Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In praise of trash

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In praise of trash-attachment0

There’s a common perception that my tastes in film are strictly of the “elitist” variety. I believe I have even been tagged as “artsy lefty” in some quarters (well, “righty” artsy types just aren’t a dime a dozen). I can’t exactly deny either accusation, since what this mostly comes down to is that I’m more likely to find a new Pedro Almodovar film of greater interest than whatever latest 100 percent all-action, all-effects-driven, all-exploding effort Michael Bay has cooked up. That’s an accurate picture, but it’s hardly the complete one.

I have always contended that no one who truly loves movies doesn’t also love at least a certain quantity of trash. No, I don’t mean “respectable” trash like those Douglas Sirk melodramas from the 1950s that have been made respectable by folks claiming that they’re richly rewarding satires of the soap-opera genre. (I have my own opinion, but that’s another matter.) I’m talking about bottom-of-the-barrel, unregenerate, unlegitimized and irredeemable trash.

And it can’t be deliberate trash. We’re after the kind of thing that just happens naturally — or maybe unnaturally. Many of my personal favorites in this realm are hard to imagine even being made. It’s easier to accept the idea that they simply appeared like a genie from a bottle.

Unfortunately, we don’t get much of this kind of trash these days. Oh, Dr. Uwe Boll can be counted on to deliver the goods when it comes to laughable incoherence, but when he makes something like In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale any vestige of wayward appeal gets lost in the two-plus-hour running time. Then again, it’s no longer quite so much fun when the trash cost enough to feed a small country for five years. The sheer wastefulness starts to outweigh the amusement value.

The kind of rubbish movie I have in mind pretty much died out with the double feature and the drive-in. When that once-voracious market dried up, there simply wasn’t the same impetus behind knocking out such loopy nonsense as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula and its companion feature Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Pause for a moment and just consider the very existence of those titles. Imagine them being booked by any theater chain today. Uh huh. They make things like Deuce Bigalow: Eurpoean Gigolo sound positively reasonable, don’t they?

I actually saw that misbegotten double-bill when it first appeared back in 1966. I’d have been 11 at the time, and not only was I not impressed, the rest of the similarly aged audience wasn’t either. You know a movie has achieved a level of monumental incompetence when a crowd of pre-teens are pointing at the screen and laughing at the sight of a crew member standing in plain sight of the camera through the windows on a stagecoach. What none of us knew at the time was that this was an historical moment. We were witnessing the last theatrical features of William Beaudine — a man with a filmography that encompassed somewhere between 350 and 500 films dating back to 1915. Is it any wonder that his nickname was “One Shot” Beaudine?

Truth to tell, Beaudine had once been a relatively respectable filmmaker, turning out actual good movies like Mary Pickford’s Sparrows (1926) and W.C. Fields’ The Old-Fashioned Way (1934). Admirers of bad cinema, however, know Beaudine primarily for the junk movies he turned out in the 1940s and 1950s. Whether we’re talking about flat-out exploitation like the infamous Kroger Babb “sex-hygiene” film Mom and Dad (1945) or the last gasp Charlie Chan movies or the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys programmers or — best of all — his Bela Lugosi horror pictures, Beaudine was, is and always will be the bee’s knees of lovably craptastic movies. He’s the patron saint of junk at its most incredibly jaw-dropping.

My most treasured outbursts of Beaudinana are his Lugosi pictures. He made three of the horror icon’s notorious “Monogram Nine” and reteamed with Lugosi in 1952 for Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. (I don’t know about you, but I just feel better living in a world where a movie with that title could exist.) OK, so one of his Lugosi Monogrammers, Ghosts on the Loose (1943), is negligible, but The Ape Man (1943) and especially Voodoo Man (1944) are choicest trash.

For the unitiated, the “Monogram Nine” are a series of nine downright peculiar cheap horror pictures made by Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions for B movie studio Monogram Pictures between 1941 and 1944. Now, if you don’t know Monogram Pictures Corp. or think a long defunct studio that specialized in cheap bottom-of-the-bill fodder is beneath your consideration, remember this: Jean-Luc Godard dedicted his New Wave classic Breathless (1960) to the studio. (Can MGM or Paramount make that claim? No.) I somehow doubt that Godard had the Katzman product in mind when he made that gesture, but no matter.

Katzman’s Banner Productions were more or less Monogram’s B unit (roll that concept around for a minute). They tended to be shot in about a week, cost almost nothing to produce and turned a modest profit. Katzman himself was shamelessly contemptuous about the whole thing, even going on record that he felt certain that the people who went to these movies were mentally ill. Considering the fact that not two weeks ago I bailed on an auction for a half-sheet poster from Voodoo Man only after the bidding topped $400, I’m probably not the best person to take issue with old Sam’s point of view. (I doubt it will help my case when I admit that I’ve been looking for this particular poster for years.)

Since Beaudine was constantly working at Monogram at the time — he knocked out seven films for them in 1943 and nine in 1944 — it was inevitable that he and Lugosi would meet. The results were rare indeed.

The Ape Man is the best known — and not without reason. It’s one of the few instances where Lugosi submitted to a monster make-up — albeit a truly crummy one. Its slapdash nature is apparent in the very fact that it was obviously written for another actor (Boris Karloff?) since the Hungarian Lugosi seems an improbable candidate for the name James Brewster. I guess changing the name was considered an unnecessary extravagance — and anyway he was slated to have a sister played by California-born Minerva Urecal, so why bother? In light of the plot — which found Lugosi having somehow turned himself into the titular semi-simian (what possible research can have led to this?) who sleeps in a cage with a “real” ape (Emil Van Horn in a suitably cheesy gorilla suit) and goes on a murder spree to obtain human spinal fluid as a cure for his plight (“It’s de only vay to counteract de ape fluid injections”) — the name was the least of their worries. I freely admit I love this movie.

Ah, but then there’s Voodoo Man — and Voodoo Man is simply in a class by itself. By Monogram standards, this is an all-star effort. You not only get Lugosi, but John Carradine (who often referred to this as the worst film he ever made — this from the star of Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula) and George Zucco. Just what Zucco — who was in the middle of his own low-budget thrillers over at PRC Pictures (a notch below Monogram) — was doing in this is unclear, but since the movie was shot in seven days, his home studio perhaps didn’t notice.

Better yet, here’s a film that seems to cheerfully admit that it’s ridiculous. The hero of the piece (Michael Ames) is a screenwriter for Banner Pictures who receives an assignment from his boss — called “S.K.” (unfortunately, not played by Katzman, but by silent-movie director-turned-bit-player John Ince) — to turn a news item about missing girls into “a kind of horror picture.” Said writer plans on tackling this when he gets back from his honeymoon — only he gets wrapped up in the actual events on the way to his wedding. It gets better.

The missing girls are the work of Dr. Richard Marlowe (another unlikely Lugosi screen name), who — with a pair of quarter-wit henchmen (Carradine and Pat McKee), a voodoo priest/gas station owner (Zucco), a closed-circuit TV set-up, a detour sign and some portable shrubbery — snatches solo lady motorists. Why? The idea, you see, is that Mrs. Marlowe (Ellen Hall) has been dead for 22 years (nevermind the fact that she wanders around the house because “she’d dead only in de sense dat you understand dat word”) and Dr. Marlowe is hell-bent of bringing her back to life with the help of Ramboona (Google it).

Ramboona appears to be the special province of Zucco when he isn’t tending the gas station. On the evidence of the film, he’s the high priest of this interesting voodoo cult — and has bamboozled (or ramboozled) Marlowe into the whole thing. This involves dressing up in a snazzy robe, slapping on some war-paint, donning a hat that must have left at least two chickens bald and shivering, and performing a gibberish ceremony that sounds like a tobacco auctioneer suffering from dyspepsia. The kidnapped girls? Oh, the pitch is to transfer their life force into Mrs. Marlowe’s semi-comatose corpse.

It sounds simple enough, I know, but there’s a catch — it never works. However, like some flashy-dressing faith-healer, Zucco’s got the explanation handy. The subjects are “not the right girl” and lack “the perfect affinity.” This must be so, because Zucco is always ready to remind us that “Ramboona never fails.” That there’s precious little evidence to the contrary hardly matters. The alternative, of course, is a life of checking the oil and cleaning windshields, so his enthusiasm is understandable. Less easy to grasp is Lugosi’s credulity. Has this been going on for 22 years? How much banana oil can even the most doting husband swallow? Well, 62 minutes worth of screwy screen-time at the very least.

If this sounds demented, silly, preposterous and just plain rubbishy, that’s because it is. But take it from this elitist movie snob, there are times in this life when nothing but Voodoo Man will do. Why? Well, isn’t it obvious? Because “Ramboona never fails” — and neither does trashmaster William Beaudine.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

25 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In praise of trash

  1. Ken Miller

    Ken, I know what you mean.

    Because I have strong preferences for certain types of movies and the work of certain actors, directors, etc., I am often called a movie snob. Say I state a preference for Miller’s Crossing over, say, Project X. Or, for example, I liked Secrets and Lies far more than I liked Legally Blonde. I state my preference, and I get called an elitist.

    How can this be? Me, a snob?

    For example, I really get a kick out of the movies made by (and/or starring) Fred Williamson. I have a large collection of Fred Williamson films. Black Caesar? Take a Hard Ride? Cotton Comes to Harlem? Delta Force Commando? Black Cobra I, II, and III? Anybody? Does anyone else appreciate the greatness of “The Hammer”?

    I haven’t seen all of Fred’s movies. Has anyone seen G.I. Bro?

  2. Dionysis

    Okay Ken (hey, that was the name of an album by Chicken Shack, way back when), I’ll see your VOODOO MAN and raise you one TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE, MESA OF LOST WOMEN and MISSILE TO THE MOON.

  3. Ken Hanke

    “I state my preference, and I get called an elitist.How can this be? Me, a snob?”

    We’re in the same boat here — well, more or less. Our particular leanings are a little different, but the concept is the same. What kind of elitist has shelves full of Lugosi Monogrammers, Zucco PRC’s or Fred Williamson movies? I do note that you have a Larry Cohen picture — BLACK CAESAR — on your roll of honor. Now, Cohen is one of the unsung heroes of exploitation so far as I’m concerned. Why such titles as THE STUFF, Q THE WINGED SERPENT, THE AMBULANCE and even WICKED STEPMOTHER aren’t better known is beyond me.

    Now, I’ve been preaching the gospel of the Monogram Nine for 20 years. (In fact, I’m pretty sure I started the business of calling them “The Monogram Nine” in a FILMFAX article back in the 80s.) For the interested, seven of the nine are readily available on DVD in copies of variable quality. Those seven — INVISIBLE GHOST, SPOOKS RUN WILD, BLACK DRAGONS, THE CORPSE VANISHES, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, THE APE MAN and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE — are in the public domain, meaning that anyone who has a copy can legally make copies and sell them. The last two, VOODOO MAN and RETURN OF THE APE MAN (which, by the way, is not a sequel to THE APE MAN) are somehow under copyright in a package of about 400 movies which keeps getting bartered around by various studios as collateral. No one seems inclined to actually do anything with them, though “grey market” copies are not hard to find.

  4. Ken Hanke

    “I’ll see your VOODOO MAN and raise you one TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE, MESA OF LOST WOMEN and MISSILE TO THE MOON.”

    I’ll see that and raise you a DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL. As Andrew Sarris once noted, you have to love a movie called DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL that spends half its running time establishing the fact that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll.

  5. Dionysis

    “I’ll see that and raise you a DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL.”

    Oh, a high roller, eh? OK, I’ll see your DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL and raise you one EEGAH! Care to fold?

  6. Chip Kaufmann

    Speaking of unsung low budget trashmeisters, let’s not forget Lew Landers and Edward L. Cahn. Lugosi did well by Landers (THE RAVEN, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE), Erich von Stroheim did not (THE MASK OF DIIJON of which EVS supposedly said ” it belongs in de John”).
    Edward L. Cahn or “Fast Eddie” as he was known in the trade (because he could shoot a movie in 2 weeks or less) gave us two movies (IT, THE TERROR BEYOND SPACE and INVISIBLE INVADERS) which would inspire two big name classics (ALIEN and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD).
    Then there’s Fred F. Sears (THE GIANT CLAW), Sam Newfield (DEAD MEN WALK)… the list goes on and on.

  7. I had a customer tell us that we had the best and worst films in town. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever got.

    For bad movie and MST3K fans, the original group behind MST are back with Cinematic Titanic with their first film being Al Adamson’s The Oozing Skull. Great stuff!

  8. Ken Hanke

    I personally dislike MST3K with a passion. To me it’s like “Bad Movies for People Who Are Too Lame to Make Up Their Own Wisecracks.”

  9. Ken Hanke

    As for this:

    “I had a customer tell us that we had the best and worst films in town. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever got.”

    This probably is the ultimate compliment. You are the antithesis of the slick corporate store depicted in BE KIND REWIND where Danny Glover is noting, “Lots of copies of a few movies…no knowledge of product is necessary…”

  10. Ken Hanke

    “Speaking of unsung low budget trashmeisters, let’s not forget Lew Landers and Edward L. Cahn. Lugosi did well by Landers (THE RAVEN, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE), Erich von Stroheim did not (THE MASK OF DIIJON of which EVS supposedly said “ it belongs in de John”).”

    I’ve never really warmed to Landers’ Lugosi films, though THE RAVEN has its pleasures. I just don’t suspect they have much to do with Landers. I’ve tried for years to like RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE and I just don’t much. It’s too preachy somehow, the talking werewolf sounds like Amos ‘n’ Andy and that score (I know a lot of people like it) is unbearable. DIJON’s nothing special, but I have a nice half-sheet from it.

    “Edward L. Cahn or “Fast Eddie” as he was known in the trade (because he could shoot a movie in 2 weeks or less) gave us two movies (IT, THE TERROR BEYOND SPACE and INVISIBLE INVADERS) which would inspire two big name classics (ALIEN and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD).”

    Ever see Cahn’s LAW AND ORDER (1932)? It’s as hard to believe that the fellow who made it would go on to make THE CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN as it is to realize that the same Edgar G. Ulmer who made THE BLACK CAT (1932) made THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN (1959). At the same time, I’ve got a soft spot for Cahn’s ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957), which, of course, takes up back to legendary producer Sam Katzman!

    As for Sam Newield (under whatever name), his Zucco films — THE MAD MONSTER, DEAD MEN WALK, THE BLACK RAVEN (my personal favorite) and THE FLYING SERPENT — are tasty trash. The less said about WHITE PONGO, on the other hand, the better. And of course, there’s THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN.

    And there’s Christy Cabanne, who actually turned out a few pretty decent movies like ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT, THE WESTLAND CASE and THE MUMMY’S HAND — along with the infamous SCARED TO DEATH.

    We might add William Nigh and Phil Rosen, and what of the unsung master of poverty row horror of the 1930s, Frank Strayer who gave us THE MONSTER WALKS, THE VAMPIRE BAT, THE GHOST WALKS and the truly odd CONDEMNED TO LIVE.

  11. Chip Kaufmann

    Don’t forget Frank Wisbar who gave us SECRETS OF A SORORITY GIRL (1945), DEVIL BAT’S DAUGHTER (1946), and STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (1946-a personal favorite).

    I have never much cared for Landers’ films with the exception of THE ENCHANTED FOREST (1945-I liked the way the hermit talked to the animals and it’s in CineColor!).

    I prefer Robert Florey out of that time period with MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932-another personal favorite despite it’s butchering by Universal) and THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1941) with Peter Lorre which made me cry as a child. He would go on to direct episodes of TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS, and my favorite THRILLER episode, THE INCREDIBLE DOKTOR MARKESAN.

    As for Frank Strayer, I don’t know the last two films but THE VAMPIRE BAT is a true classic. Nothing with Lionel Atwill is ever a total loss.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Wisbar’s STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP has the advantage of actually being at least almost a good movie — despite the fact that it has a heroine with shoulders like a lineback, not to mention the thespic ability of Blake Edwards.

    Florey did some nice things — including MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK. THE HOLE IN THE WALL (1929), THE FLORENTINE DAGGER (1935) and THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY (1935). He’s probably to be taken a little more seriously than Phil Rosen or Christy Cabanne. Still, I’m glad he didn’t make FRANKENSTEIN! Apart from maybe restructuring MURDERS (I’ve never seen that as anything more than a rumor), what did Universal do to the film?

    “THE VAMPIRE BAT is a true classic. Nothing with Lionel Atwill is ever a total loss.”

    True enough, and with the addition of the set from THE OLD DARK HOUSE, Universal’s European village set, Melvyn Douglas, Fay Wray, Dwight Frye and even Maude Eburne, THE VAMPIRE BAT is less of a loss than most.

    On other fronts, we should issue a Trash Alert for all night owls, insomniacs and the dedicated followers of rubbish — TCM is running THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (1967) and the inescapable Ed Wood’s inescapable PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) at 2 a.m.

  13. Chip Kaufmann

    “what did Universal do to the film?”.
    According to a book I read some years back (I think it was UNIVERSAL HORRORS), Florey wanted the film to be an American version of CALIGARI. His original version ran around 72 minutes. Junior Laemmle and the Brass at Universal found it too slow and too “artsy” so they cut it, rearranged scenes, added comic relief mostly written by John Huston, and put in the close-ups of a live ape which look ridiculous. Arlene Francis’ torture scene was also trimmed but that may have happened when the film was reissued. That version (the one we have today) runs 61 minutes and was disowned by Florey.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Funny thing is what Florey did get pretty much still is CALIGARI — right down to the old tag line “You must become Caligari” as hero Leon Waycoff (Ames) comes to more and more resemble Lugosi as the movie progresses. If the source was UNIVERSAL HORRORS, it’s perhaps worth noting that the author of that chapter has elsewhere go on record as hating the film. I don’t much mind the comic relief in the movie — actually, the most often cited bit (the argument about what language the ape was speaking) is one of the few things that comes from the Poe story. I do object to the ape inserts. They’re not only ridiculous, but totally inessential, because Charlie Gemorra’s ape suit is pretty darn good.

  15. brebro

    Huh?

    Movies = Oscar
    Cranky = Grouch

    I thought everyone knew that the Oscar Grouch loved trash!

    He even had a song about it on Sesame Street!

  16. Vince Lugo

    My perspective on this is that, on the one hand, I have an appreciation for genuine trash. HOUSE OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE are all terrible movies, yet I love them. On the other hand, I tend to seriously enjoy films that others loathe with a passion. The most prominent example is Ang Lee’s HULK. I’ve been defending that film for years, but I think I’m fighting a losing battle. I guess it’s true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Well, I have to admit that I actually like HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and don’t think it’s terrible. I don’t think it’s good, mind you, but I find it strangely fascinating and confess to having seen it far more than many demonstrably better movies.

    But then again, I more or less defended Ang Lee’s HULK, too –

    http://www.mountainx.com/movies/review/hulk.php

  18. Sean Williams

    On the other hand, I tend to seriously enjoy films that others loathe with a passion.
    Mind you, I actually adored the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.

    By the way, why has no-one mentioned KISS and the Phantom of the Park yet?

  19. Ken Hanke

    Well, I liked the second one, but the others…well… But then I am far from that keen on the whole Star Wars experience.

    KISS and the Phantom of the Park? Ye gods, I haven’t seen that since it was originally broadcast in — what? — 1977 or 78? Other than it being bad and having (I think) Anthony Zerbe in it, it’s a hazy memory at this point — one I’m quite content to leave that way.

  20. Sean Williams

    But then I am far from that keen on the whole Star Wars experience.
    ‘S fine. Nobody’s perfect.

    1977 or 78?
    ’78, as I recall.

    Anthony Zerbe
    Yes, he plays the animatronic technician who creates evil KISS simulacra.

    …Wait. I think my brain-sell count just plummeted after I typed those words.

    Anyways, that…thing…is just as legendary as Plan Nine from Outer Space among bad movie aficionados.

    The humor website Rinkworks maintains an extensive list of bad-good movies here:
    http://www.rinkworks.com/badmovie/

  21. Ken Hanke

    Anyways, that…thing…is just as legendary as Plan Nine from Outer Space among bad movie aficionados.

    But then it was an American made-for-TV movie starring a gimmick-driven rock band that was (at the time anyway) widely perceived as being aimed at 14 year olds. It’s not like anyone was expecting it to be otherwise. Then again, I’m not sure anybody was expecting Plan Nine at all.

  22. Sean Williams

    Somebody just uploaded an original, unedited copy of Manos: The Hands of Fate to YouTube. It’s a rare treat and definitely worth a lookasee. Personally, I can’t stand Mystery Science Theater 3000, but in any case, Manos is far funnier without a gag commentary.

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