Willy McBean and his Magic Machine (1965)

WILLY MCBEAN AND HIS MAGIC MACHINE (1965)
(a.k.a. WILLIE MCBEAN AND HIS MAGIC MACHINE)
Article #1671 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-11-2005
Posting Date: 3-10-2006
Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr.
Featuring the voices of Larry D. Mann, Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles

When a mad professor goes back in time to make himself famous, his talking monkey escapes and enlists the aid of a young boy to help defeat the professor’s evil scheme.

When it comes to children’s movies, I have a strong preference for those with a sense of absurd silliness, and this puppet-animated movie has that. This is no real surprise, with the director being Arthur Rankin Jr., who was one of the people responsible for those perennial TV holiday classics such as RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER and SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN. The movie takes the viewer into several historical scenarios; we end up at Little Big Horn, the town of Tombstone, a Roman coliseum, Egypt at the time of the building of the pyramids, King Arthur’s court, and finally into prehistory for the invention of fire. The movie is consistently amusing, the characters fun and likable (even the villain), and this makes up for the fact that the songs are pretty ordinary. I do find myself wondering why the villain Professor von Rotten would choose as his first mission to become the greatest gunfighter in history; it would seem to me that if this attempt at fame went horribly wrong, it would undermine the chances for any further attempts, but then, I’m not a mad professor.

But I’m working on it.

Whirlpool (1949)

WHIRLPOOL (1949)
Article #1667 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-7-2005
Posting Date: 3-6-2006
Directed by Otto Preminger
Featuring Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, Jose Ferrer

When the wife of a noted psychoanalyst is caught shoplifting, she is saved from scandal by the intervention of a man who uses hypnotism to help his patients. Afraid of telling her husband of her problems with kleptomania, she turns to the hypnotist for help with her problem, only to discover that his intentions are suspect.

This is more film noir than horror, but the presence of hypnotism as a plot element pushes the movie into marginal horror, and the role that hypnotism plays in the proceedings is very prominent. The story itself is very interesting; it is based on a novel by Guy Endore (who has a wealth of horror credits to him), and the screenplay is written by the great Ben Hecht. The first half of the movie is a little slow, but it remains interesting and sets up the events in the second half of the movie. Perhaps the most intriguing element in the movie is the puzzle that pops up at this time; the woman finds herself arrested for murder, and the most likely other suspect has an alibi; he is in the hospital recovering from a gall bladder operation. How could he have committed the murder under these conditions? The answer to that question is a real humdinger; in fact, it’s near unbelievable, and it’s a tribute to the direction of Otto Preminger and the superb performance from Jose Ferrer that the movie pulls it off. The movie is solid and worthwhile, and I recommend it in particular to anyone interested in the various ways that hypnotism is portrayed in the movies.

Watched! (1974)

WATCHED! (1974)
Article #1652 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-22-2005
Posting Date: 2-19-2006
Directed by John Parsons
Featuring Stacy Keach, Harris Yulin, Turid Aarstad

When a district attorney becomes disenchanted with the methods used by law enforcement officers to catch drug users, he turns to the other side and begins defending the ones he used to prosecute. He then finds himself being set up by his former partner.

If the above plot description fails to reveal the fantastic content of this movie, it’s because the fantastic content is fairly marginal. Nonetheless, it is present, and it’s rather strange. The John Stanley book lists the surreal cocaine sequences as the fantastic element, and though these sequences are certainly odd, I find them not quite bizarre enough to push it into the realm of the fantastic. But there are other elements as well; for one thing, at least part of the movie takes place a full decade after it was made, and even though the only reason it does this is to give the movie a point from which it can flash back to scenes that take place in the present, it still nudges the movie into the realm of science fiction. Furthermore, the movie touches on the theme of madness at various points, which gives a touch of horror to the proceedings as well. Still, the fantastic elements remain marginal, and the movie is largely a crime drama.

However, it is a very weird crime drama, and it just gets weirder as it goes along. Historically, it’s interesting to consider in light of the fact that Stacy Keach did serve time in England for smuggling cocaine. On its own terms, it’s a bit of a mess, it’s hard to follow, and it gets rather dull at times. Still, it has a strong and very bizarre ending that makes me want to give the movie another watch some time. And it gives a very interesting glimpse of the drug culture of Haight-Ashbury long after the trendiness of the area during the sixties had dissipated. It’s probably of most interest to those who find the subject matter fascinating, and it is well-acted throughout. Chalk it up as another curio.

War Between the Planets (1966)

WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS (1966)
(a.k.a. PLANET ON THE PROWL / IL PIANETA ERRANTE)
Article #1651 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-21-2005
Posting Date: 2-18-2006
Directed by Antonio Margheriti
Featuring Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Ombretta Colli, Enzo Fiermonte

Members of a space station investigate a wandering planet that is threatening the Earth.

There’s a part of me that really wants to like some of these Italian space operas from the sixties, because there’s something rather charming about their attempts to tell rather complicated genre stories while lacking the financial wherewithal to pull them off. Unfortunately, the movie fights me every step of the way. For one thing, the dubbing is horrible, not so much in the manner of syncing the words up with the lips, but rather due to the poor acting abilities of those supplying the voices and the sometimes ludicrous translation of the dialogue (“Prepare for weight gain!” should obviously mean something else than a move to imbibe in a heavy dinner.) It’s also hampered by an overdose of science-fictionese (you know, all that techy dialogue that you can’t understand but sounds suitably scientific) and crippled by some phenomenally bad storytelling; with so much of the dialogue sounding like gobbledygook and poor exposition making scenes follow each other in seemingly random fashion, I become frustrated in my attempts to follow the story and end up finally throwing in the towel, watching the rest of the movie with a kind of sullen petulance. The only parts I can follow easily enough are the character interactions, and when these involve such cliches as the love triangle and the second-in-command who is in constant conflict with the commander until he sacrifices himself to save the others, you wonder why you bother. And the soundtrack (which jettisons any attempt to underline the emotional tenor of the scenes in lieu of reminding you that you’re watching science fiction) is no help. Maybe I’ll be able to follow this thing the fourth or fifth time around, but since I suspect the story could have been told clearly in one shot, I think it’s unfair to ask that of me. This one will probably most satisfy those who just get off on all the science fiction paraphernalia.

Womaneater (1957)

WOMANEATER (1957)
Article #1631 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-1-2005
Posting Date: 1-29-2006
Directed by Charles Saunders
Featuring George Coulouris, Vera Day, Peter Wayn

A scientist experiments with a plant that produces a serum that can revive life. Unfortunately, the plant only produces the serum if it is fed a steady supply of nubile young women.

This movie was made in England, land of Shakespeare and Quatermass. It features a truly provocative title. The main character is played by an actor who made a memorable appearance in CITIZEN KANE. And it features a killer plant. Now, with all of these elements, you’d think this movie would have something going for it, wouldn’t you?

Well, truth be told, the most interesting thing about this movie is Vera Day. In particular, the most interesting thing about this movie is Vera Day’s Mamie Van Dorenesque figure. It’s not only the most physically interesting thing in the movie, it’s also the most intellectually interesting thing in it, and that’s not a good sign. The script itself feels like an outline of a science fiction / horror movie; it has about fifteen minutes worth of plot, and the rest of the time seems padded out with shots of people looking at things. It isn’t even much fun on a campy level. Plotwise, it reminded me alternately of KONGA and THE LEECH WOMAN, neither of which I care much for and both of which are much better than this one. Director Saunders and actor Coulouris had previously joined forces with MAN WITHOUT A BODY, another awful movie which at least has a certain amount of unintentional humor going for it.

The Witchmaker (1969)

THE WITCHMAKER (1969)
Article #1630 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-31-2005
Posting Date: 1-28-2006
Directed by Anthony Eisley, Thordis Brandt, Alvy Moore

Psychic investigators go into the bayou where several murders have been committed. They find themselves in peril from a coven of witches headed by a man called Luther the Berserk.

This one is definitely a mixed bag. At its worst, it is muddled and tedious, and whenever it tries to play up the exploitation elements it just gets silly. At its best, however, it is moody, suspenseful and surprisingly soulful; in particular, some of the speeches given to Alvy Moore’s character are rather touching, in particular one in which he talks about how certain students stand out in his memory. Moore, who also served as an associate producer for this movie, also gives a strong performance; his presence is unusual for a horror movie, and this gives the movie some of its offbeat feel. The movie gets better as it goes along and builds up to a strong ending. All in all, I found the positive qualities of this one to outweigh its weaknesses. Incidentally, Moore and Executive Producer L. Q. Jones would join forces several years later to bring make A BOY AND HIS DOG, one of the few adaptations of a Harlan Ellison story to make it to the big screen.

The Wild World of Batwoman (1966)

THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966)
Article #1629 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-30-2005
Posting Date: 1-27-2006
Directed by Jerry Warren
Featuring Katherine Victor, George Mitchell, Steve Brodie

Batwoman tries to prevent the evil Rat Fink from stealing an atomic-powered hearing aid.

Given the comments I’ve made heretofore about Jerry Warren’s directorial style, one would think that the man’s work was of a piece, with no marked difference to distinguish one of his movies from another. That’s not strictly true; Jerry Warren did on occasion learn from his mistakes, and not all of his movies are snoozefests. That isn’t to say that his work evolved (which implies a step up, a deceptive statement if ever there was one); nor did it devolve (which implies a step down, which was impossible). Rather, let’s say it mutated, and not into something pretty.

Let’s take this movie. It manages to accomplish something that none of his other movies to date (with the possible exception of MAN BEAST) have achieved —it maintains a rudimentary interest level throughout; in short, it doesn’t put you right to sleep. But how did he accomplish this? I’m guessing that he realized that the only original footage he shot for ATTACK OF THE MAYAN MUMMY (in opposition to the footage he took from THE AZTEC MUMMY) that held any sort of interest level was the scene in the malt shop, where the distracting sight of a girl’s wiggling derriere provided the only reason not to nod off during a tedious dialogue sequence. What did he learn from this? He learned that if you want to keep people awake, throw in distracting action during the dialogue sequences. As a result, every time this movie hits an expositional scene or one where important information is imparted, he throws in background distractions such as mugging comic relief characters, wiggling derrieres (of course) and horseshoe tugs-of-war (huh?). Yes, it manages to hold your interest, but just try to keep track of the story. Granted, the story is such a mess that trying to follow it was probably a lost cause anyway, and the fact that this was Warren’s attempt to make a really sixties movie (designed to recall, among other thing, spy movies, horror movies, beach party movies and TV’s “Batman”) that is fun-filled and campy only magnifies the confusion. As a result, Warren does manage to avoid a snoozefest here, but at a price; instead of a refreshing sleep, you’ll have migraines.

So what was Jerry Warren’s reward for this undertaking? A lawsuit for his use of the Batwoman name. This, with the exception of an early eighties movie called FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, brought Warren’s directorial career to an end.