Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Back in the 1990s, I was asked to join the board of The Manitoba Association of Playwrights (MAP). I was a playwright, and a member of MAP, and I suppose I thought it was some kind of honour to asked, so I said yes. In retrospect, I now realize that an unemployed playwright might not be the best choice for your volunteer board. My (somewhat limited) understanding of the art of putting together a board for the arts and culture sector is that you want to include people who can raise money. And one suggestion of where to start looking for likely candidates is among your largest donors. That’s right. People who already give you money, and might have friends and colleagues who can also give you money. It’s worth noting that people like that can likely afford to volunteer their time, because earning money to pay their rent is not an ongoing problem for them.

The Map Board was full of playwrights. And somehow I was chosen to be the head of The Fundraising Committee. It sounded like an impressive title until I realized that I was the entire committee. So, basically, I would come up with ideas and pitch them to the board. The board would generally say yes and I would put together an event that would raise a couple of hundred dollars (if we were lucky). Not exactly keeping the organization afloat, but I guess it was something.

In 1998, I put together a fundraiser that would ultimately change everything. It was a double bill of new plays called Mountain Climbing (by my friend and fellow playwright Gary Jarvis) and The Inner City Dead (by me). We cast the shows with volunteer actors, most of whom were university or high school students. They were keen and hard working, and when the plays were performed, they drew many friends and family members out to see them – making the fundraiser a huge success.

“This is the best idea we’ve ever had!” one of my MAP colleagues said, as he watched hundreds of people file into the threatre.

This got me to thinking… What if we produced a high school playwriting competition? We could pick five high school playwrights, then hire five young, keen recent university graduates to direct them, and then cast a bunch of high school and university students to act in them – and to top it off, we’ll have the winners determined by audience vote (so everyone will try to bring out as many supporters as possible)! It seemed like a surefire way to draw big crowds to the show and raise some money to help support MAP!

Surprisingly enough, when I pitched the idea to the MAP Board in 1999 they didn’t seem to understand it, and opted instead to authorize a different fundraising project. I had to admit temporary defeat, but I knew that the idea was a good one, so in 2001 I tried again. This time the MAP Board said yes, and The Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition was born.

I edited an anthology called I Was a Teenage Playwright: The First Ten Years of the Scirocco/MAP Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition in 2011, in which I wrote an introduction explaining the entire history of the project. Those who want to know more about it (if there are such mythological creatures) can seek it out there. The important detail for this rambling blog post, is that the winners of the competition were chosen by AUDIENCE VOTE.

That’s right. After each performance, audience members would fill out ballots that would be collected by ushers and counted very carefully – twice. At the end of the second night, we would announce the winners and award prizes in front of the audience.

When I saw the ad campaign for Mr. Sardonicus (1961), I couldn’t help but imagine what this was going to like. William Castle, the genius behind such gimmickry as “Emergo”, the giant skeleton who would fly out over the audience during House on Haunted Hill (1959) and rigging buzzers under audience seats during The Tingler (1959) had surely come up with another winner. Before the final reel of the film, Castle would give the audience a chance to vote and then, depending on the results, the theatres would play one of two final reels. This would surely bring people into the theatres. It might even make people want to come back to see the film again and vote for the other ending (the one they didn’t see the first time). Brilliant, if I do say so myself.

The reality is a little less brilliant. It appears as if Castle only shot one ending to the movie. He comes out on screen right before the final scene and asks the audience to vote. He pretends to count their votes from on screen! Cute and funny, but clearly not possible. Maybe audiences would have been fooled by this in 1961, but I’m not so sure. One person I spoke to, who saw the movie back then, said that the ushers would come out and pretend to be counting votes as well. But there was no spot during the flow of the movie when those votes could have been taken into account and the correct final reel of film been cued up and started. I had expected Castle to say something like:

“Now we will have a brief intermission while votes are counted. When we come back, one of two possible endings will be screened…”

Alas, this was not the case.

Still, it was kind of a fun, silly gimmick. And nice to see Castle doing his thing on the screen.

Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is a great piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I truly enjoy. It’s beautifully shot, with great performances from a stellar cast, and simply oozes gothic horror atmosphere. It gives me a similar feeling to the great Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films – which are some of my favourites. I would recommend Mr. Sardonicus to anyone looking for a good time on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. Just don’t expect more than one ending…

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Cannibal Curse (1988)

Several years ago, I went into a used bookstore with a friend of mine. It turned out that the store was owned by a guy I kind of knew from a radio drama workshop we had been in together a few years earlier. I was a university student at the time, but the workshop was organized by one of the professional theatres in town. As students of theatre, we could get credit for taking courses at this theatre, which is how I wound up there. I also had the kind of voice that often inspired people to tell me that I should go into radio. So, I figured what the hell?

A couple of the other people taking the workshop were from the university, but the vast majority of them were much older. I would say that they were hard core radio fans. And by radio, I don’t mean people who listened to music on the many rock, pop and country stations, as I did all the time. I mean people who listened to the CBC – or Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for those who don’t know. The CBC was full of programming like news, interviews, call in shows, and radio dramas (which could sometimes be comical, rather than serious, but were always referred to as dramas). The person teaching the radio drama workshop was in fact a well known CBC radio personality. I think this is why most of the people had signed up for the course. And one of those people was the guy who owned the bookstore that my friend and I stumbled into one rainy afternoon.

He recognized me right away and was super friendly. While I answered his questions about what I was doing these days, my friend found a table with a bunch of posters on it. They were movie posters, but not for any movies that he or I had ever seen (or even heard of). They appeared to be Asian, although neither of us could have even said which specific country they were from.

“I got those from a guy who used to run a theatre,” my former radio drama colleague told us. “If you’re interested in them, I’ll give you a deal!”

I don’t remember what kind of deal he offered us, but it must have been a good one because we took it. We each brought home a pile of posters that day. It’s a funny thing to own posters for movies that you have never seen. You want to display them, because they look cool, but you’re not sure if you should because you haven’t seen the movies and you’re not sure if they’re any good. One thing is certain, we both became very interested in tracking down these movies and watching them.

For years I couldn’t find any trace of these films. Books like Asian Cult Cinema didn’t seem to include most of them, although I started to suspect that the titles of the movies could have been changed multiple times, for different markets. Once the internet became a thing, I tried searching there. At first I found nothing. But every couple of years I would give it another try. Eventually I found a couple of movies I could download. One of them was called Exposed To Danger (1982). The posters that we had (and I believe we had two different variations) made it look like a Women In Prison film. Unfortunately, I can’t find either of those posters online. According to the Hong Kong Movie Data Base, Exposed To Danger is a thriller from Taiwan.

This is the only poster I can find online for Exposed To Danger (1982). Not sure what genre it’s trying to look like, but it’s not Women In Prison. Our posters are a lot cooler looking, by the way…

The movie starts off with a woman arriving somewhere on a boat. As she walks along the beach, she witnesses some kids attacking a turtle. This causes her to have flashbacks of being abused in a women’s prison (and my friend and I immediately recognized the images from the posters we had purchased all those years ago). Unfortunately, those flashbacks end and the movie goes on (and on and on) with no further Women In Prison action. I can’t really tell you what that movie was about, but a few other people have reviewed it online. It sounds like it might be closer to a slasher film of some sort, although the slasher action doesn’t really start until the last half hour.

My friend and I lost interest in trying to follow the plot because of one technical oddity: the copy of the movie that I had downloaded and burned to DVD seemed to have four different languages on it – two sets of subtitles and two audio tracks – and they were all playing at once. I figured that I had made a mistake and somehow chose to turn them all on before I burned the disk. In any case, it was extremely distracting and became quite hilarious to us. We wound up laughing hysterically while the movie played in the background. To be honest, it came at the end of an all day movie marathon and I’m not even sure if we actually finished it. If there was a grim slasher story playing out, we missed it.

Fast forward a few years (to last Friday), and I discovered a DVD in my collection that featured a movie called Cannibal Curse (1988). It is an actual manufactured DVD that I purchased somewhere in my travels. I knew nothing about it, but the movie was described as this:

“A woman tries to attract her reincarnated lover from her previous life but eventually turns to the aid of an evil sorcerer who rules over a tribe of cannibal midgets.”

Call me crazy, but it sounded like a perfect candidate for a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. I popped the disk into the player and sat back with a bag of popcorn ready to enjoy some crazy Hong Kong action/horror. Within the first few minutes I was laughing in disbelief. This brand new, manufactured DVD was doing the same thing that my cheap downloaded movie did several years ago: four languages – two sets of subtitles and two audio tracks – all playing at once. And there was no way to turn any of them off. I started to wonder if this was how the movie had been distributed back in the day. They knew it was going to several different markets, and they were too cheap to make four different prints, so they just put all four languages onto the one print. And now the cheapskate distributor of the DVD simply transferred the old print onto DVD.

This is, of course, pure speculation. But you know what? I kind of liked the movie this way. Maybe it was nostalgia for the experience my friend and I had had with Exposed To Danger. Maybe it just added to the zaniness of Cannibal Curse. I don’t know. The reviews I could find were all pretty negative. Asian Cult Cinema gives it one star and says “The story is preposterous and the acting is abysmal.” The movie is listed under the title Curse in there, by the way. It’s also known as Virgin’s Curse.

I suppose Cannibal Curse is a bad movie, but I found it to be strangely entertaining. Maybe my expectations had been sufficiently lowered by the online reviews I had seen prior to watching it (“Incredibly bad Hong Kong flick..” one guy says.). Maybe the quadruple linguistic assault elevated the experience for me. Who knows? The important thing is that Cannibal Curse (1988) is an example of a kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I don’t explore as often. The unique and sometimes wonderful world of Asian horror/action/exploitation cinema. And Cannibal Curse is an example of all three of those things. I know that there are others lurking in my library somewhere, waiting to be discovered. And I shall look forward to unearthing them on a future #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Ark of the Sun God aka Temple of Hell (1984)

I remember one of my cousins coming to visit in June of 1981. She was older than me and my siblings, but by no means an adult. I’m not sure why she was travelling alone, or what brought her to Winnipeg, but she stayed with us for a few days. One afternoon, my Mom handed me some money and said “Why don’t you all go and see that new movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark? It’s supposed to be good.”

I had never heard of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – none of us had. And the title didn’t really mean anything to me, either. Raiders? What were raiders? Lost Ark? Were they talking about Noah’s Ark? I had no idea. But I loved going to movies, and my Mom had just handed me cash, so we all got on a bus and went downtown to the theatre that was playing this unimaginable movie. 

Well… I won’t bother explaining what the movie was about, as I assume that anyone reading this will know a lot more about it now than I did back then. Suffice it to say that we were all blown away by it. I would go so far as to suggest that one or more of us might have said it was the greatest movie we’d ever seen. I eventually saw it several more times in the theatre – putting it on par with Star Wars (1977). I remember collecting Raiders of the Lost Ark bubblegum cards (yes, that was a thing) and talking about putting on a play version of the movie (we did occasionally put on plays in our basement, but sadly we never did produce the adaptation of Raiders…). You might say that Raiders of the Lost Ark became my new obsession. 

It didn’t take long for the ripoffs and knockoffs of Raiders of the Lost Ark to appear – much like they had for Star Wars – and I wanted to see all of them. High Road to China (1983), Romancing the Stone (1984), King Solomon’s Mines (1985), and Firewalker (1986) were some of the high profile ones. But then there were the more obscure, Iow budget, and often European ripoffs like The Hunters of the Golden Cobra (1982), Diamonds of Kilimandjaro (1983), The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak (1984) and Jungle Raiders (1985).

My personal favourite, at the time, was Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983) in 3D! We thought it was the greatest 3D movie ever made, because the filmmakers threw everything imaginable at us. There wasn’t a moment that went by without something coming out of the screen and almost smacking us in the face – even during the “boring” talking scenes! But that’s another story…

It should be noted that the main character of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as if you didn’t know, was Indiana Jones. There were movies that ripped off that as well, like Dakota Harris aka Sky Pirates (1986) and The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck (1988). After the sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) appeared, we were blessed/cursed with Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986), which was itself a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines (1985). I remember a newspaper review that trashed Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold so thoroughly and enthusiastically that I read it out loud to anyone who would listen. I did not go to see that movie in 1986. I regret that now.

And that brings me to The Ark of the Sun God aka Temple of Hell (1984), another movie that I did not see back in the glory days of both home video and going to the theatres (for as low as $2.00 on a Tuesday). I remember it as The Ark of the Sun God, but it’s fascinating that it was also known as Temple of Hell. It managed to rip of both existing Indiana Jones movie titles (Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). I suppose if it had been re-released in 1989 it would have been re-titled The Final Crusade or something like that. 

The Ark of the Sun God was directed by Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson), who also directed The Hunters of the Golden Cobra and Jungle Raiders. I suppose that makes him some sort of expert in Indiana Jones knockoffs, but he also did many other kinds of movies, such as spaghetti westerns, science fiction, peplum (sword and sandal), giallos and other horror films.

So, was The Ark of the Sun God worth the three and half decade wait? Probably not. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more back then, when I thought Treasure of the Four Crowns was the height of 3D cinema excellence. The Ark of the Sun God is a PG movie, so clearly aimed at the kids like me who loved Raiders… But a little more violence, sex, or any kind of edginess might have improved it. Still, David Warbeck is good as our hero, Rick Spear. And there are a few moments of inspired lunacy that might elicit a laugh or a smile. Indiana Jones knockoff completists will definitely want to see it. Some, in the right sort of mood, may even find it to be a superior example of the genre.

The Ark of the Sun God (1984) is an example of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that, for me, would probably work better with a hefty dose of nostalgia. Rick Spear is likeable, but he’s no match for his role model, Indiana Jones. I’m glad that I finally saw it, but I don’t think it could entice me to spend another #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn – at least not as a headliner. It might work better as the second half of a double feature, providing that the first movie breaks the ice and gets the good times rolling. Which movie could do that? Could be one of the other, nostalgic Indiana Jones knockoffs, could be something else entirely. It’s a question that every fan of #NotQuiteClassicCinema will have to answer for themselves.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Joysticks (1983)

I remember hanging around arcades when I was in junior high school. Whenever we had shops, we had to take a bus to another, larger school where we could learn about drafting, electronics, cooking, etc. This larger school was right next door to a shopping mall. So, inevitably, before and after class we would walk over to the mall to get something to eat, or wander around the stores. There was also an arcade inside this mall. But because we were under 16, we had to apply for a special membership card – which involved having our parents sign a piece of paper saying that they were okay with us blowing all of our money on pinball and video games (or something to that effect).

My parents signed the paper, although I don’t think they were thrilled about it, but truth be told I didn’t play many of the games. I was a cheapskate at heart, and I didn’t like to waste good quarters getting killed by aliens or asteroids in thirty seconds flat. Did I mention that I wasn’t very good at video games? This was mainly due to the fact that I didn’t spend a lot of quarters playing them (so it was a bit of a vicious circle, I suppose). I was better at pinball, actually. I liked the feeling of hitting an actual ball around, and I used to play pinball whenever we went down to Fargo for the weekend and stayed in a hotel. I also had my own pinball machine at home (a toy version from my childhood, but the mechanics were the same as on the big machines). So a quarter would last a lot longer if I put it in a pinball machine than if I spent it on Pacman or Space Invaders. I still played those games once in a while, or course, but not in the obsessive quarter-eating way that some people did. Mostly, I just watched my friends play in that shopping mall arcade. it was a place to hang out and talk about horror films, heavy metal, and all the other important subjects not covered in school.

We also talked about movies like Porky’s (1981) and Private Lessons (1981), which had been huge hits and what you might call “water cooler movies” at our school. I suppose water fountain movies might be a more appropriate term for them, as our school had lots of water fountains but no water coolers. These movies were referred to as “Teen Sex Comedies” by critics like Roger Ebert, and they were generally panned by those critics. But we all wanted to see them because they reportedly featured “naked ladies”, another subject that was of great interest to us but sadly absent from the school curriculum. We were too young to get into the theatres to see movies like that, and we had actually made plans to try to sneak in and see Porky’s one day, but for some reason we aborted that mission. 

In a bizarre twist of fate, my friends wound up seeing Porky’s without me when it was released on VHS and Beta. As I’ve mentioned before, renting movies was a social activity in those days. I never did it by myself. So I didn’t get to see Porky’s until much later. I actually saw Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983) before I saw Porky’s – but that’s another story. 

Teen sex comedies were like slasher films in the early ’80s. There seemed to be new ones appearing in the theatres every week. And the video store shelves were lousy with them. We couldn’t get into the theatres to see them, but my friends and I had no trouble renting movies like Spring Break (1983), My Tutor (1983), and Joysticks (1983). 

Joysticks was obviously made by a cinematic genius. Not only was it a teen sex comedy (one of the most lucrative film genres of the day), but it was also about video games and set in an arcade! What could be more appealing to teenagers of the early 1980s? 

I don’t think we thought Joysticks was as good as some of the other movies in the genre. But it did have video games, naked ladies and fart jokes, so we enjoyed it. But unlike Spring Break, which we watched three times before having to return it the next day, we only watched Joysticks once. Come to think of it, I also watched Spring Break a couple of times on late night TV over the years, but I never saw Joysticks again…

…until last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. What made me do it? Nostalgia, of course. And I’ve been curious about this movie for some reason. Was it as bad as I remember it? I figured it would be horribly dated, in terms of the video game imagery. I also imagined that it would never deliver the goods as well as movies like Porky’s – but very few movies, if any, can live up to Bob Clark’s teen sex comedy masterpiece.

Oddly enough, Joysticks was made by Greydon Clark, an actual name in genre film circles – not as revered as Bob Clark, perhaps, but a person of some note, nevertheless. I recently featured one of his other movies at the home drive in, Angels’ Brigade (1979). I also have a surprising number of his films in my personal library: Black Shampoo, Hi-Riders, Without Warning, and Satan’s Cheerleaders. It seemed to me that Joysticks just might be a necessary addition to the collection. 

I am happy to report that Joysticks was everything I could have hoped for – and more! It was so over-the-top 1980s that it was a perfect time capsule. The nostalgia was on overdrive but, surprisingly, it did not feel as dated (in a bad way) as I thought it would. The video games actually looked pretty good to me, and they made me want to dig out my old Atari and start chomping on some dots. The movie also did a pretty good job of delivering on the promises that all teen sex comedies make; there were naked ladies, there were tasteless jokes, there were hapless losers, nerds and misfits who have to save the arcade from an unscrupulous businessman. This movie could be the Citizen Kane of video game teen sex comedies!

Joysticks (1983) is 100% certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema – and I am so glad that I finally watched it again. Perhaps if I had seen it on late night TV in the 1990s, I would have dismissed it as dated nonsense. But it has reached a point in the aging process where it is ripe for rediscovery – at least by people who have fond (ish) memories of seeing it back in the days of arcades and misspent quarters. 

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Jennie: Wife/Child (1968)

As I write this my e-mail server is down, my website is down, and – more to the point – my blog is down. The entire website of the company that hosts my blog and website is down. I have no idea how long this will last. I don’t know if the problem will be fixed today – or ever, for that matter. It would be an unfortunate way to discover that my web-hosting company is out of business.

However, this kind of thing has happened before, so I suppose I should not jump to any conclusions. But since I have no idea when – or if – I will be able to post this, I will keep it brief.

I had never even heard of Hicksploitation as a genre until I watched Common Law Wife (1961) a couple of months ago. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and found it to be a surprisingly well made drama that happened to focus on more “adult” ideas than the mainstream cinema of the day would have typically featured. Jennie: Wife/Child (1968) is definitely cut from that same cloth.

What was especially exciting about Jennie: Wife/Child was the surprisingly good soundtrack music. Cult favourites Davie Allan & The Arrows, who famously created soundtracks for biker movies such as Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), Devil’s Angels (1967) and The Born Losers (1967), are not only included on the soundtrack of Jennie: Wife/Child, but they can also be seen playing live on stage in the movie! They sound like a more countrified version of themselves, but it is still great to see (and hear) them. They play three songs: Mario’s Theme, Lulu’s World, and Peckingpaw’s Theme. 

All of the songs in the movie were written by Harley Hatcher, who composed music for a number of films. The songs he wrote for Jennie: Wife/Child have a tendency to comment on the action of the story – the same way that James Brown’s did in Black Caesar (1973) – but that’s another story. Most of the songs were sung by Don Epperson, who appeared as an actor in several movies including Big Jake (1971) with John Wayne. Epperson can also be seen performing a song in Jennie: Wife/Child

One of the musical highlights of this movie was a little ditty called My Birthday Suit, sung by Lydia Marcelle. I don’t know much about her, but it looks like she released a few singles back in the 1960s and early 1970s. 

As for the movie, the acting is good, the story is good, and it’s a much better made film than you would expect of something called Jennie: Wife/Child. The cinematographer was Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot such classics as Deliverance (1972), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Needless to say the film looks great. 

Jennie: Wife/Child (1968) is surprisingly tasteful and entertaining for a movie that’s part of the so-called Hicksploitation genre. But then again, I really enjoyed both examples that I caught on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. I guess it’s a kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I might have to explore further…