Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Laughing Dead, The (1989)

... aka: Ritual Macabro
... aka: Sacrifices
... aka: S.P. Somtow's The Laughing Dead

Directed by:
"S.P. Somtow" (Somtow Sucharitkul)

Father Ezekiel O'Sullivan (Tim Sullivan) of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church is put in charge of leading a Tucson, Arizona community college's “annual archaeology tour.” Their destination is the village of Todos Santos in the province of Oaxaca, Mexico, where they'll be checking out some ancient Mayan ruins and witnessing the All Soul's Day “festival of the Laughing Dead.” Seems an odd trip for a Catholic priest to be involved with, but O'Sullivan wants the students to see a “dark part of the human psyche” and he's also recently been haunted by disturbing dreams that are making him struggle with his faith. A decade earlier he fell in love with a nun named Marie-Therese, who he had sex with in a confessional booth. Finding herself pregnant, Marie-Therese then fled the church and has been raising their son on her own ever since; something that's been eating away at the troubled priest for years. Also coming along on the long bus trip are Clarisse Lemming (Krista Keim) and her husband Wilbur (Larry "Kagen" / Coven), a pair of uptight crystal and karma obsessed New Age weirdos, the loud, vulgar and obnoxious Mr. Dozois (Raymond Ridenour), the prissy Mr. Frost (Gregory Frost), troubled teenage stowaway Laurie Shigenaga (Premika Eaton, the director's sister) and some others who are given no personalities.

O'Sullivan will soon have to face both his past demons and some brand new ones when Marie-Therese, now going by the name of Tessie Smith (Wendy Webb), joins the tour, feeling it's the perfect opportunity to introduce the guilt-stricken priest to their son Ivan (Patrick Roskowick). Ivan's such a foul-mouthed punk even his own mom refers to him as “Ivan the Terrible” and “the little monster,” but she thinks all he needs is a father in his life. Ivan, on the other hand, can't believe his mother's “got the hots for a God damn bible beater” and blames the priest for all their problems (“It's all your fucking fault preacher dude! You remind her of all the bad old days when she was a fucking nun!”) Two days into the trip, the bus hits something that turns out to be the corpse of a little girl who's been wrapped in cloth and tied up. Two Mayan priests then materialize in the middle of the road, chant something and disappear in a cloud of smoke, along with the little girl's body. Undeterred by this bizarre incident, the bus continues on to their destination.

Upon arriving in the small village of Todos Santos, everyone begins exploring around and meeting the locals. Laurie reveals that she ran away because her father is dying and she can't handle it, but begins opening up when she meets mullet-y research assistant Cal Effner (Ryan Effner) and falls in love (“Thank God, somebody who doesn't look like he's from a Fellini movie!”). Father O'Sullivan tries to get to know his son but is derailed in his plans when he meets Dr. Um-tzek (played by the director), who behaves strangely and shares his name with the Mayan “God of Death.” Um-tzek asks for the priest's help in exorcising his “daughter,” but the girl instead rips her heart right out of her chest, rips O'Sullivan's heart out of his and then swaps them. Now possessed, Father O'Sullivan is the “Death God” and roams around in a daze saying things like “I am the blood star... rising!” It all has something to do with the planet of Mars, a series of “preliminary” killings, an ancient codex, a Mayan ritual, a portal to another dimension, rebirth, a blood sacrifice of one's son who knew not his father and blah blah blah.

There's no two ways about it, The Laughing Dead is a hot mess... but's at least a lively, entertaining and seldom boring hot mess! In the bad corner we have some of the most awful, awkward, amateurish actors you'll ever see playing extremely unlikable characters spewing some of the most laughably inane dialogue you'll ever hear (“A human soul has been cast adrift, sailing down the karmic maelstrom of death and rebirth!”). The plot is ridiculously and unnecessarily contrived to the point where you won't know what's going on from one minute to the next. There are continuity errors galore, too many annoying characters who refuse to die, horribly jarring switches from seriousness to comedy and the ending... Whew, just wait until the ending! I'll try not to spoil anything major just to say it involves a basketball game with zombies (!) and two of the characters transforming into giant rubbery monsters to do battle. One is a dinosaur-looking Quetzalcoatl and the other looks like an oversized Ghoulie with a magical amulet embedded in its head. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor watching some of this.

On the plus side, clearly a decent chunk of change was put down to make this film. Though the look is often on the cheap / grainy side, the filming locations are good and the art direction, sets and costumes are all - I kid you not - about on the level of Hollywood production you'd see from this same time. Perhaps the best thing of all is that this is loaded with wonderful 80s gore from John Carl Buechler and his Magic Media Industries Inc. crew. We get to see a head crushed by a bus tire, a decapitated head flying out a window and landing in a basketball net, hearts ripped out and shoved into mouths, guts pulled from stomachs, an animated blood-spurting torso, a C-section nightmare where a grown child pops out of a woman's belly, rotting zombies and a fist punching through a head and ripping out brains. The most memorable gore moment, however, features a guy getting his arm ripped off and shoved down his own throat, where you can see the wiggling fingers underneath the skin of his neck. The various effects are frequently great and even the ones that aren't so great are still fun.

Director Sucharitkul is an interesting cat. Born in Thailand, but educated in England before moving to the U.S., Sucharikul was an accomplished composer and conductor, artistic director for the Bangkok Opera Society and also a science fiction and horror writer who was the long-standing president of the Horror Writers Association. Many of the “actors” seen here (Edward Bryant, Tim Powers and others) are actually genre writers themselves. Sucharitkul not only directed, wrote and co-starred (as “S.P. Somtow”), but he also did the (very good) music score using his birth name. In his role as the evil priest, he's actually far more colorful and amusing than the rest of the cast and has a hilarious scene acting like a flamboyant, eye-rolling queen (“I really don't enjoy killing... that much!”) while killing and cutting the hearts out of a succession of blue-faced children while going on and on about wanting to retire so he can become an investment banker (!?) He later manages to top even that weirdness by appearing in a hallucination scene dressed in full drag as a nurse!

A lengthy, behind-the-scenes article written by the director himself was published in a 1989 issue of Gorezone Magazine to help promote the film, though this ended up never actually getting an official release here in America. It was however released in Japan, Thailand, the UK (on both DVD and VHS on the Midnite Movies label), France, Spain, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands and numerous other countries, sometimes re-dubbed. A 2012 bootleg DVD-R of subpar quality from Desert Island Films surfaced in 2012 but appears to have been discontinued. Forrest J. Ackerman and Len Wein (best known for creating the X-Men character “Wolverine”) can be briefly seen as a corpse falling out of a wall onto the floor.

Madam Satan (1970)

... aka: Madame Satan

Directed by:
Tom Gordon

In the early 70s, sex and Satanism went together like peanut butter and jelly. I'm not quite sure why that was, but there was a huge number of both hard and soft core sex films that centered their action around the occult, devil-worshippers, Satan and / or hell. Maybe the appeal was the combination of two societal taboos together after the recent erosion of censorship; sort of like a “Ha! Look at what we can do now and you can't do anything about it!” type of thing. Maybe audiences at the time were more turned on when their sex was blended with darker subject matter. Maybe it was just backlash from the recent success of such occult-themed hits as ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968). Or maybe they simply didn't know what else to do plot-wise and buying plastic horns, capes, candles and red light bulbs were just cheaper than the alternatives. The one recurring theme with these movies however is that nearly all of them are no budget, rock bottom, horribly made, horribly acted, barely-plotted and pretty much terrible in every way possible. This cycle certainly hit its crescendo with the hardcore classic The Devil in Miss Jones (1973); an anomaly in this subgenre in that it's a legitimately good movie. It may even be the only Satanic sex movie from this period that's any good at all. If there are others, I guess I just haven't stumbled upon them yet.

Five people, two men and three women, arrive at psychic Madam Cobra's (Linda Vroom) home and are let in and then seated at a table by her slow-talking half wit butler Igor. As they await the psychic's arrival, the camera zooms in on each guest's face, goes out of focus and then we learn a little more about them via flashback. “What in the hell am I doing here?,” wonders Jim Jackson (Richard Smedley) before we backtrack to his bedroom a few days earlier where he's woken up by Susan (Susan Westcott, from SEX PSYCHO) and then coerces her into the sack (“Why don't you slip into something more comfortable... like... my bed.”) Unbeknownst to Jim, Susan is actually in cahoots with his Uncle; a publisher who wants to expose Cobra as a fraud and fake spiritualist. The Uncle wants Susan to pose as “Lola Fontaine” and pretend like she wants the psychic to contact the ghost of her dead sister in order to collect an inheritance.

The other male guest, John, who looks a lot like Jeff Kober, then has a crazy recollection about having a red-hooded man burn his junk with a lit candle during an initiation rite to join “The Psycho Club.” Janet (Barbara Mills) isn't given a flashback at all but her friend Maggie (Pamela Westcott) is, which recalls how her past relationship ended...

“I'm a virgin and I'd like to stay that way till I'm married!”

“I'm beginning to think you are frigid. 
You just don't want me to know until our wedding night in case I call off the wedding.”

“Oh honey, you know that's not true!”

(pouncing on her)
“Then give it to me!”

(running away)


Blonde psychic Cobra finally shows up promising to give them “an experience you shall never forget.” She lays out the pre-seance ground rules (absolute silence, no breaking the chain), smoke rolls and suddenly everyone's sitting on the floor in a circle naked. Cobra, now wearing a black wig, announces herself as Madam Satan and tell them she's there to teach them “what sin is all about!” Everyone's led down a dark hallway by the whip-cracking butler until they meet a bearded, pot-bellied Satanic priest (James Mathers) who preaches and has his hooded servant Huntz give them “the elixir or lust.” Before everyone else can get down to business, “The Ritual of the Virgin” must be performed on you-know-who, which involves her being laid out on a table and the priest and Igor “anointing” her “loins.” Everyone else has sex in various combinations, except for Jim, who's chained to a wall and forced to watch. One of the big issues is that no one - not even a girl giving him oral pleasure while another girl sits on his face giving another guy oral pleasure - can get John excited. Not even Madam Satan, the “Queen of Sin” herself, can't get a rise out of the guy in the traditional way, so she chains the “little pervert” to the wall and whips him. When that doesn't work, she shoves a dildo up his ass (“Is this what you prefer?”) and the problem is finally solved.

I doubt this hour-long soft X sex flick is gonna be revving many engines these days, but that's not a problem. These no budget 70s oddities attract more of a cult fan following than they do avid porn watchers, anyway. Fans enjoy them because they're ineptly made and acted, gritty, grimy, grainy, dirty, sleazy, tasteless, outrageous and incredibly, impossibly cheap. This one happens to be all of those things. The camera is shaky and constantly zooms in and out, the canned jazz score is grating, the editing is awful and all of the action takes place in one home against blank white walls and in mostly barren rooms with just a bare minimum of props and furnishings. The séance room consists of a card table with a candle in the middle, folding chairs sitting around it and a cloth draping of an English lion (!?) on the wall, while hell has a mattress on the floor, a chain and that damn English lion draping again. Other props are just carried into the room from off-screen when needed.

In other words, pretty much everything going on is embarrassing and pathetic... but dammit if this thing isn't also incredibly funny at times. Sometimes the laughs are intentional, sometimes they're not, but that's not really important. What truly matters is that this is jam packed with ridiculous, crazy moments for bad movie fans to sink their teeth into. It's also packed with simulated sex and full male and female nudity. Once the cast lose their clothes they don't get them back until the last couple of minutes, meaning they're forced to enact this entire ridiculous scenario standing around naked, which itself becomes pretty hilarious. The acting is mostly terrible, but in that great, enthusiastic way, with Mathers and Vroom camping it up in an entertaining fashion. Male lead Smedley was a veteran of Al Adamson movies like Psycho a Go-Go (1965) and Brain of Blood (1971) and makes hilarious facial expressions during his love scenes. The only person receiving on-screen credit is the director / producer. There's not even a copyright anywhere to be found on the print.

I couldn't find any information about this title online aside from an Australian record that someone attempted to release a 16mm print there in 1974 but it was banned due to "indecency." I also couldn't find a single theatrical poster nor any advertising materials. According to IMDb, it was first distributed on VHS by Class X Video though, again, I could not find a video box to verify this. What is verifiable is that it made its DVD debut through Alpha Blue Archives, who've included it – along with 11 other devil / occult-themed soft and hardcore sex films - on their 4 disc set “Satanic Sickies Box 2.” In 2013, a company called After Hours Cinema also included it on a 3 film set called “Satan's Sex Party."

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