Our current Movie of the Month, the 1993 creature feature Stepmonster, is psychosexual-id horror for kids, very much of the Troll 2 & The Pitvariety – complete with monstrous “tropopkins” standing in for The Pit‘s “tra-la-logs”. It feels like producer Roger Corman trespassing on Charles Band’s territory in that way, recalling the straight-to-VHS kiddie horrors Band produced under his Full Moon sublabel Moonbeam. There’s a rhythm to Corman’s classic drive-in creature features that carries over to Stepmonster, briefly revealing the titular monster in an early attack and then steadily doling out “kills” (kidnappings, really) throughout the rest of the runtime to maintain the audience’s attention. Otherwise, this is pure Moonbeam; all that’s missing is a dinky Casio score from Charlie’s brother, Richard Band. That doesn’t mean it’s too generic to be unique, though. The tropopkin’s rubber-suit design reads as a human-sized variation of the Gremlins knockoffs that VHS schlockmeisters were making in this era (Ghouliesin Band’s case, Munchies in Corman’s), but by the time she’s wreaking havoc in her wedding gown—trying to consummate her marriage to Alan Thicke under the full moon—the movie achieves a kids-horror novelty all of its own. I’m not surprised to hear it wormed its way into its pint-sized audience’s subconscious through that kind of kindertrauma imagery, even if it has plenty of direct corollaries in Band & Corman’s respective catalogs.
It would be easy, then, to recommend further viewings in Corman & Band’s other kindertrauma horrors, but they’d likely be too monotonous when watched in bulk. What distinguishes Stepmonster from other Moonbeam & Corman productions is the monstrous stepmother angle succinctly headlined in its title, tapping into a very specific fear children have of the strangers in their homes who married their parents. It’s a long running tradition in the genre, dating at least as far back as the wicked stepmother villain of Cinderella. And since it’s Halloween season, it feels important to highlight some of the all-time great titles in that canon: the greatest evil-stepparent horrors of all time. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more iconic horror films about the monsters our parents married.
The Stepfather (1987)
Without question, the greatest evil-stepparent horror of all time is the 80s slasher The Stepfather, a superlative indicated by its definitive title. Terry O’Quinn is the stepfather, a sociopathic serial killer who cycles through families like he’s updating his wardrobe, killing the old batch in cold blood instead of dropping it off at Goodwill. O’Quinn is an explosive volcano of white-man rage, barely suppressing his violent outbursts under a thin facade of Ward Cleaver, Father Knows Best-style suburban Family Values. It is one of the all-time great villain performances, regardless of genre. There was already a bland, forgettable remake in the aughts, but the only other actor who could maybe pull this performance off is Will Forte, whose comedic version of bottled-up fury is a direct echo of the terror in O’Quinn’s piercing, hateful eyes.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Something you’ll notice about all of these evil-stepparent horrors is that they’re all movies about real estate. Terry O’Quinn’s genre-defining killer is a local realtor. Alan Thicke’s oblivious dad in Stepmonster is an architect and land developer. And then there’s The Amityville Horror, in which a couple moves into a dream home they can only afford because the previous family who lived there was murdered inside. James Brolin stars as the stepfather substitute for Jack Torrance, driven mad by the Bad Vibes of the titular home to the point where he’s axing down the bathroom door to murder his family cowering on the other side. He starts off mildly resentful that his wife’s children call him “George” instead of “Daddy,” escalates to complaining “Those kids of yours need some goddamn discipline,” and eventually settles on “Those kids of yours need to be decapitated.” Overall, the original Amityville is quintessential mainstream 70s horror, in that it’s sometimes deeply chilling, often vaguely boring, and features a grotesquely overqualified Margot Kidder. It’s an essential entry in the evil-stepparent canon, though, not least of all because it’s about a valuable piece of cursed real estate.
Enough about evil stepdads. Fans of Stepmonster deserve some iconic evil-stepmother villainy, for which I’ll direct them to Clive Barker’s cosmic horror masterpiece Hellraiser. The Hellraiser series is remembered for its demonic S&M cenobites Pinhead, Chatterer, Butterball, and—wait for it—The Female, but the scariest villain in the first movie is the stepmother figure, Julia Cotton. Julia is the last stepmother you’d want to have as a vulnerable teenage girl, even further down the list than the tropopkin bride of Stepmonster. Caught up in a torrid affair with your undead sex-pest uncle while neglecting your father, she lures strange men home from the bar for casual hookups, only to murder them with a hammer for her lover’s disgusting amusement. She doesn’t even come to your defense when your uncle hits on you, beckoning “Come to daddy” while wearing your father’s skin as a Halloween mask. “Hellraiser” is already a great title, but maybe this is the movie that should have been called “Stepmonster.”
To my shame, rewatching Hellraiser for this feature was the first time it really clicked with me as one of the all-time greats. I’ve always enjoyed it in parts but was trying to fit it in a Hellbound: Hellraiser II shaped box that did it no favors. Now I’m finally able to embrace the domestic melodrama at its core instead of looking past it for all the lurid, putrid filth that makes it spooky. All it took was a little soul searching about who qualifies as the worst stepparents in the history of horror, a list of which Julia Cotton deserves to rank near the very top.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and we discuss it afterwards. This month BoomermadeAlli,Brandon, and Britnee watchStepmonster (1993).
Boomer: Did you ever have one of those movies that’s stored so far down in the back of your brain that it just haunts you? I don’t know how old I was the first time I saw Stepmonster. I know that it was on TV, the Disney Channel specifically, and that it must have been during one of their free preview weekends. With this having a 1993 release date, I’m going to peg it at 1994/1995, when I was (I’m going to date myself here) seven. I think if I were even marginally older, this movie would never have lodged itself so deeply in my brain. There were countless tiny images from this movie lodged in my brain that I knew originated here: the guy from the Michael Bay Aaron Burr milk PSA running a comic book store, our young protagonist standing in a demolished living room holding a bat, that super cool monster and what she looked like in a wedding dress, and (most distinctly for some reason) Alan Thicke playing the violin. There were even other images that, if I imagine my child mind as a kind of filing cabinet, had fallen out of the Stepmonster file and gotten stuck in the back of the drawer, summoned up very occasionally by an unexpected mental misfire and with no real idea of their origin: a goldfish skeleton being spat out of a jewelry box, John “Gomez Addams” Astin dressed as a priest and smoking, a woman falling downstairs in her wedding dress, and what I guess we could call “the PG-13 Body Double sequence.” It’s also the movie that prompted me to ask my mother what “phlegm” was. For years, I couldn’t track this movie down. It was out of print, didn’t seem to have held any interest for any library in any place I lived, and never showed up on the shelves of any Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul that I frequented. Three years ago, the Alamo Drafthouse on S. Lamar was hosting a VHS swap meet, and there it was: Stepmonster. As someone who was a VHS apologist and hobbyist for a long time but one who only ever built his collection out of thrift store finds and hanging around dying rental stores like a carrion bird in the last days of the independents, I paid the most I had paid for a cassette after 2003: a whopping $5. “It’s rare,” the man behind the folding table had said. And I knew he was right.
And then it sat in my collection. I knew it would make its way to Movie of the Month one day. After all, this movie was all but lost media, right? Out of print, out of sight, out of mind. I just had to wait until my month fell during spooky season, and in 2022, it was finally time. Vexed to nightmare, this rough beast’s hour has come round at last. I only hope it was worth it.
Here’s the plot breakdown for our readers at home, accounting for the lack of widespread availability: Todd (Billy Corben) is a normal kid with an active imagination: he hates violin lessons, spends maybe too much time reading comics, and loves baseball. He’s at the age where it’s common to butt heads with your parents, but he’s having a particularly hard time with his father, George (Alan Thicke). George is an architect whose rationalistic, detail-oriented nature is reflected in his inability to fully communicate with his son, and an inability to disguise his frustration with his progeny’s fantasies and impatience for Todd to grow out of what he thinks is a phase. Truthfully, he spends an awful lot of time policing his son’s reading habits and taking away his comics, and not nearly enough time making sure Todd isn’t being a peeping little pervert vis-a-vis his spying on teenaged neighbor Wendy (Ami Dolenz). When Todd’s mother, Abby (Molly Cheek), goes missing in the woods, George seems to waste no time in getting remarried, as a mere six months later, he’s engaged to the titular stepmonster, Denise (MotM alum Robin Riker), a lovely woman for whom George was building a woodland cabin when Abby went missing. The immediately suspicious Todd sets out to find out what Denise is about, and although he immediately discovers that she’s a “tropopkin,” a scaly comic book monster, he’s unable to convince anyone else of this and is forced to set out to break up his dad’s engagement before the two get married on the summer solstice.
This is a movie that is clearly an attempt by producer Roger Corman to horn in on some of that sweet cash that his old frenemy Charles Band was making via his sub-Full Moon family imprint Moonbeam, famous for Prehysteria and Magic in the Mirror. The difference is that, despite the general melange of filth of a regular Charles Band production, those Moonbeam films are still kid-friendly, and the two I named are rated PG and G respectively. But that Corman sleaze just doesn’t wash off, and you can see it in the way that Stepmonster misses the mark with both its PG-13 rating (making it only recommended for viewers who are older than the protagonist in a film that can only really appeal to kids just a little younger) and its Pit-like choice of having our lead be a peeping tom, through whom the audience is presumably supposed to vicariously live. It’s a weird, unmistakably Corman touch. When Todd’s grandfather (George Gaynes, of Altered States and Police Academy) first says the word “horny” at the breakfast table and then recites the old adage about buying the cow, I was surprised that this was something that the Disney Channel used to air, and was only further dumbfounded by just how many times Todd aims his telescope at Wendy’s window. It makes for a tonally bizarre viewing, as the attempts to make this appeal to adults just make you a bit discomfited. The film still bothers to do some clever things, like having the father and his bride-to-be hammering that real estate sign on the inside of the literal white picket fence (because she’s not really intending to sell the house anyway, just eating the family and retreating back to her cave). One could try to argue that this was aiming for a slightly older demographic than middle schoolers, but this is completely undercut by the fact that the mother is discovered alive and well at the end, for a laughably happy ending.
What did y’all think? Devoid of any nostalgia factor, what were your thoughts? Is Todd too creepy to root for? Is George too dumb to live? Do we love Denise?
Brandon: No matter what rating the MPAA slapped on this thing, this psychosexual id horror is clearly aimed directly at kids. It’s very much of the Troll 2 & The Pit variety in that way, complete with the “tropopkins” standing in for The Pit‘s “tra-la-logs”. I also noted that this feels like Corman trespassing on Charles Band’s territory, so we appear to be on the exact same page this round. There’s a rhythm to Corman’s classic drive-in creature features that carries over here, briefly revealing the (step)monster in an early attack and then steadily doling out “kills” (kidnappings, really) throughout the rest of the runtime to maintain the audience’s attention. Otherwise, this is pure Moonbeam; all that’s missing is a dinky Casio score from Charles’s brother, Richard Band. That doesn’t mean it’s too generic to be unique, though. Denise’s monster design reads as a human-sized variation of the Gremlins knockoffs that VHS schlockmeisters were making in this era (Ghoulies in Band’s case, Munchies in Corman’s), but by the time she’s running around in her wedding gown the movie does achieve a kids-horror novelty all of its own. I’m not surprised to hear it wormed its way into its pint-sized audience’s subconscious through that kind of imagery, even if it has plenty of direct echos in Band & Corman’s respective catalogs.
What I am surprised to hear is that this aired on The Disney Channel. I’ve only watched exactly one Disney Channel Original Movie in my lifetime (Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century), but from what I’ve observed of that channel’s programming from afar, it’s usually severely asexual, presenting an entire universe hostile to the vaguest suggestion of sex. While little Todd isn’t quite as creepy as Jamie in The Pit, he is preoccupied with sex, to the point where the movie is just as much about his sexual curiosity as it is about fears of step-parental intruders. Beyond Todd’s inappropriate sexual fascination with his teenage babysitter neighbor, the movie is also weirdly hung up on the consummation of his dad’s marriage to Denise – something Denise is delaying until their wedding night as part of a full-moon blood ritual. I have to assume it’s that exact sexual undercurrent that landed the film its ludicrous PG-13 rating, since the monster attacks are relatively tame in their suspense & gore. Or maybe it was Todd’s passionate line-delivery of “Eat my shorts, you bloodsucking, bat-faced witch!” that pushed it over the line. Either way, I love that Corman and Band (and, in this case, special guest producer Fred Olen Ray) were making these inappropriate-for-children kids’ movies in the VHS era, and there’s something especially delicious about one of them sneaking its way onto the squeaky-clean Disney Channel lineup.
Alli: I started out thinking, okay, this is just one of those bizarre PG movies that came out, had some really weird scenes that stick in your mind, and disappeared into the ether. Then, I nearly choked on my drink as the grandpa said the word “horny”. This film immediately dips right into creepy 80s sex humor (despite it’s 90s release date), going from 0-100 in very little time. Sure, there was already Denise emerging out of the woods in that tight dress with no bra, but it was fairly tame before that “horny” line. A good ol’ family horror comedy romp.
With that in mind, once we got to Todd being a peeping Tom and photographing Wendy without her knowledge, and the grandpa letting it happen, I definitely lost some sympathy for the kid and his family. Not that I was really backing Denise either. Sure, she’s cool, using her sexuality as a weapon to ensnare this clueless, uptight man in order to make more tropopkins and then eat him and his weasel son, but I just wasn’t into her whole “Let’s get the kid labeled as crazy” attitude. The real heroes in this story are Phlegm and Wendy! Wow, I love them so much. Corey Feldman steals the show as the goofy bad boy Phlegm, while Wendy has got everything under control. I kept expecting Phlegm to be more of a key character than he was, like maybe he had a rare comic book issue that would save the day. Still, it was at least nice that his band’s equipment was part of the scheme that saves this undeserving family in the end. Likewise, Wendy does not receive enough credit as the hero of the story: digging through the trash, sticking by the kid even after his creepy photos, and giving said creepy kid rides all over town.
Even with the creepy main character and his bizarrely messed up family that only consists of his dad, his dad’s in-laws, and a monster, I thought this movie was a lot of fun. Like Boomer said, there are images that are going to stick with me for a long time, especially the tropokin in the wedding dress (so great) and the kid standing on top of a Marshall stack swinging a baseball bat at a bat monster. I was definitely on its sense of humor’s wavelength. I’m so glad Boomer found this rare media and could share it with us.
Britnee: When we make our Movie of the Month selections, Brandon is very diligent with ensuring that no one (other than the Swampie presenting) has watched the selected film. When asked if I ever watched Stepmonster, I was 110% sure I hadn’t. However, once Alan Thicke hit the screen, 15 years of suppressed memories were unleashed. I was immediately reminded of a goldfish skeleton being spit out of a box . . . I had seen this movie before! But I honestly remembered only fragmented images without being able to identify any sort of plot or characters, so it’s like I watched it for the first time. The Movie of the Month tradition is still going strong!
Funky children’s films from the late 80s/early 90s are sort of my jam. The crappy effects, nonsensical plots, and adult themed humor is a perfect combination. Trash for kids! I love how there’s been mention of Prehysteria and Magic in the Mirror in the conversation because those are absolutely fantastic films that are in the same realm as Stepmonster (the ultimate Band, Nicolaou, Corman trio). Needless to say, I thought this movie was a blast! Dad and Grandpa were such strange goobers who I found to be hilarious. They’re sort of these stereotypical “all-American” characters that say and do weird things that caught me off guard (like the aforementioned “We all get horny, Georgey Boy.”). However, the true star of this show was Denise. She’s the closest to a human version of Greta the Gremlin that we will ever get and great at being the perfect evil stepmother/tropopkin. All of those witty remarks and monster transitions are so good. My favorite scene is when Denise transitions into her true tropopkin form while chatting with the psychiatrist (Edie McClurg!).
Britnee: The tropopkin makeup effects are incredible. Makeup effects artist, Gabe Bartalos, has made his mark on many classics, such as Frankenhooker, Leprechaun, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, and you guessed it, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. He’s definitely up there with Swampflix’s favorite special effects master, Screaming Mad George.
Alli: The grandpa is such a weird person. He dislikes so many decisions his son-in-law makes but backs them anyway. He tells his grandson about tropopkins but doesn’t seem to be the source of the kid’s love for comics, since he’s never taken him to the comic book store before. Also, he played major league baseball? I don’t normally like to nitpick or search for plot holes, but he really is a true enigma.
Brandon: I really liked the choice of presenting the tropopkins as “real life” creatures from the pages of Todd’s EC horror comics. Corman & company obviously routed most of the budget to Denise’s creature design, so it was smart to borrow some on-the-cheap visual style from classic horror comics to give the movie some life between her effects shots. Besides, it reminded me a lot of the EC horror stylings of Tales from the Crypt & Creepshow, which were the exact kind of age-inappropriate media I was sneaking past my parents’ censorship as a kid.
For anyone who’s desperate to watch Stepmonster but isn’t close enough friends with Boomer to borrow his personal VHS copy, there’s currently a low-quality scan of the film uploaded to YouTube in glorious 480p (courtesy of user myx360games, a true champion of cinema).
Boomer: I spent a truly inordinate amount of time trying to figure out exactly when Stepmonster would have aired on Disney Channel. One would think that old TV listings would be the easiest thing in the world to find, but as it turns out, not so much (unless you’re going to go down to the library and dig through microfiche). I couldn’t find any dates or any Disney Channel schedules from the likely years at all. However, while we’re here, I wanted to go ahead and speak out in favor of this great video from YouTube channel Yesterworld, which provides a pretty good rundown on the history of the channel, including some great historiography of the “free preview” years. YouTube channel Pop Arena, as part of their ongoing project to chart the show-by-show history of Nickelodeon (after five years, they’re up to 1990), did a great video about Nickelodeon precursor Qube that happens to function as a great delineation about the creation of cable television as well; it can be found here and is a great companion piece to the video above.
One of my favorite recurring themes in Roger Corman’s career as a producer is his self-cannibalization. Never one to waste a dime, Corman would often pilfer his own back-catalog of hundreds of B-pictures to help the next cheap-o production across the finish line. Sets, footage, dialogue, premises, talent: nothing was sacred from Corman’s shrewdly frugal tactics of recycling his own work. If shooting wrapped early on a production in an interesting enough locale, an entire new film would be staged there over the course of a weekend. If a major Hollywood studio took direct influence from his work (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Gremlins), he would shrug it off by making his own mockbuster version of that big budget knockoff (Piranha, Carnosaur, Munchies). Of course, Corman also liked to borrow Hollywood’s own favorite form of self-cannibalization as well: the needless remake. There have been multiple television series over the years specifically created so that Roger Corman The Producer could pilfer Roger Corman The Director’s back-catalog for remake fodder, squeezing new money & new audiences out of old work. Usually, these remakes would be of minor throwaway titles that never made a splash to begin with, such as the 1990s Rebel Highway TV series that reimagined his 1950s road-to-ruin teen pictures with an updated soap opera sheen. Corman has been much more careful with his unimpeachable classics – especially in his reluctance to remake titles from his much-beloved Poe Cycle in fear of zapping them of their Vincent Price magic. That reluctance makes me wonder if Corman really knew how special his 1957 space-invasion cheapie Not of This Earth truly was, as it’s been inferiorly remade twice under the Corman production umbrella despite quietly premiering one of his best directorial works.
The original Not of This Earth falls squarely in the microbudget end of Corman’s career, one of the earliest sci-fi pictures in his gloriously imperfect oeuvre. At only 67 minutes in length, the film was sold as the bottom half of a 1957 double bill with Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, which has a far more enduring legacy thanks to its memorable creature design. The central villain of Not of This Earth has a killer hook as a bloodthirsty vampire from outer space, but everything about his design is squarely milquetoast – intentionally so. Dressed like a G-Man (or a Blues Brother) in a fedora & sunglasses business-suit combo, the space-vampire of Not of This Earth speaks in emotionless monotone. Robbing the traditional vampire myth of its sexuality, he drains his victims of their blood via a briefcase device instead of sucking their necks. The flashiest onscreen threat arrives in a brief sequence where the space-vamp deploys a flying umbrella-shaped alien face-sucker to dispose of a victim, the only bizarre-o creature effect on display. Everything else onscreen is a lowkey creepout that borders on ineffective kitsch: whiteout eye contacts, voiceover hypnotism, and a menacing briefcase lined with blood. What’s most impressive about Not of This Earth is how entertaining it still manages to be as a B-picture without relying on a rubber monster costume or prurient sexuality (not that those can’t be fun for their own sake). Corman’s better respected as a producer than a director in most circles, but it really is remarkable how much he was able to squeeze out of this limited budget & shooting schedule. Not of This Earth is little more than a thinly veiled Communist Invasion allegory (the space-vampire’s G-Man appearance & description as “some kind of foreigner” make that metaphor as blatant as possible) made to feel larger in scale thanks to sci-fi babble about alien planets & evaporated blood, yet it’s a solid B-picture through & through. If its not one of Corman’s best directorial efforts, it’s at least an early telegraph of the excellent work that was to come (especially X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes).
It’s understandable, then, why fellow schlockteur Jim Wynorski might be tempted to repeat that early-career success while working under Corman’s tutelage in the 1980s. Wynorski himself is known for directing over a hundred films as cheaply & quickly as humanly possible, so it’s no surprise that he got his start under the Corman brand. Wynorski happened to watch a print of Not of This Earth while working for Corman, which delighted him enough to inspire a bet among friends: that he cold remake the same film on the same schedule & budget – two weeks and $100,000. He satisfied that bet admirably in that he did direct a Not of This Earth remake under the original’s same constraints, but by doing so he delivered a far inferior product. Wynorski was exactly the wrong man for the job. Something of a softcore pornographer, he robs Not of This Earth of its barebones, asexual alien invasion thrills by recreating the earlier film’s exact plot & dialogue but padding out its runtime with basic cable boobies-ogling. The 1988 Not of This Earth is the exact same film as the 1950s version except in color, bloated with unsexy softcore titilation, and sorely missing the flying umbrella monster. Whereas Corman’s film proudly worked within its means to entertain on a B-picture budget, Wynorski’s remake continually apologizes for its own blatant cheapness. Not only does it needlessly pad its runtime with Skinemax-level strip-teases, it also self-cannibalizes Corman’s back-catalog in the most egregious manner possible: showing a highlight reel of better-funded movies with amazing creature effects in its opening credits so that the audience is duped into expecting a much more substantial picture than what ultimately arrives. I’ve seen that kind of false advertising on posters & VHS covers before but doing it in the actual movie itself feels like some next-level hucksterism. The only truly brilliant decision Wynorski made was hiring Traci Lords for her first mainstream role after leaving porn to study method acting at The Lee Strasberg Institute. Unfortunately, Lords provides the film’s only entertaining performance and, since her presence made for good press, boosted the remake’s notoriety above the superior original’s – which is a total shame.
Shockingly, the made-for-Showtime remake of Not of This Earth wasn’t half-bad, at least by comparison. This time the decision to remake the film came from Corman himself. Desperate for titles to fill out the slate for the Showtime series Roger Corman Presents (a horror anthology comprised of standalone features), Corman decided to throw in a few remakes of his lesser-known works, careful not to tarnish the classics. Roger Corman Presents started filming in January of 1992 and wrapped production of 13 feature films by June of that same year, so there wasn’t much room for mind-blowing quality or ingenuity on the slate. Still, the series’ Not of This Earth remake at least indicates that it’s one of the better examples of its ilk – surpassing similar series like Rebel Highway, Masters of Horror, Fear Itself, etc. Director Terence H. Winkless (best known for the gross-out creature feature The Nest and the original Americanized run of The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers) takes a much more interesting approach in his remake than Wynorski – keeping the dialogue overlap much looser in its exactness and padding out the runtime with practical monster effects instead of basic cable stripteases. I don’t know that 1992’s Not of This Earth is a great movie, at least not when compared to the original, but it at least leans into its strengths as an alien invasion cheapie. Winkless’s interpretation of the film is less akin to classic Corman than it is a dime store knockoff of Cronenberg or an even cheaper version of Brian Yuzna’s aesthetic. Pulsating alien brains throb & light up in coital moans; sensual tentacles creep through the walls to suck on victims’ necks; the lead space-vamp writhes orgasmically while masturbating his own intestinal protrusions. It’s a gross-out horror cheapie in just the right way. It may mistakenly believe that the only reason the Corman original didn’t rely on over-the-top creature designs & nightmarish sexuality was budgetary, but at least its hideous monsters and even more hideous sex are more compelling than Wynorski’s eyeroll-worthy attempts at nudie-cutie titillation. Neither remake was necessary or revelatory, but this one delivers the genre goods.
I hope I’m not coming off as a prude here in my suggestion that the Not of This Earth remakes ruined the original’s entertainment value by flooding it with sex & gore. I wouldn’t watch dirt-cheap genre films like this in the first place if I were averse to sex & gore. I just find it illustrative of Corman’s creative talents when working under the mania of a tight schedule & budget that he can deliver something so memorable without relying on that prurience & bloodlust for cheap thrills. Both of the Not of This Earth remakes feel compelled to include throwaway touchstones from the original that have nothing to do with the plot: a side-character alien vampire becoming infected with rabies, a door-to-door vacuum salesman victim (who was so obviously written for Dick Miller that anyone else in the role can’t help but disappoint), a rambling monologue within which the space-vamp pontificates the cure for cancer as a casual musing, etc. Those throwaway gags would not have been echoed in both remakes if Corman weren’t onto something and I felt like we too often undervalue that creative voice while praising him for funding & supporting “better” directors. The original Not of This Earth is an excellent example of Corman at his most efficient & compelling in the 1950 drive-in era, but it isn’t until you see how much less satisfying that film’s modern-update remakes became that you truly understand how special he is. Few schlockteurs on his budget level could make such an entertaining horror cheapie out of a mysterious G-man carrying a briefcase around an unsuspecting town; the two directors who followed in those exact footsteps in these remakes didn’t even try – instead relying on monster effects & naked breasts for cheap-thrills convenience.
In a career defined by inconsistences and exploitation of passing fads, the one constant to Roger Corman’s instincts as a producer is that the knows how to make money. He even proudly marketed his own autobiography on that conceit, titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. That’s why it’s so bizarre to hear Katt Shea recall in a recent interview with Blumhouse’s Shock Waves podcast how difficult it was to pitch her wildly successful debut feature to Roger Corman in the mid-1980s. If you boil Stripped to Kill down to its bare essentials, the film is basically just 15 (!!!) strip club routines, a few scenes of horrifically gruesome violence, and an extremely offensive twist ending that has aged about as well as a fart in a jar. It’s possible that Corman’s queasiness with the film’s #problematic conclusion was a smart instinct, and he should not have caved to Shea’s repeated, insistent pitches on the film. I doubt being politically correct ranks as highly in the producer’s mind as making enough money to fund his next picture, though, as evidenced by the existence of Stripped to Kill 2 and Katt Shea’s continued employment under his wing. Shea had a distinct, neon-soaked vision for a movie so sleazy it made Roger Corman afraid of making money; even if Stripped to Kill is so morally offensive that it should not exist, you still have to admire that accomplishment.
Two Los Angeles detectives stumble into an investigation of a serial killer who targets local strippers. Both detectives want to use this opportunity for a promotion to the homicide division, but only the woman of the pair has to strip for it. Undercover among strippers while her male coworkers cheer her on from the audience (to boost the appearance of her popularity), our heroine finds herself torn between staying focused on the investigation and losing herself to the unexpected pleasures of sexual exhibitionism. Her initial prime suspect for the stripper murders is far too obvious of a misdirect, meaning the real murderer is hiding in plain sight among the main characters. There isn’t much time for the audience to pick up on clues ourselves, though, as the film is (under$tandably) much more concerned with packing in as much sex & violence as it can manage in it brisk 88min runtime. There are brief glimpses of backstage stripper drama in the film that recall the backroom politics of sex work in flicks like Working Girls & Support the Girls, but they’re inevitably interrupted by flashier, more attention-grabbing indulgences: misogynist hyperviolence, leather fetish strip routines, explosions, etc. Even the opening credits of the film are accompanied by a full-length strip routine set to sub-Lou Reed beat poetry, just to squeeze in a little more bare flesh without wasting any time. It’s remarkably easy to lose track of the undercover cop’s hunt for a crazed killer among all this hedonism (a thread the cop loses herself as she comes to enjoy her new trade), which almost makes the unnecessary transphobic twist ending even more offensive, since the film makes very few narrative strides to justify it.
To be fair, Stripped to Kill is offensive long before the arrival of its killer reveal. The way it gawks at women both performing onstage and privately engaged in lesbian foreplay, then turns around to gawk at those same bodies being mutilated by a misogynist killer leans into the ickiest trappings of the sex thriller genre. The violence on display in this film is upsettingly brutal; women are strangled, tossed off bridges, raped, set aflame, and dragged behind giant commercial trucks. It has a shockingly gruesome mean streak for something that’s ostensibly meant to be sexually titillating (given the space it allows for more than a dozen strip routines, which often punctuate its kill scenes). There is something transgressively perverse about watching a young woman recreate this misogynist violence herself, especially in the case of Katt Shea believing in this project so passionately that she effectively bullied Roger Corman into greenlighting it. In its best moments, Stripped to Kill recalls the same 80s LA grime Jackie Kong exaggerated to a cartoonish degree in her cult classic horror comedy Blood Diner. Played straight here, the misogynist violence & sexual exploitation on display feel like a detailed time capsule of the era’s sleaziest sleaze – decorated perfectly with big hairsprayed mops of curls, high-wasted black lace lingerie, and intense washes of neon lighting. As shameless as they are, the sex & crime that defines most of Stripped to Kill are perfectly in tune with the hardboiled LA detectives & drug-addled street punks that populate its sleazy, greasy world. It’s just that sometimes that sleaze results in a badass moment (like women kicking an offending john to pulp in a back-alley act of vigilante stripper justice) and sometimes it results in poorly-aged cringe (the ill-considered twist).
It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether Stripped to Kill’s merits outweigh its faults. As its never-ending pileup of strip routines & grotesque murder scenes continually muscled out any room for genuine, legitimate drama, I found myself impressed by its wholehearted commitment to sleaze. Your own appreciation of that commitment will depend on your personal taste for unembarrassed, hyper-sexualized, politically careless trash. Thankfully, Roger Corman himself was won over by the film’s box office receipts despite his early reservations with Katt Shea’s pitch, and the young director was able to churn out a few better-respected titles under Corman brand – notably Poison Ivy, Dance of the Damned, and Streets. I’m looking forward to seeing how her keen sense of sleaze evolved in those pictures, but also a little weary of her instincts after the conclusion of this one.
One of the more bizarre aspects of the initial slasher genre boom of the 70s & 80s is that it’s oddly just as prudish as the “road to ruin” exploitation pictures of the 1950s. In the 50s pictures, teens who dared to experiment with sex & drugs, especially girls, would swiftly be met with a violently tragic end as punishment. This formula allowed audiences to both indulge in the sexy, transgressive behavior of rebellious teens and wag a morally righteous finger in their direction once they get their inevitable comeuppance. Although packed with far more nudity & bloodshed, the slasher genre was generally just as condemning of teenage rebellion as the “road to ruin” pictures before it. Its teen characters were chopped down by humanoid monsters like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees instead of dying at the hands of syphilis or car crashes, but slashers were just as obsessed with punishing wayward youngsters for straying into the temptations of marijuana & premarital sex. The original entry in the Roger Corman-produced SlumberPartyMassacreslasher series both participated in and satirized this time honored tradition. Written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown, 1982’s The SlumberPartyMassacre is a straightforward slasher film that still punishes teens for their hedonistic behavior, but delivers its kills by way of an oversized, phallic drill that points to the absurd gender politics of its genre. What’s much more interesting than that subtle subversion in the mechanism of punishment, however, is the way its sequel, 1987’s SlumberPartyMassacre II, updated the source of its teenage moral transgressions to something more blatantly modern.
Marijuana & premarital sex had been triggering teen deaths in exploitation pictures dating all the way back to the 1950s, long before slashers added machetes & kitchen knives to the recipe. SlumberPartyMassacre II modernized the formula by introducing an entirely new source of teenage transgression, one highly specific to the 1980s: music television. In the five years between the first two SlumberPartyMassacrereleases, MTV had proven to be a kind of cultural behemoth instead of a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Suddenly, the already sinful business of rock n’ roll had a direct line to youngsters’ television sets, where it could tempt them into darkness with all of the sex, drugs, and partying their little eyes could take in. MTV had come to visually represent the teen rebelliousness that ruined so many fictional lives in exploitation cinema past and the Corman-funded, Deborah Brock-directed team behind SlumberPartyMassacre II were smart to adapt that visual language to the slasher genre format. It’s still a film where teen girls are murdered for straying from their parents’ protection to experiment with sex & alcohol. The difference is that the mechanism used to punish them is not a scary man in a mask wielding a comically oversized kitchen utensil. Instead, the victims in SlumberPartyMassacre II are hunted by a personified representation of MTV culture. In its own absurdist way, the film literalizes parents’ fears about rock n’ roll invading their homes to destroy their children’s lives. Better yet, it does so with a cartoonish slapstick energy usually reserved for a Looney Tunes short that keeps the mood consistently light instead of browbeating the audience for indulging in its sex & fantasy violence.
The youngest survivor of the titular slaying in the first SlumberPartyMassacre, Courtney, is now high school age, living alone with an overly stressed mother who shares her anxieties over her traumatic past. Instead of spending her birthday weekend visiting her sister (who also survived the massacre) in the hospital, Courtney convinces her mother to allow her to go on an unsupervised road trip with her small group of close friends. All four girls in this crew are members of a jangly, Go-Gos reminiscent garage band and plan to spend the weekend away practicing new songs. They, of course, also plan to drink excessively & sleep with hot boys. In the days leading up to this getaway, Courtney has recurring nightmares featuring a demon in a leather jacket, billed simply as The Driller Killer, who warns her not to have sex on the trip or else. Of course, being a teenager, Courtney inevitably ignores this warning and deliberately sheds her virginity with her biggest crush. The exact second Courtney has sex for the first time, the transgression gives birth to the rock n’ roll demon, who escapes from her nightmares and hunts down every one of her friends & bandmates with a giant, guitar-shaped drill. The physical manifestation of MTV culture, The Driller Killer is dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, except with a vampire collar on his biker jacket. Before drilling each teen dead with his unignorably phallic guitar, he suggestively delivers rock n’ roll one-liners like “I can’t get no satisfaction,” & “C’mon baby, light my fire.” He also had a rock n’ roller’s sense of open-ended sexuality, applying his drill to victims of all genders instead of reserving it just for the girls, like in the first film. The only way this sex demon could’ve been more MTV is if his name was Downtown Julie Brown.
Not all of SlumberPartyMassacre‘s MTV horrors rest on The Driller Killer’s leather clad shoulders. Besides its two music video tangents highlighting Courtney’s garage band, the film generally adapts music video language to its visual style. Drastic comic book angles, fog machines, and intensely colored lights shape a lot of the aesthetic of its nightmare sequences & third act slayings. The film’s sets, which include empty condo developments & construction sites, also recall early MTV-rotated rock videos that were cheaply, rapidly produced to feed the young channel’s bottomless need for content. The teen girls in the film are highly aware of this then-modern medium too. Minor scream queen Heidi Kozak, who plays the band’s drummer, exclaims in a pivotal scene, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything, because my song is going to be a hit,” and, more directly, “MTV, here we come!” This declaration is promptly followed by the girls stripping down to their underwear (or less) and erupting into a dance party/pillow fight that could easily pass for a mid-80s hair metal video if it weren’t for all the nudity. The sequence is often viewed from the television’s POV, as if the music emanating from it was directly influencing their drunken behavior, enticing them to commit sins that will immediately get them killed. The broadcasted film soundtrack they’re dancing to is also none other than the Corman-produced classic Rock n’ Roll High School, which had its own significant impact on music video culture before MTV ever existed.
SlumberPartyMassacre II can sometimes be a nihilistically violent exploitation piece in the way that all slashers are, but mostly it just mirrors the light-headed inanity of pop music as a medium. Song lyrics like, “I wanna be your Tokyo convertible,” and scenes like the dance party/pillow fight keep the tone goofy & charmingly absurd. Even the film’s rock n’ roll demon, although a murderous creep, never feels like the kind of nightmarish threat that usually terrorizes wayward teens in this genre. The film not only modernizes the slasher formula by shaking off its 1950s cobwebs and updating its teen transgressions with a borrowed MTV flavor; it also makes its violent downfall seem just as fun & enticing as the sins that trigger it. Given the choice to either live a chaste life or die by the hands of MTV, it’s likely a lot of mid-80s teens would’ve eagerly chosen death, which feels like a different sentiment entirely from the third act downfalls of the “road to ruin” era of exploitation cinema. It’s funny that it had to return to the demonized image of a 1950s rock n’ roller to free itself from that era’s moralist trappings.
Arthur Penn’s 1967 free-wheeling crime thriller Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the start of the so-called New Hollywood movement that reached its creative & cultural heights in the 1970s. An upstart director making heroes out of amoral, cop-killing bank robbers struck a chord with the youth culture of the day, especially in its gleeful depictions of shameless lust & ultraviolence. Other young directors were inspired to make their own antihero hagiographies in its wake, now with financial backing from major Hollywood studios – names like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, and so on. Opera-composer-turned-filmmaker Leonard Kastle was far less inspired by the film, particularly in the ways it failed to fully subvert Hollywood glitz & glamor. With his first (and only) film The Honeymoon Killers, Kastle set out to right the wrongs of Bonnie & Clyde, explaining “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Kastle wanted grime in his true crime cinema, something much closer in aesthetic to early John Waters provocations like Multiple Maniacs than anything mainstream Hollywood would dare to produce. To help accomplish this goal, Kastle employed a fresh-out-of-film-school Martin Scorsese to direct his picture, a true life drama about the theft/murder spree of Raymond & Martha Beck, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1940s. Scorsese previously made a huge critical splash with his vibrant, energetic, and above all grimy debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a film that made him appear perfect for Kastle’s pet anti-Bonnie & Clyde project. The partnership was short-lived, however, with Scorsese only surviving a couple weeks of production before being replaced in the director’s chair by Kastle himself (and several other uncredited collaborators). That didn’t stop Young Marty (to refer to him by his SoundCloud rapper name) from directing his own answer to Bonnie & Clyde, however. Instead, he paid his dues as a New Hollywood brat by taking his Bonnie & Clyde-aping ambitions to a much more traditional collaborator for his contemporaries: Roger Corman.
Many New Hollywood players got their start working for Corman, from Peter Bogdanovich working on bullshit projects like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Womento Peter Fonda testing out early revisions of Easy Rider in Corman productions The Wild Angels & The Trip. Although they were both working under AIP, Kastle was much less valuable as a career-starter than Corman, as he approached The Honeymoon Killers as a singular-obsession passion project, while it was typical for Corman to juggle a dozen productions at once. It’s probably best for Scorsese’s overall career, then, that he was fired from Kastle’s picture to instead pursue his own Bonnie & Clyde romantic thriller under Corman’s wing, but the circumstances of that change-up are a little baffling. Kastle reportedly booted Scorsese from The Honeymoon Killers for taking too much time to set up, shoot, and break down individual scenes, delaying production to great cost. It’s unclear whether Scorsese had taken to heart the lesson of needing to prioritize speed over artistic fussiness by the time he worked with Corman on his next feature or if the increased budget of that production allowed for more careful preparation on a day’s shoot. Given Corman’s own notoriety for cheap, rapid-fire filmmaking, it’s most likely that Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable career lesson in the firing, one that would become much less useful by the time he was allowed the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted in sprawling epics like GoodFellas, Silence, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese was capable of delivering his auteurist vision on an AIP schedule & budget, as evidenced by pictures like Who’s That Knocking? & Mean Streets, but his heart wasn’t really in it. That’s not only indicated by his firing from The Honeymoon Killers, but also by the quality of the Bonnie & Clyde knockoff he eventually completed for Corman instead: Boxcar Bertha. There’s a slickness & attention to detail in Scorsese’s best works that could not shine through under AIP’s prohibitive budgets & shooting schedules, even when he was shooting his pet-favorite subject of cool-looking antihero criminals behaving badly.
1972’s Boxcar Betha splits the difference between Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers, leaving itself a middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the process. Given the grimy, ultraviolent aesthetic he carved out in early pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver, you’d assume Scorsese’s own take on the Bonnie & Clyde template would be in line with Kastle’s, but those instincts did not translate to the screen in this instance. Barbara Hersey & David Carradine star as train-hopping armed robbers in the 1930s South, never quite matching the spiritual ugliness of the Lonely Hearts Killers nor the Hollywood glamor of Bonnie & Clyde. Boxcar Bertha is listed as a “romantic crime drama” on Wikipedia (a descriptor that fits all three of these works well enough), but it mostly functions as a road trip movie, detailing a loosely connected string of anecdotes as its romantically linked antiheroes drink, rob, shoot, gamble, and prostitute their way across the 1930s railways. This ramshackle lifestyle earns them much unwanted attention (and gunfire) from the law, ultimately to predictable tragedy. It’s a rote tale of Depression Era Southern pastiche, one with far fewer distinguishing details than either The Honeymoon Killers or Bonnie & Clyde, which is surprising given that its source material is entirely fictional. While both Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers were based on true stories heavily reported on in the papers, Boxcar Bertha was an adaptation of a fictional novel from the 1930s, Sister of the Road. That didn’t stop Corman from including a “based on a real story” title card at the start of the picture, solidifying its function as a Bonnie & Clyde mockbuster. In most ways, Boxcar Bertha feels far more akin to Roger Corman’s typical output than Scorsese’s, which isn’t all that surprising considering how green the director was at the time. The film was a stepping stone to New Hollywood infamy for Scorsese, one that faithfully took the shape of New Hollywood’s own stepping stone to mass audience success.
Like most directors’ early collaborations with Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha’s greatest asset to Scorsese was an opportunity for hands-on experience. The most he puts himself into the work (not counting the literal instance of his cameo as one of Bertha’s johns) is in the excruciatingly Catholic imagery of a character being crucified with railway spikes for their crimes. The rest of the film is a straight Corman mockbuster of Penn’s seminal film, the exact opposite of what Kastle set out to achieve in The Honeymoon Killers. I suppose Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable lesson himself in booting him from that anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, but it’s very tempting to wonder what The Honeymoon Killers might have been like if Scorsese had remained onboard throughout. Maybe Scorsese’s Honeymoon Killers would have been just as great as the film Kastle delivered on his own. Maybe the lethargic shooting schedule would have tanked the picture entirely and there never would have been a Honeymoon Killers in the first place. Either way, the result certainly would have been more interesting than the far less blasphemous Bonnie & Clyde echoes of Boxcar Bertha, easily the dullest Scorsese pic I’ve seen to date.
Before the New Hollywood movement busted up the established dinosaurs of the Studio System, one of the best ways for young outsiders to break into filmmaking was through the Roger Corman Film School. Because the maniacally frugal producer would hand off cheap, quick film shoots to anyone he suspected might be competent enough to handle the task, many young filmmakers who would later define the New Hollywood era cut their teeth with on-the-job training making films for Roger Corman & AIP: Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda, Hopper, Demme, etc. There was a kind of freedom to this pedal-to-the-floor cheapo genre film production cycle, but many projects Corman handed to his de facto “students” were . . . less than ideal, considering their art cinema sensibilities. That’s how the world was gifted weird mishmash projects like Peter Bogdanovich getting his start directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women by smashing together scenes of over-dubbed Soviet sci-fi films with new footage of beachside bikini babes. Another future New Hollywood upstart, Frances Ford Coppola, got his foot in the door recutting & dubbing those same Russian sci-fi films alongside Bogdanovich in the editing room. Coppola also got his own start directing “mainstream” narrative features (as opposed to his earlier nudie cutie work) through a hodgepodge project Corman handed to him in a rush. Hastily slapped together on the back of $20,000 of budgetary leftovers from another AIP production, Coppola’s Dementia 13 is one of those Corman projects like Blood Bath or The Terror that are left almost entirely incomprehensible by their corner-cutting, behind the scenes shenanigans. The film afforded Coppola the opportunity to experiment with his sense of craft on the job, though, as he strived to make a more serious, artful picture than what’s usually expected from Croman fare. The results were mixed, but worthwhile.
Urged by AIP to deliver a quick, cheap riff on Psycho, Coppola filters a Hitchcockian mad-killer plot through a Gothic haunted house template. Packed with axe-murders, underwater doll parts, badly dubbed performances, and gradual descents into madness, the film often feels like a cheap black & white take on giallo surreality. Like giallo, it values imagery over narrative coherence, requiring a Wikipedia read-through of its basic plot after the end credits roll. It opens with a Psycho/Carnival of Souls-style setup of a lone woman in flight from her past crises. In this case, she’s a money-hungry schemer who pretends that her late husband is still alive so she can ingratiate herself to his mother for inheritance money. She moves in with the “not” dead husband’s family in their Gothic manor, which is lousy with hidden passageways and dark family secrets. The family is unhealthily obsessed with the drowning of their youngest daughter years in the past, a weakness the woman hopes to exploit to con them out of their money. What happens from there is up for interpretation, as the past drowning death and a series of current axe murders open the film up to hazily-defined mysteries befitting of the world’s most incomprehensible gialli. Although the producer afforded Coppola total freedom to write & direct the film he wanted, Corman was frustrated with its incomprehensible plot, which he decided to punch up with a series of changes that dampened its art film appeal: Irish accents dubbed over with unenthused American ones; Jack Hill-directed inserts of comic relief; a runtime-padding intro that administered a mental stability test to the audience in a William Castle-style gimmick. Corman didn’t clarify the plot of Coppola’s film so much as he compromised its overall artistic vision. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it’s clear the film would have would have been a total mess either way.
What an interesting mess, though! Although not as fun as similarly incomprehensible horror cheapies like Blood Bath or A Night to Dismember, Dementia 13 at the very least provides a stage for a young Coppola to test out his visual experiments to varying success, without any real stakes for them having to pay off (it wouldn’t be the first or last time someone wasted AIP money). As it opened on a double bill with the excellent sci-fi horror The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, possibly Corman’s best directorial effort outside The Masque of the Red Death, it’s clear that the student had yet to become the master. Like many other future New Hollywood film nerds, though, Coppola was better for the Roger Corman Film School having afforded him an opportunity to gain mainstream experience behind the camera, even if the immediate results weren’t as compelling as a Targets or even a Death Race 2000.
I’ve come to think of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as my childhood “bad” movie training wheels. It’s a crutch I no longer need to enjoy my Z-grade schlock, thanks to years of training under the tutelage of the show. As much as I appreciate that schlocky schooling, it often bums me out that the show has become an unavoidable authority on many of the public domain B-pictures they’ve covered, to the point where if you google the picture most immediate results will be jokes the sarcastic robots made about it. The early Roger Corman directorial effort Swamp Women (also known as Cruel Swamp and, on MST3k, Swamp Diamonds) is one such picture, which is unfortunate because I find the movie interesting enough on its own terms to not need the distraction of MST3k’s commentary diluting it. It’s a difficult position to defend, though, since Swamp Women hits so many of my personal obsessions as a trash-gobbling movie nerd. A cheapo Roger Corman crime picture about cop-hating “bad girls” misbehaving in Louisiana swamps, Swamp Women hits about as close to home as possible to my specific cinematic interests without including drag, witchcraft, pro wrestling, or outer space. The film is far from a knockout, but it is very much my thing. It’s easy to see how someone who’s not a New Orleans-based trash hound could need a little extra help from MST3k to make its basic premise enticing, but those days are long behind me.
An undercover police woman conspires with a prison warden to infiltrate a locked-up girl gang. The plan is to trick the girls into exposing their stash of stolen diamonds. She helps the hardened criminals stage a jail break (with only performative resistance from the warden) and, in return, they allow her to tag along in recovering the diamonds from their deep swamp hiding pace. Along the way they capture an innocent couple touring the Louisiana wilderness, reducing the cast to five women and one tied-up man – an indication of the level of sleaze that persists throughout. Swamp Women is incredibly faithful to its “bad girls” crime template, entirely obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a genre that would be later perfected in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. What it lacks in narrative innovation, though, it more than makes up for in how perfectly cool its central girl gang comes across onscreen. When they first break out of jail they have two immediate concerns: regret that they didn’t get a chance to shoot back at the cops and how soon they’ll be able to find “something decent to wear and some lipstick.” They look incredible even as they pick fights & trudge through the gator-infested swamp, sporting perfectly coiffed hair, razor sharp Joan Crawford eyebrows, and gigantic knives holstered in tight blue jeans. There’s nothing the film can manage to stage plot-wise that can match the pleasure of hanging out with these badass women, something that’s practically admitted aloud in an absurdly long sequence where they get drunk to brunch jazz and convert their tight jeans to cutoff hot pants with their comically large knives. Corman only barely pretends that out interests & sympathies aren’t supposed to lie with these degenerate women, but with the undercover cop who’s there to take them down. Why bother?
Because Swamp Women is so genre-faithful, its most distinguishing characteristic is its choice of locale, something even heavily referenced in its (unenthused) contemporary reviews. This was only Corman’s fifth directorial effort (in his second year of filmmaking, because he’s a beast), so he was still at a stage in his career when he was personally traveling the country selling his films directly to distributors. Around this time, New Orleans had just opened its first drive-in movie theaters, the owners of which were also interested in getting into film production. Corman gladly took their money, filming Swamp Women on location in Louisiana (and thanking New Orleans mayor deLesseps Morrison in the credits for the city’s cooperation). Because it was a Corman production, the actors were required to perform their own stunts in the actual Louisiana swamp, putting themselves in danger of the same gators & snakes the movie itself uses as thrilling threats to its misbehaving girl gag. I’m sure it was a miserable shoot, but the gator footage & moss-decorated trees really do make for a more interesting backdrop than a sound stage or urban environment ever could have (even if the live gators and their intended victims never do share a single frame). In my favorite example of the film padding its own runtime, Corman also opens this 70min feature with roughly ten minutes of touristy, people-watching Mardi Gras footage. Playing documentarian, Corman captures the 1950s Krewe of Rex rolling down Canal Street (in color!), followed by masked revelers—all looking exactly the same as they would in the 2010s (except with maybe fewer outright racist costumes, which are featured front & center here). Even if the movie’s bad-girls-gone-worse plot holds little interest for you, the footage of 1950s Louisiana might be enough to make the film worthwhile.
With or without the MST3k commentary, I cannot issue an open recommendation for Swamp Women, an exceedingly minor trifle of a picture. I can only report that I was personally charmed by its depictions of cop-hating “bad girls” on a swampy crime spree and fascinated by its inadvertently documentarian record of a 1950s Louisiana. Maybe this is the exact kind of minor pleasure that deserves to be remembered only through the MST3k lens, but I personally found enough to enjoy in the film on its own to not need the sarcastic robots to hold my hand through it. Other schlock-hungry reprobates with any personal affinity with Corman and/or New Orleans have a chance of feeling the same.
As a producer, Roger Corman’s tireless mission to miraculously make money out of scraps of garbage is legendary. He’d often reuse sequences from previous productions, purchase foreign films for American re-edits, rip off his own intellectual properties for self-cannibalized premises, and all other kinds of scrappy cinematic recycling imaginable just to sell a cheap genre picture for a tidy profit. I can’t argue that the 1966 Corman production Blood Bath is the pinnacle result of this kind of absurd, behind the scenes pragmatism gone mad, but it does deserve credit for gathering all of Corman’s penny-pinching schemes into a single project. Corman initially co-produced the Yugoslavian noir picture Operation: Titan with plans to reissue it as an American release. He then hired notable schlockmeister Jack Hill to direct new scenes to recontextualize the film for an American audience, which Hill did by transforming it into an oddly self-serious rip-off of the classic Corman comedy Bucket of Blood, a campy satire of beatniks & artist types. Unsatisfied with Hill’s treatment, titled Portrait in Terror, Corman then hired a third director, The Velvet Vampire’s Stephanie Rothman, who added an entirely new A-plot about a shapeshifting vampire to the mix. You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.
The similarities between Blood Bath & Bucket of Blood’s basic plots are undeniable. A community of comically pretentious visual artists are disturbed when models form their community are reported dead or missing, then appear in the work of a colleague. Hill’s contribution to the film seems largely to be the Bucket of Blood-style humor of this arts scene drama, especially when the artists experiment with new processes for applying paint to canvas, such as shooting it out of a gun or directly applying it via a model’s face. According to Hill, Rothman “ruined” the picture with her vampirirc contribution, which shifts the work into a much more serious, psychedelic tone. If anything, she made it interesting & distinct, steering it away from a straight Bucket of Blood retread. Instead of the awkward bus boy Dick Miller plays in Bucket of Blood, Rothman crafts a villain that goes through Jekyll & Hyde transformations from passionate artist to centuries-old vampire with insatiable appetite. She maintains some of Hill’s humor, even including sequences that are essentially beach blanket parties with bikini babes. This humor is made to clash with a more serious, surreal tone, however, as her vampire/painter struggles with a classic Madonna-whore complex. He is romantically drawn to beautiful women, but transforms into a bloodthirsty monster whenever they make a pass at him, a dynamic that gives the movie a thematic point of view on top of a ridiculously fractured premise. I’m in love with the insane collage that emerges in the final draft of Blood Bath and that credit goes just as much to Rothman’s eye as it does to Corman’s machinations as a producer.
You’ll find very few films that can deliver this much movie in such a short amount of time. At just 60 minutes in length, Blood Bath is filled to the brim with seemingly incongruous, but oddly beautiful sequences: an underwater vampire kill, a rip-off of the carousel sequence from Strangers on a Train, surrealist scenes of women taunting the camera/killer from inside paintings & dreamlike desertscapes, interpretive dance, noir foot chases worthy of The Third Man, etc. Rothman & Corman’s mismatched film collage has no business even being watchable, much less as oddly fun & engaging as it feels as a “final” product (Corman later added several minutes of bikini-clad dancing to fill out more time for a TV-broadcast of the film). Jack Hill deserves some credit for lightening up the mood of the noir sequences with his own layer of beatnik-satirizing Bucket of Blood retreads, but it’s really Rothman’s surrealist eye & Corman’s insane production instincts that make Blood Bath so mesmerizing. Obviously, not all audiences are going to have a stomach for this kind of production-level incoherence, but I urge anyone interested in Corman’s weirdo decision making as a business man to give this picture an honest chance. Besides its easy-to-digest runtime and immediate appeal as an eccentric horror film, Blood Bath is also currently in the public to main and available to watch on Archive.org, so you really have no excuses to give this damned-from-conception Frankenfilm a chance.