Mona McKinnon), what he witnessed in the skies, but his story is interrupted by strange lights and a strong wind that knocks them both to the ground. As the days pass, more and more reports come in about strange sightings in the sky and eerie activity in the local graveyard, which forces the government to begin an investigation. As the investigation deepens, the government realizes that the events in the cemetery and the UFO sightings may be linked.
Honestly, it is extremely difficult to try to summarize Plan 9 from Outer Space for someone. The plot is extremely convoluted and disjointed to the point where it isn’t even worth trying to really pay much attention to it. Basically, aliens are raising the dead to get the attention of the humans so that the aliens can warn the humans not to develop a weapon that would destroy the entire universe (go ahead, you can giggle). Plot aside, the real reason to watch Plan 9 from Outer Space is to catch all the goofs that Wood makes along the way. Every shot in the entire film is static, with actors shuffling and bumping their way through cramped sets that look like they were filmed in someone’s basement. To make the film seem bigger, Wood cuts the wooden scenes he filmed with about twenty minutes of stock footage of soldiers firing rockets, airplanes flying through the air, traffic in Los Angeles, and unused footage of star Bela Lugosi, who had passed before Wood decided to make Plan 9 from Outer Space. Then we have Wood’s makeshift graveyard, complete with crumbling cardboard headstones and black tarps doubling for crusty ground. He pumps in some fog, drops a black backdrop down, and single handed manages to construct a few semi-atmospheric shots of Johnson, Vampira, and Tom Mason, a chiropractor who stands in for Lugosi with a Dracula cape over his face, wandering around looking for victims. The graveyard scenes really make this movie, but that isn’t saying much.
When you’re not cringing over the DIY set design, you’ll be doubled over laughing at some of the absolute worst acting you will ever see. If the acting isn’t getting you (believe me, folks, it will), wait until you hear some of the dialogue that Wood hands them. The stock footage of Lugosi is pretty breathtaking, that I must admit, and Vampira is campy fun as she shuffles stiffly around the graveyard with wild eyes and outstretched arms, but nearly everyone else is absolutely horrible. Walcott is trying so hard to be believable as the brave hero who stands up to the martians, but you will just laugh him off rather than root for him. Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler, is asked to play the no-nonsense Inspector Clay and he fails miserably. You won’t be surprised that he excels at playing a mouth-breath ghoul though. McKinnon is simply asked to shriek in horror at Mason, who only reveals his eyes to his victims. Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee shows up as Eros and Tanna, the two aliens who shout classic lines of dialogue like “you see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” Also on board here is Criswell, the narrator who first tells us that the events we are about to see are set in the future and then completely contradicts himself by saying that this story took place in the past. Riiiiiight…
Even at a brief seventy-nine minutes, you could honestly fill a book with everything that is wrong with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Nearly every single scene has some sort of flub, yet that is precisely why the film is so much fun. You’re watching it to make fun of it and laugh your head off right in its face. Given that the film was created out of the radioactive paranoia of nuclear war, Wood certainly doesn’t shy away from slipping in a few comments of his own about the bomb, even if they do get tangled up in a unintentionally hilarious showdown between aliens and humans. They don’t particularly stand out from the countless other Cold War science fiction drive-in movies but they certainly are here, if you can believe it. The film is also worth checking out for Tor Johnson’s resurrection sequence, which is dramatically lit and, shockingly, shot with some sort of artistic vision. It is a brief moment of brilliance and it certainly is cool. Overall, if you’re even slightly interested in science fiction and horror, then Plan 9 from Outer Space is certainly worth checking out on a hot summer night with a cold beer in your hand. It may be the furthest thing from high art, but this is the work of a determined man who completely believed in his own ridiculous vision. Our hats are off to you, Wood.
Plan 9 from Outer Space is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
by Steve Habrat
One of the better cult films to be produced by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman would have to be the 1975 dystopian satire Death Race 2000, an ever colorful grindhouse thriller that appears to have no shortage of eye-grabbing characters, gory death scenes, and black humor. Amazingly well spoken for this type of sleazy genre pic, Death Race 2000 is clearly a drive-in cheapie fueled by razor sharp satire, but it also gets by on the spirited lead performances from David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, both who seem to be having the time of their lives as the rival racers. Maybe the charms come from the DIY approach that hovers over the entire project, from the cars that look like they had painted styrofoam additions super glued on to them, to the red candle wax blood that erupts from heads mowed over by smoking tires, to the hilarious backdrops that look like giant billboards painted up to look like a futuristic city. It all feels like it was made in a week and if you’re familiar with how Corman liked to work, you probably wouldn’t doubt it. Under director Paul Bartel, the cheap production design is never allowed to overshadow the white-knuckle action, thrills, and wit that rocket at you at about 150 miles-per-hour. However, the film does a tailspin in the final five minutes, with a blowout ending that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie. It has been said that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to conclude the film and it sure is obvious once you see how they warp everything up.
In the year 2000, the United States has been destroyed by a financial collapse and is ruled over by a Bipartisan Party, which has unified church and state. It has become the United Provinces; a fascist police state ruled over by the mysterious “Mr. President” (Played by Sandy McCallum). The public is kept entertained by the brutal Transcontinental Road Race, a gladiatorial battle that finds five colorful racers battling to score points by running down innocent civilians with their spruced-up race cars. The star of this show is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (Played by David Carradine), the government’s champion that is part man and part machine due to the horrific wrecks from past races. As the nation gears up for the 20th race, Frankenstein finds himself stuck with a new navigator, Annie Smith (Played by Simone Griffeth), who he is immediately suspicious of. As the three-day race commences, Frankenstein finds himself pitted against his jealous rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Played by Sylvester Stallone), who will do whatever it takes to beat the fan favorite. In addition to competing against “Machine Gun” Joe, three other racers, Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Played by Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Played by Roberta Collins), and “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Played by Mary Woronov), are all out to dethrone Frankenstein. As the race gets underway, the five racers find themselves attacked by a mysterious rebel group led by Thomasina Paine (Played by Harriet Medin), who are determined to put an end to the savage race once and for all.
Death Race 2000 begins with a montage of jingoism, as marching bands and fans clad in red, white, and blue congregate for the massive race set to The Star Spangled Banner. It seems harmless enough until Bartel slips in an image of a man waving a swastika flag in support of Matilda the Hun. From there on out, Death Race 2000 is a rubber-burning satire on America’s fixation with violent entertainment and the media that enthusiastically sells it. The announcers happily explain the point system directly to the viewer; smiling as they explain how many points a rundown infant is worth compared to a pancaked man or woman. Things get even more twisted as the widow of the first victim of the race is brought onto live television, simultaneously sobbing and laughing as she is rewarded with a lavish vacation, all because her husband was the first to be gruesomely rundown in the street. It is not hard to see that Death Race 2000 is skewering the media’s love of all things blood and guts, all as Frankenstein reminds us that it is all about giving the fans what they want. Bartel does lighten the mood with a few scenes of black humor, mostly coming from Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and his constant frustration with both Frankenstein and his busty navigator Myra (Played by Louisa Moritz). The highlight scene comes when an innocent fan (who is minding his own business) mistakes the cocky “Machine Gun” Joe for Frankenstein. Joe retaliates by chasing the man down a river and flattening him. Now THAT is some black humor.
While the action and satire are both finely tuned, Death Race 2000 achieves its cult classic status through must-see (and when I say must-see, I mean it) performances from Carradine and Stallone. Carradine rocks as the partly mechanical man Frankenstein, who dons a leather mask and zooms from coast to coast in an alligator race car complete with massive fangs. You can tell that Carradine is having an absolutely blast strutting around in his black leather outfit that is complete with a cape that he enjoys twirling around. He is the ultimate man of mystery, at least to his die-hard fans. You’ll thrill as he is always one step ahead of his plotting rival “Machine Gun” Joe, a mush-mouthed brute bitter over living in Frankenstein’s shadow. Outside of Rocky, this is probably the best Stallone has ever been (Okay, he was decent in Rambo). He just looks so outrageous speeding down a winding country road in a car with two tommy guns and a giant knife mounted on the front. He nabs most of the black laughs while bickering with his bombshell navigator Myra, who acts like a giant space cadet. As far as Frankenstein’s navigator Annie Smith is concerned, she is mostly there to get naked and seduce him behind closed doors, but wait for a surprising twist with her character near the end of the film. Another stand out is the deliciously evil Matilda the Hun, who is absolutely wicked as she shouts about the master race while tormenting her fellow racers. And I can’t forget Don Steele as the massively annoying announcer Junior Brace, who just beams over carnage of the race, and Joyce Jameson as the obsequious television personality Grace Pander.
Death Race 2000 may toss around a few heavy ideas, but it never fails to remember its audience. Being an exploitation movie, Death Race 2000 provides tons of gratuitous nudity and violence, which is interesting because the film appears to be wagging its finger at violence for entertainment. There are plenty of gruesome deaths, which are all accompanied by the trademark 70s candle wax blood. In between these nasty moments, there are plenty of adrenaline pumping chases, fistfights, and even a nifty sequence that finds Carradine’s Frankenstein trying to outrun a rebel fighter plane unleashing bullets and bombs. Death Race 2000 also can’t resist stripping almost all the ladies of their clothing, especially Moritz and Griffeth, which will please most of the male viewers. Overall, Death Race 2000 could have been a victim of its own cut-rate production, but the less-is-more approach really allows the film to come alive. It may botch it in the final moments with an unlikely and frankly unsatisfying climax, but it is something you will ultimately forgive because the other seventy-five minutes are just so cool. Come for the nonstop action and stay for the seriously awesome performances from Carradine and Stallone.
Death Race 2000 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.