Monday, March 2, 2015

Mundo Depravados (1967)

... aka: Mundo Depravados (World of the Depraved)
... aka: World of the Depraved

Directed by:
Herb "Jefferies" (Jeffries)

Herb Jeffries had a very interesting show biz career leading up to this hilariously sleazy “sinerama of sex and fear,” which turned out to be his only directorial effort. A mix of many difference races, Jeffries had blue eyes and (depending on whichever interview one reads) was of Irish, Italian, Sicilian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, African, Creole and / or Native American ancestry. Though light-skinned, he was clearly neither fully Caucasian nor fully black, and identified himself as either one or the other, or neither, at various stages of his career. Yes, labels are moronic and most of us are beyond all that now, but we're talking about what a man of some color had to do to try to navigate his way through the racist entertainment industry of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Jeffries dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a singer and was discovered by Louis Armstrong performing at a speakeasy. He quickly moved his way up the ladder to performing with the Earl Hines Orchestra and began a recording career in 1934. Three years later, he conceived, starred / sang in and wrote music for the low budget western musical Harlem on the Prairie (1937), which was shot in just five days and became the first all-black western of the sound era. The film was profitable enough to spawn three more similar vehicles for Jeffries, who'd gained a reputation as the black answer to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Because of his lighter skin tone, he was forced to use dark face paint to look more “black” by the studio financing these films.

Herb Jeffries

Tempest Storm

After making his mark on the western genre (he'd later become one of the only non-white actors ever to be inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame), Jeffries began an acclaimed performing / recording career, becoming best known for his work with Duke Ellington and his orchestra. He had numerous Billboard charting singles throughout the 40s, including “Flamingo,” which sold in excess of 14 million copies. He'd later relocate to Europe, open several nightclubs in France and continued recording jazz albums after moving back to America. In 1957, he had another starring vehicle in Calypso Joe (1957) alongside a then-unknown Angie Dickinson, but the film was unsuccessful and now has seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. Two years later he married world-famous stripper / burlesque queen Tempest Storm. Storm, a redhead with 44DD-25-35 measurements, made headlines with such publicity-generating stunts as having her breasts insured by Lloyd's of London for a million dollars and romances with the likes of Elvis and JFK. She was also no stranger to the nudie movie, having already stripped down in such films as Striptease Girl (1952), Teaserama (1955; also with Bettie Page) and Buxom Beautease (1956; also with fellow burlesque queens Lili St. Cyr and Blaze Starr). One thing Storm had never been asked to do before was act... and this movie certainly proves why!

After receiving a dirty, heavy-breather phone call (“Do you know what I'd like to do to you?”), young Arlene Marshall leaves her home and is chased down the street by a psycho wearing a long coat, hat and stocking over his face, who corners her in a closed-down doll factory and stabs her to death. Cops arrive on the scene and have a hilariously tasteless conversation about the victim having visible bra lines even though she's not wearing a bra (?) and wondering how she could have possibly died; a mystery that is finally solved when one guy flips her over and sees a stab wound on her back. The lead cop then lowers the woman's blouse down to expose her breasts so a press photographer can get a nice photo of the body for the evening paper. A narrator's voice suddenly kicks in as he tells us Arlene had “a pair of eyes that will never seen again” and then the body is hauled out on a stretcher past a small crowd, including one guy who is obviously laughing. This first scene wonderfully sets the tone for the horribly-acted, tasteless, lowbrow shenanigans that will follow.

Clues first lead detectives Ronnie Riley (Johnnie Decker) and Ham Hamilton (Larry Reed) to a strip club called The Gayety Theatre where Tango (Storm), who's “stacked like a 1987 locomotive,” is the star attraction. A pudgy, voyeuristic doorman named Hot Shot, who frequently sneaks backstage to steal bras and g-strings belonging to the dancers and whose hat was found within a few feet of Arlene's body, proclaims his innocence but is hauled off to the station for questioning anyway. He's just one of the many male degenerate perverts we'll meet over the course of the next 70 minutes... and that includes our two so-called heroes! Riley and Ham find out that that Arlene was an aspiring actress who worked as an exercise girl on an early morning TV fitness show. The show's host, bearded fitness guru Ray Revere, promises his audience “For youth and beauty year by year follow the course of Ray Revere!” but behind-the-scenes uses a peephole in his office to work up a sweat spying on his girls changing clothes. Tango is a co-sponsor of Ray's show and also runs a health club called “Tango's Temple of the Perfect Body,” where many of the exercise girls also work.

We meet Arlene's former roommate Bobette Chapman, as well as the Euro-accented Doris and deaf-mute Connie, who live right across the hall. All of the girls are understandably weirded out by Burt, the leering elevator operator in their apartment house. The cops visit Burt, discover he's stolen a photo of Tango and has porno pictures plastered all over his walls, but don't have enough evidence to arrest him... yet. Meanwhile, exercise girl Edna (Bunny Ware), another real life stripper / burlesque performer) has just inherited 10 thousand dollars and is “tired of being Little Miss Prim,” so she decides to treat her girlfriends to a party with 10 whole bottles of champagne. They all get drunk, dance around and then Edna shows them how wild she really is by performing a strip tease. Burt spies on it all through a vent in a broom closet, then watches another couple have sex through a keyhole before attempting to rape Edna as she's passed out on the couch. Edna returns the favor by beating the shit out of him with her shoe while shrieking “I'm not a sex-starved girl!” Afterward, she confesses to Bobette that she actually has a crush on her attacker (!), to which her friend responds, “Don't worry. He'll try again... but with more finesse next time!"

Despite ample warning from the cops that there's a “sex monster” on the loose and likely living in their building, Bobette decides to go down to the cellar's laundry room all by herself because she doesn't have a clean blouse. She's stabbed to death and her body is stuffed inside a furnace. After discovering the killer's bag of goodies hidden behind a hilariously archaic piece of 50s exercise equipment, Connie is up next and gets beat to death with a barbell. When news that three of her girls have now been killed gets back to Tango, she mumbles “It's horrible and so unnecessary” in her monotone voice. However, it's not so horrible it needs to cut into business. “Whether someone lives or dies,” Tango adds, “The show must go on.” She then incorporates the crimes into her new act called “Tango and the Sex Monster.” Setting herself up as bait, will Tango, uh, bust the killer, or instead become his latest victim?

Jeffries (who passed away at age 100 last year and was just featured in the “In Memoriam” tribute during last week's Oscar ceremony) and Storm (one of the worst actresses you'll ever see) were divorced shortly after this film was released. The music is credited to “Francesco Ballantine,” though considering Jeffries' real name is said to be Umberto Ballentino, it may have been him. Something Weird has released this on VHS as part of the Frank Henenlotter “Sexy Shockers” series and on DVD, where it was paired  up with Barry Mahon's The Love Cult (1966). The DVD also includes some rare outtakes for the film. It's pure trash... but fun trash!

Unknown World (1951)

... aka: Night Without Stars
... aka: To the Center of the Earth

Directed by:
"Terrell" (Terry) O. Morse

After the success of ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950), which road on the coattails of the bigger-budgeted DESTINATION MOON (1950) yet managed to even be released before it, Lippert Pictures gave us this follow-up sci-fi cheapie which borrows many of its ideas from Jules Verne's 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth and Edgar Rich Burroughs' 1914 novel At the Earth's Core. No credit was given to either Verne or Burroughs, though the advertisements still managed to remind audiences that this was about “A journey into the center of the Earth!” The project was conceived and put together by special effects men Irving Block and Jack Rabin, who not only did the fx but also produced, did the production design and at one time co-owned the film rights. The copyright was apparently not renewed at some point so the film is now in the public domain and has been released on both DVD and VHS through numerous labels over the years. Director Morse (primarily an editor by trade) had previous made the stagy horror-mystery Fog Island (1945) starring George Zucco and Lionel Atwill but would become best known for shooting scenes featuring Raymond Burr that were added to the Japanese monster movie Gojira (1954) for its American release under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956).

Newsreel stock footage warns of the dangers of The Atomic Age (“The paralyzing panic of our time!”) before we meet famed geologist Dr. Jeremiah Morley (Victor Kilian, who was uncredited due to being part of the Hollywood “Blacklist”). Because of the threat of nuclear war, Morley has formed “The Society to Save Civilization” and come up with a plan to preserve human life on this planet just in case such a war should break out. He gathers together a crack team of scientists that includes Dr. Max A. Bauer (Otto Waldis), an imminent German geophysicist who was ousted by Hitler during WWII, Dr. James Paxton (Tom Handley), an award-winning metallurgical engineer, Dr. Joan Lindsey (Marilyn Nash), a medical doctor, biochemist and “ardent feminist,” Dr. George Coleman (Dick Cogan), authority on soil conservation, and Andy Ostergaard (Jim Bannon), “sand hog,” explosive's expert and marine veteran of WWII. The team plans to construct a “Cyclotram,” a burrowing device with a large drill on its tip, to dig deep into the center of the Earth where they hope to discover fissures and tunnels large enough to potentially serve as a “geological shelter” against radiation.

Taking their plan in front of the Carlisle Foundation, the group are denied funds for the project, while the press labels Dr. Morley a “prophet of doom” and just like that a year of hard work seems to go right down the drain. Luckily, they're eventually bailed out by an unlikely source; cocky, immature Wright Thompson Jr. (Bruce Kellogg), the son of a prominent publisher whose relationship with his father he sums up in just seven words: “He makes the money. I spend it.” Wright promises to fund it under one condition: He also gets to come along on the adventure. Having no other option, the team agrees. Construction of the Cyclotram is soon underway, fuel problems are solved and a concentrated food source as well as a machine to transform snow into drinking water are developed. The finished Cyclotram is loaded aboard a ship and hauled off to an inactive (and fictional) volcano called Mt. Neleh in the Aleutian Islands “where the inside of the Earth begins."

Several miles into the Earth's surface, the team find a warning from a previous 1938 expedition, but continue on for hundreds, and eventually thousands, of miles in search of an adequate underground paradise. Along the way, they discover limestone caverns 200 million years in the marking, eyeless fanged fish, pearl-like rocks and fossils of long-extinct species and also encounter numerous threats, including pressure from a nearby active volcano, hot steam, rocky embankments, pockets of toxic gas, a water shortage and, of course, each other when stress levels increase, personalities clash and the fate of the whole mission is put in jeopardy after several accidental deaths. Will the survivors manage to discover what they're looking for and, granted they do, will it be suitable to sustain future generations? Or was this whole mission just a big waste of time and money?

Though this film is patently absurd from a scientific standpoint, if you're just looking for a mild sci-fi adventure you can turn your brain off to and pass an hour with, this will do the trick about as well as anything else. It's sometimes sluggishly-paced, very talky and boasts some pretty lame model effects (especially the toy-looking Cyclotram), but there's just enough plot complication to keep it going. The eventual discovery of a huge underground cavern that's brightly-lit due to fluorescent gas and contains a large sea of fresh water provides some genuine last minute interest, though one wishes this idea had been expanded upon more and the filmmakers hadn't already wasted so much time showing characters aimlessly walking around in dimly-lit caves. Unlike most other “lost world” style fantasy films (including the aforementioned works of Verne and Burroughs), this doesn't feature any kind of monster. The threats to the crew are all created by Mother Nature, or one another.

As was customary with many films of this type from this particular era, there's at least an earnest and well-meaning message in here about how it's better to face one's problems head on that try to run and hide from them. Known during production as Night Without Stars, this was partially filmed at Carlsbad Caverns National Parks in New Mexico, with additional bits filmed at the even-popular Bronson Caves in Los Angeles.

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