Thursday, July 30, 2015


Not all movies  are classics.  But we love them all, even the odd ones.  Below are five of the oddest to ever grace the silver screen... 

Reefer Madness (1936)

Louis J. Gasnier directed over 100 movies, but none have had the staying power of Reefer Madness.  Since it was reintroduced to audiences at midnight showings during in the 1960s, this film about the dangers of marijuana has continuously amazed viewers with its unintended hilarity.  With a cast that includes Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, and Lillian Miles, this bizarre little gem defines the expression “so bad it’s good.”  

The movie was allegedly produced and written by a church group, inspired by a real life case where a Florida man under the influence of marijuana killed his family with an axe.  Though the man was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, the case helped to outlaw the "demon weed". 

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

The Terror of Tiny Town is about little bitty people with great big guns.  When the villainous Bat Haines  begins wreaking havoc on Tiny Town, it’s up to the townspeople to band together and drive him away.  The inexhaustible Sam Newfield directed this  oddity,  casting it entirely with little people.  Newfield was one of the most prolific filmmakers in Hollywood history, with over 200 movies to his credit, most of which were made with shoestring budgets. The genesis of this project came from the mind of  Jed Buell, a colorful character who had been in the business since the silent era, working as a publicity agent for Mack Sennett. One day Buell overheard an employee  complaining about the cost of  producing movies.  “If things didn’t get better,”  he said, “they’d have to start using smaller actors to save money.”  Buell loved the idea, and The Terror of Tiny Town was born.  Oh, did we tell you it's a musical? 

A few of the little people in the movie would appear a year later as munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.  You might also recognize the star of our film, Billy Curtis, for his role as Clint Eastwood’s assistant in High Plains Drifter. 

Nabonga (1944)

Buster Crabbe and Julie London headline Sam Newfield’s Nabonga, an exciting jungle drama from the Producers Releasing Corporation.  Crabbe had already established himself by playing Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. Here he plays  ‘Ray Gorman’, a treasure hunter searching for a downed airplane in the wilds of Africa.  He finds the plane, but  he also finds the young daughter of a deceased passenger.  Now she’s fully grown,  and she’s protected by a  giant gorilla! 

Samson the Gorilla was played by actor/stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan.  Chances are, if you see an old movie with a gorilla in it, it’s usually Corrigan in a gorilla suit. Before he developed his talent for playing gorillas, Corrigan appeared in several low budget westerns for Republic Pictures, where he played a character named ‘Tucson Smith’.   In one of these he actually played both Tucson Smith AND a gorilla. Incidentally, Corrigan’s real name was  Raymond Benitz.  In one of his early  movies,  he played a character named ‘Crash Corrigan’.  He liked the name so much that he kept it. 

Bill and Coo  (1948)

See what happens when birds of a feather FIGHT together!  This movie, acted out entirely by birds,  was the brainchild of Dean Riesner, a prolific screenwriter who had been a child actor in the 1920s known as “Dinky Dean”.  At one time Dinky Dean seemed destined for big things, but by the time of this movie,  Riesner was scuffling for work. In his first and only time in the director’s chair, Riesner gives us the story of Chirpendale, a little town populated by birds. Into this peaceful setting comes a menacing black crow.  Then, like something out of an old western, the birds band together to save their town. You have to see it to believe it. This peculiar feature won an Honorary Oscar in 1948 for its careful blending of “artistry and patience…”

Director and writer Dean Riesner went on to have a  successful career writing for movies and television. His biggest claim to fame was writing the screenplay for  several Clint Eastwood movies, including “Dirty Harry”.  That’s right, the man who gave us Bill and Coo also gave us the phrase, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”     


Mesa of Lost Women (1953)

Spider-women lure men to their death in this thriller from the golden era of Drive-in schlock! This story of a mad scientist (Jackie Coogan) working to create a master race in Mexico is regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Part of the problem is that it was originally made by writer/director Herbet Tevos, who ran out of money before he could finish the project. It was picked up a year later by director/producer Ron Ormond (King of the Bullwhip, Girl from Tobacco Row) who added the spider/mad scientist angle. The final product also included the presence of two Ed Wood favorites, Dolores Fuller, and Lyle Talbot.  

The crazy guitar and piano score by Hoyt Curtain was purloined by Ed Wood Jr. for his 1954 movie, Jail Bait. In a way, Mesa of Lost Women is a sort of cousin to the films of Ed Wood, though it can stand on its own for being perfectly awful... 

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All of these movies are available through, where vintage movies are restored, remastered, and reborn. Follow us on Twitter @FilmDetective

Or follow me at @DonStradley


Thursday, July 16, 2015


THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH!   So says James Ellroy more than once in LAPD ’53, a slim new volume of crime scene photographs from the L.A. Police Museum, with Ellroy providing some tasty narrative spice.

It seems like a dream match – the self-proclaimed demon dog of American crime fiction, paired up with scenes from America’s greatest crime town from a year that featured, among other incidents, the murder of Mabel Monohan  by Barbara Graham and two accomplices, a heinous wrongdoing which inspired the film I Want to Live!, where Susan Hayward won an Oscar.   Of course, Hollywood turned the story of “Bloody Babs” into a typical anti-death penalty weeper, with Hayward playing Graham as an innocent.  “Fuck that shit!!!,” writes Ellroy. “Barbara Graham was a stone junkie and a stone killer!!!! She deserved to fry!!!!!” 

You get the idea. It’s that sort of book, with Ellroy strutting his stuff and not looking back.

The LA police haven’t had a friend like Ellroy since the glory days of Jack Webb and Dragnet. He’s quite open about his love for the LA cops, and admits that he prefers the company of cops to writers.  I might agree with him, for most of the writers I’ve met have lacked a certain something.  Then again, most of the cops I’ve met have lacked a certain something, too.  So LAPD ’53 allows Ellroy to wallow in his cop fetish, and  this is especially interesting since in 1953 the LA cops were tall, square-jawed fellows who could’ve pulled weekend duty as Jack Kennedy’s bodyguards.  One particular photo called “The Eagle” focuses on a big blond cop poised on his idling motorcycle, looking out over the new LA Freeway.  In his bomber jacket and boots he could be a Gestapo enforcer overlooking a vulnerable Jewish village,  but he’s a mere LA copper, “an ardent proponent of the stern rule of law.”

Not surprisingly, Ellroy is at his best when the pic gives him something specific to dig into, such as the one where a fellow has hanged himself, but not before squeezing into a woman’s one piece bathing suit,  a white bathing cap, and kinky white boots. “Sexual identity horrifically asserted in death,” Ellroy notes. “The suicide tableau for All-Fucking-Time. It’s artful. It’s ingenious. It bespeaks an unutterable horror. The man could not take it one second longer. The man spent a full week composing his own death.”  The grim suicide, the throat cutting, the body stuffed under a car’s backseat, give Ellroy a target for his riffs.  But some of the crime scenes don’t give much on which Ellroy can reflect, so his mind begins to wander.  Ellroy’s idea of a reverie is when he imagines himself as a five-year-old junkie, be-bopping in some joint with Lenny Bruce.  These playful asides are distracting, and a bit jarring. And does Ellroy have to mention his father’s schlong in every piece of autobiography he writes?  Ellroy readers know what I’m talking about.  His old man’s tweaker appears in Ellroy’s work as often as Mickey Cohen and the Black Dahlia.

Unfortunately,  not all of the subjects in LAPD ’53 are as thought provoking as the dead dude in the bathing cap. A lot of them are rather drab shots of police officers pointing to bullet holes. These shots don’t give Ellroy much to work with, so he does a lot of vamping. And Theda Bara, he aint.   By page four, he has twice used the expression “a snootful of jungle juice”.  Were Ellroy’s friends at the LAPD Museum so thrilled to have bestselling author Ellroy working on their book that they let him do as he pleased, unedited and unencumbered?  The problem, or what seemed to be a problem for me, is that Ellroy’s hyperkinetic writing style has degenerated into “Ellroy shtick”.  He’s like an old Las Vegas stand-up comic who knows the audience has paid to hear the old stuff, so he gives it to ‘em, gives it to ‘em goooood.  It’s an easy day at the office. Jungle juice, indeed.

Strangely, aside from a couple of mildly bloody scenes, the pics feel polite and restrained.  This, according to Ellroy, was by design. “We’ve seen too many splatter shots with artful disarray,”  he writes, adding that the pics in LAPD ’53 “seek to rebuke crime scene chic.”  Yet, by leaving out the bloodier aspects of LA crime in that year, the book feels like a soft-pedal of old Los Angeles, censored for family viewing.  The truth is that violent scenes would’ve totally overshadowed Ellroy’s essays.  Who wants to read Ellroy rhapsodizing about his hero, good ol’ LAPD Chief “Whiskey Bill” Parker, when we could be looking at nasty crime pics, the kind with hair on the wall and bits of skull on the ceiling?  Who wants to be tasteful when we’re reading about LA’s killer scum? 

Still, there is at least one photo that burns into the memory banks, and I wouldn’t have noticed it except for my habit of removing the book jacket when I read a book. LAPD ’53 has a pic on the back inside cover of a young man with a flattop haircut.  He’s trying to affect a Robert Mitchum glare, like he’s never given a damn about anything and wouldn’t know how.  But look closely, and you’ll see that his left ear has been blown off.  It’s hanging from the side of his head like a hunk of cabbage.  It’s startling.  This is the image I want in a book like this, not heroic cops “poised to righteously interdict and suppress.”  Yet, it lurks hidden in the book’s rear car, unmentioned by the superstar author, a smirking  hint of the book that could’ve been.

- Don Stradley

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


I saw Public Image Ltd twice during the 1980s, both times at Boston’s Orpheum Theater. John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, was an iconic figure of the punk era, and was now trying to establish himself as a “post-punk” figure, a phrase he’d probably hate. He fascinated me in those days.  The first show was better, more jagged. The second time PiL hit Boston was to promote Album, which  contained the masterful 'Rise', but if I could go back in time and experience either show again, I’d pick the first. I was young, and the time was right. I loved the 'no-frills' glumness of the event, so different from most concerts. I also liked the lineup of Jah Wobble on bass and Keith Levene on guitar. You know how it is – first is best.

Apparently, according to Lydon’s massive new memoir Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, I’m wrong. Wobble was a rank amateur, writes Lydon, and Levene was just a temperamental junkie. “He was a cunt,” Lydon writes. “He played guitar good, but he was a cunt.” While such thunderbolts of judgment will be relished by a segment of Lydon’s fans, the book isn't just 500 pages of Lydon slagging his old mates. At times, particularly in the first section of the book, Lydon shines as a thoughtful and poignant memoirist.

Lydon's slummy childhood in the Holloway area of north London is like a Charles Dickens scenario shoved through a wood chipper, with sudden violence or illness lurking at every corner. Lydon was a bombsite kid, playing in the rusty remains of World War 2, spinning vinyl records at his parents’ house parties so the old folks could dance, sometimes with such gusto that their false teeth would fall out. He was a bright boy who loved to read, but a bout with spinal meningitis cost him his memory and his ability to speak at age seven.

“Meningitis came from the rats,” he recalls. “They were all over the place. They piss on the ground and, as rodents do, drag their bums leaving a urine trail. Meanwhile, I’d make paper boats and float them in the potholes in our backyard, so I’d touch the water, and then touch my mouth, and that’s how I got infected.” Nice and blunt, as we’d expect from the author of such songs as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘Bodies'.   

He recovered from meningitis, but painful spinal shots caused him to develop the bent posture that we know as the ‘Johnny Rotten stance’, hobbled over the microphone like Richard III. It took months for him to completely remember his parents, but life at the Lydons was never easy. He suspected “something very evil” had gone on there, with illegitimate children and hysterical grannies and lots of screaming and who knows what else. His early years were riddled with bad dreams and strange occurrences. Because he was the oldest of his siblings, he was often given very adult chores, such as dealing with his mum’s many miscarriages.

“It’s quite a thing to carry a bucket of miscarriage – and you can see little fingers and things in it – and have to flush it all down the outdoor toilet. There wasn’t a phone in the house, so I had to deal with all that first and then go to the doctor, which was a long walk.”

Somehow, this scrappy little boy grew to be a misfit teenager with bright green hair, and found his way into the strange world of Malcolm McLaren, a shifty megalomaniac who wanted to manage a rock band.  McLaren had guided The New York Dolls during the end of their career (he did them absolutely no good) and was trying to whip up a band of his own.  McLaren sensed a restlessness among London kids and wanted to cash in on it. At the very least, the band could serve as models to wear the latest bondage fashions dreamed up by McLaren and his paramour, Vivienne Westwood. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock had been rehearsing for months but had no singer. Lydon was asked to audition. Hey son, you want to be a Sex Pistol? Again, like a Dickens character, young Lydon was plucked from obscurity and thrown into a new life. The difference was that Lydon wasn't rescued by a friendly rich benefactor, but by an egomaniac. The guys wanted to be a loud pub band. Lydon, with a golden opportunity dumped in his lap, felt they could be more. And out gushed the classics – ‘God Save The Queen’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ ‘Submission’…

“I wasn’t just throwing bricks through shop windows as a voice of rebellion,” he writes in the book’s preface. “I was throwing words where they really mattered. Words count.” What McLaren hadn't anticipated was Lydon’s love of music and experimentation. Lydon was already a serious music listener, gulping down everything from Bowie to Hawkwind, to the German group Can. McLaren had simply wanted a charismatic little grunter; he got a politically minded music buff. And Lydon’s caterwauling voice made for a perfect call to arms. 

Hiring Lydon for The Sex Pistols was kismet of the highest order, for there were plenty of other kids hanging out at McLaren’s shop who would’ve gladly fronted a band. But as Lydon makes clear in his book, the punk scene  was a noble endeavor but tended to attract knuckleheads and drug addicts, none of whom would've fit the role as Lydon did. Indeed, even the other Sex Pistols seem a bit thick in Lydon’s telling. Folks like Sid Vicious and The Clash make the expected cameos here, but there’s not much new to learn. Sid's story is still horrific, though, no matter how often it's told.

While the first half of the book is brilliant, the second half is less so. It’s mostly about Lydon’s constant battle with record companies, the occasional successes of PiL, and his stressful second go-around with the Pistols. In recent years he’s appeared on several UK TV programs, butter commercials, and a pair of nature documentaries where he spent time with sharks and gorillas. Some of his anecdotes are amusing, but much of the book's second half reads like a typical showbiz thingy. Aint I a riot? he seems to be saying. A monkey pissing down my back! It could only happen to me! 

Though he talks a lot about being “uncensored”, Lydon doesn’t treat us to anything controversial. Instead, we learn that he likes Tod Rundgren, and Robert Plant, and Boy George, and he felt a real affection for the late American TV host, Tom Snyder. Lydon also likes milk. He doesn’t drive a car, but he can drive a boat. He cries often. He’s slowly overcoming various insecurities. He's had his share of crazy fans, including some odd females who were quite adamant about becoming Mrs. Lydon. He wants to try acting, which has always been a problem for him. On it goes, this mishmash of a second half, made slightly annoying by Lydon constantly telling us about his integrity, and that ol’ Johnny does what he wants and can’t be pushed around. We get it, John. You don’t have to say it on every bloody page.

Lydon's ‘happily ever after’ has found him in Los Angeles, far away from his British past, and enjoying life. He’s deeply devoted to his wife Nora, but despite mentioning her often in the book, he's stingy with details. We gather that she's much older than Lydon, and that she once dragged him to a Beyonce concert. Other than that, his beloved Nora remains in the shadows. This, I imagine, is Lydon's way of being protective. 

What really hits us, though, is that Lydon's story is filled with pain. At one point his father playfully hits him with a shovel and accidently breaks Lydon’s ankle. Later, Lydon recounts a punishing bout of surgery on his famously rotten teeth.  Even one of his nature programs results in him being attacked by mosquitoes. Lydon is always shrugging off some sort of hurt. “I’m like an anvil,” he writes. Perhaps, but the pain seeps out now and then. He once hunted down a sad old British movie about a pregnant teen and watched it just so he could repeat the experience of weeping over it. Anger may be what drives him, but Lydon also hosts great springs of love and sadness. 

While reading this book, which is considerably less prickly than Lydon’s 1994 memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs,   I was reminded of how much I miss Lydon’s music. I miss the thrill of hearing a new Lydon project for the first time. But just as Lydon says about England, there’s no real need to revisit it. It’s all still in me, and always will be.

 - Don Stradley

Monday, July 6, 2015




Do you believe in ghosts? I do. Sort of…

It’s not that I have any compelling evidence, but I find it more fun to believe than to not believe. Of all the skeptics I’ve known, none have been fun at a party. Give me a roomful of believers, and I can almost guarantee a nicer bunch of people, not to mention tastier stuff at the buffet.

Watching The Life After Death Project, a 2- disc DVD set collecting a pair of made for TV documentaries that aired on ScyFy last year, didn’t sway me one way or the other, but I look forward to more by director Paul Davids. I watch a lot of documentaries, and most of them eventually lapse into cuteness or self-indulgence. A lot of them are 90 minute selfies. Davids won me over because he simply allows people to talk, to describe what they’ve experienced. He doesn’t bother with cheesy recreations, and doesn’t try to scare us. What Davids does is create a mood as if we’re sitting around a campfire telling stories. What’s better than that?

Disc one is the winner. It’s about Davids’ relationship with Forrest J Ackerman, the editor and publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a fun magazine that had a curious impact on a certain faction of male children born after 1955. Davids knew Ackerman, and is convinced that his old friend and mentor is haunting him. Davids interviews some other people from Ackerman’s circle, and they, too, have experienced odd happenings that suggest a possible close encounter of the Forry kind. Apparently, the man known to his closest admirers as “Uncle Forry” still enjoys a good practical joke, even from beyond the grave.

Where the movie really kicked in for me was when Davids enlisted the help of various psychics. The trio, all female, each took a crack at speaking to Ackerman. The outcomes were fascinating. One psychic in particular described Ackerman perfectly. I’m aware that the psychic scenes could’ve been rigged in the editing, but so what? I was entertained, which is a rarity these days. And if Ackerman’s friends say that he visits them in their dreams, I’ll take them at their word. (After all the money I spent on FMOF back in my childhood, I’m expecting a visit, too. Forry, if you’re out there, I’m in Rockport MA, and I usually go to bed around 1:00 AM. Stop on by.)

Davids was obviously very passionate about the Ackerman story, so disc two suffers a bit in comparison. It's mostly a series of talking head sequences where various people discuss the subject of life after death. Even though it’s not as fun as the first disc, some of disc two is quite interesting, particularly when Davids talks to nurses and hospice care workers who have some amazing stories to tell.

There are allegedly some extra features on the first disc, including some interviews with Ackerman and more spooky talk, but they weren’t on my reviewer’s copy. Perhaps this was another of Forry’s post life practical jokes.

For a better understanding of Forrest J Ackerman’s life, you could do worse than watch Uncle Forry’s Ackermansions, now on DVD from It’s a 70 minute labor of love from November Fire founder Strephon Taylor and Tom Wyrsch, combining a lot of home movies, plus some old interviews where Forry sat with Northern Ca. horror host Bob Wilkins to tell stories about Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and others.

Ackerman was the original fanboy. He created science fiction fanzines, organized fan clubs, amassed what is probably the largest collection of sci-fi and horror memorabilia in the world, and was eventually hired by publisher James Warren to helm Famous Monsters of Filmland. He had a generous side, often opening his home to the public, allowing other fans to come in and enjoy his collection.

What drives a collector? Is it a kind of gluttony? Does it stem from adolescent desire to have more than the other kids? Is at overcompensation for something lacking in a person's life? I’ve known some collectors, and their tunnel vision can be off-putting. A few are downright unhinged. A study should be done. Unfortunately, this particular documentary doesn't tackle any serious questions about the inner-workings of obsessive collectors. It's just a fun jaunt through Ackerman's various homes.

Ackerman is at his most likable when he talks of his 1920s childhood, when he attended as many as seven movies in one day. He sounds humble when he discusses how he fell in love with “fantastic films,” and even as an old man he still seemed smitten by the robot from Metropolis. Those years must have had a profound impact on him, for he spent the next five decades trying to relive them. This is the Ackerman I wish I had known, the one I might have called “Uncle.”