Sunday, October 12, 2008

3 by Arch Hall, Sr. and Jr.: “Eegah,” “Wild Guitar,” “The Sadist”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I finally ran a movie from the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archives: Eegah, a 1962 non-classic from Fairway International, the movie company founded by Arch Hall, Sr. to promote the movie and rock ’n’ roll careers of his son, Arch Hall, Jr. The first film produced by this outfit was The Choppers (1961) and Eegah (some sources list the title with an exclamation point) was the second; it deals with a prehistoric throwback, the last of a race of cave people who are still living in one of the caves in Bronson Canyon near L.A. Arch Hall, Jr. plays Tom, aspiring young wimp-rocker — with a decent but rather pudgy body (when he goes shirtless we can see a broad expanse of hairless white chest, too broad for him to be seen as quite as sexy as the director, “Nicholas Merriweather” a.k.a. Arch Hall, Sr., obviously wants us to), a reasonably good but hardly exciting guitar technique (their next film was called Wild Guitar, obviously a misnomer as a description of Arch Hall, Jr.’s musicianship), and a decent but wimpy singing style that only in the era of Frankie Avalon and Fabian could have been considered a rock voice.

Tom has a girlfriend named Roxy Miller (played by Marilyn Manning, Arch Hall, Sr.’s secretary) whose dad, Robert Miller (played by someone billed as “William Watters” who is really — I hate to do this to you — Arch Hall, Sr., who looks dorky enough one has no doubt about Arch Hall, Jr.’s true parentage), gets lost while exploring the caves around Bronson Canyon looking for the “giant” his daughter Roxy swears she saw on the road. Miller père insists on hiring a helicopter to fly him into the cave country and begs off on Tom’s attempt to drive him there in his dune buggy (“Will you stop about the dune buggy already?” one of the MST3K robots pleaded as part of their commentary on the film), which turns out to be a hot rod based on what’s left of a Ford Model A body whose tires, Tom tells us repeatedly throughout the movie, are filled with water instead of air, which plays hell on him getting any speed on ordinary roads (his attempts to drive on normal surfaces resemble the ultra-slow “chase” scene in Moon Zero Two) but supposedly weights the vehicle down enough that most of the time he can get decent traction on sand.

The writers, “Nicholas Merriweather” (you-know-who again) and Bob Wehling, were obviously trying for King Kong-style pathos in their boy-girl-giant love triangle, but they weren’t literate enough to pull it off and the overall cheapness of the production and the idiocy of Eegah’s costume (he looks like the older brother of the Geico caveman and apparently the only reason Arch Hall, Sr. made this movie was that he met 7’ 2” Richard Kiel and wanted to use him for something: later he played a hit man in a James Bond movie and that’s his only other claim to fame) defeat any attempt at pathos … or anything else that might actually make this film entertaining. Like a lot of the movies MST3K picked on, the biggest sin of Eegah is that it’s dull: soporifically paced, seeming quite a bit longer than its actual running time, it just sort of drones on and on, and when Eegah (copying the plot construction of King Kong) escapes from his cave world and spends the last third of the movie plodding through the streets of L.A., the ordinary people — who, according to the script, are supposed to be scared out of their wits — just seem mildly annoyed.

Eegah himself (the Millers deduce that’s his name because it’s the word he repeats most often — one commentator made fun of that conceit and wrote, “Why would you be wandering around growling your own name endlessly, anyway? Some sort of identity crisis?”) is a wimp as far as movie monsters are concerned: he doesn’t kill anybody, he doesn’t destroy anything except one plate-glass window in a store, and he doesn’t even get to rape the heroine, though I couldn’t help but wish he had: my vision of how it should have ended was, with the cops having plugged Eegah and him floating face down in a swimming pool like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, Roxy rests her head on Tom’s shoulders and as Tom says it’s a pity Eegah’s race has finally died out, she looks at him and says, “No, it hasn’t — I’m having his baby!”


I looked for a movie from my backlog I didn’t think Charles would be interested in seeing and found it in Wild Guitar, the second of the two Arch Hall, Jr. films TCM had paired in their “Underground” series. This was the third in the series of six productions Arch Hall, Sr. made for his Fairway International studio in his ill-advised attempt to establish his son as a rock star and singing actor, released in December 1962 and a genuinely dreadful movie with only a few quirks to redeem it.

As a singer, Arch Hall, Jr. isn’t half-bad; Harry and Michael Medved dismissed him as “thoroughly and obviously without talent” but in fact he has a decent if not particularly rock ’n’ roll-ish voice — one appropriate for an age in which the biggest male “rockers” were boys like Frankie Avalon and Fabian (the early 1960’s, the interregnum between the deaths of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens and the advent of the Beatles, were among the most dismal periods of pop music ever: at least of the white artists of the period, only Ricky Nelson, who had genuine rockabilly chops, and Del Shannon of the solo artists, and the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons among the male groups, made enduring music in those years) — and his guitar playing, though hardly “wild,” is at least serviceable. (There were surprisingly few virtuoso rock guitarists in the early years — and the best ones, Duane Eddy and Dick Dale, recorded almost exclusively instrumentals; the era of guitar gods like Clapton, Page, Beck and Hendrix would come later, in the mid- to late-1960’s.) About the only truly annoying part of Arch Hall, Jr.’s vocalism is his occasional adoption of Buddy Holly’s hiccup — which only underscores the vast gulf between Holly’s genius and Hall’s mere serviceability.

Wild Guitar’s theme is the corruption of the music business — this is probably the darkest rock ’n’ roll movie made since Jailhouse Rock — and specifically the character of Mike McCauley, super-manager who signs young singers like vacuum cleaners, lets them live high off the hog while he’s establishing their careers, and then essentially turns them into musical sharecroppers, working them to the bone and giving them almost no money, until the musical fad changes and he abruptly drops them. What makes the on-screen relationship of McCauley and “Bud Eagle,” the character played by Arch Hall, Jr., is that McCauley is played by Arch Hall, Sr. under the pseudonym “William Watters” — and it’s impossible to watch this movie without wondering about the family dynamics of attempting to push your son into stardom while casting yourself in his movie as his unscrupulous and exploitative manager. McCauley also has an assistant, Stake, a tall, zombie-like young man who looks like he was stretched out on a torture rack and is played by the film’s director, the infamous Ray Dennis Steckler, using the same acting pseudonym, “Cash Flagg,” he used in his own auteur messterpiece The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. (I’ve seen that film only on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but it was easier to forgive its silliness and tackiness because the title gave away that it was intended as a genre spoof.)

Aside from the bizarre family connections (which give this movie a patina of family dysfunction even though the multiple roles played by Arch Hall, Sr. — who also wrote the script and produced the film under still another pseudonym, “Nicholas Merriweather” — and Ray Dennis Steckler were clearly motivated only by cost-cutting needs), Wild Guitar is a campy mess. Arch Hall, Jr.’s weird appearance — particularly his perpetual sneer and his bizarre hairdo, which makes it look as if his ass has somehow migrated to the top of his head — worked, sort of, in The Sadist but it’s totally wrong for a hero we’re supposed to root for and genuinely like. What’s more, while The Sadist had two genuinely talented women in the cast, in Wild Guitar Hall’s leading lady, Nancy Czar (as Bud Eagle’s dancer girlfriend, Vickie Wills), is just as untalented as he is and it’s odd, to say the least, to watch them play what Arch Hall, Sr. clearly intended as major emotional scenes with all the passion and intensity of ordering a hamburger at McDonald’s. (Porn performers act this badly, but at least you get to see them having sex afterwards.)

The film wanders off its main plot for all sorts of digressions, some of which actually have some dramatic power — notably when one of McCauley’s former stars, Don Proctor (Robert Crumb), now a homeless, drunken derelict, comes to Bud Eagle’s apartment (which used to be his home when he was McCauley’s fair-haired young boy, and which he can get in because McCauley hasn’t even bothered to change the locks) and confronts Bud with what he’ll be in for career-wise if he continues to let McCauley run his life (and who’s quickly dispatched by Stake, who shoves him down a flight of stairs) — but most of which don’t, notably an unfunny scene in which three men who hang out at the coffee shop owned by Marge (Marie Denn, a sort of micro-budget Thelma Ritter) hit on the idea of kidnapping Bud and he eagerly goes along with it to find out just how much he’s worth to McCauley.

Wild Guitar has its moments — the kidnapping scene eerily anticipates the real-life kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. (which was also portrayed in the media as a publicity stunt cooked up by Sinatra with his alleged kidnappers, one of whom certainly knew the Sinatras because he’d previously dated Nancy) and the sequences of Bud Eagle actually making music are quite a bit better technically than the rest of the film, with quick cuts and offbeat angles anticipating A Hard Day’s Night and quite likely the work of Vilmos Zsigmond, who was credited as director of photography for the second unit and was rewarded for his efforts on this film by being hired as the full-fledged d.p. on The Sadist. Nonetheless, Wild Guitar lumbers along to a predictable conclusion (Bud and his brother Ted — credited in the cast list to “Al Scott” but possibly a real-life brother to Arch Hall, Jr. and thereby also a son of Arch Hall, Sr. — get an embarrassing confession from McCauley on tape and therefore can blackmail him into being honest with them about their business dealing, and the film ends with a sequence on a beach that’s supposed to represent a scene from Bud Eagle’s first movie, complete with a song called “Twist Crazy” that’s actually a 12-bar blues) and expires in a kind of campy wretchedness that makes one wonder why one’s bothered spending 92 minutes watching this movie. Incidentally, this TCM showing had two introductions, one from Rob Zombie and one as part of a TV (or video) series called Teenage Classics hosted by Mamie van Doren — who at least got to make a cheap, exploitative teen movie with a genuinely great rock star, Jerry Lee Lewis. — 5/18/07


I wanted to run one of the TCM “cult” films before Charles came home at 9 — the one I picked was The Sadist, a 1963 production from Arch Hall, Sr.’s Fairway International studio that was the fourth in the sequence of six films Arch Hall, Sr. produced as vehicles for his son, rock ’n’ roll wanna-be Arch Hall, Jr. (The six films, in order, were The Choppers, Eegah! — which starred future James Bond villain Richard Kiel as a caveman brought back to life in 1960’s L.A. — Wild Guitar, The Sadist, The Nasty Rabbit and Deadwood ’76.) This is also the only one in which Arch Hall, Jr. doesn’t sing: a helpful introduction by rock semi-star Rob Zombie (whom TCM got rid of fairly quickly) noted that Arch Hall, Jr. had first picked up a guitar at age 11 and his budding talent had so impressed his dad that he got Jr. a contract with Steve Allen’s record label, for which he recorded a single which bombed.

Not to be denied — Arch Hall, Sr.’s devotion to advancing his son’s talents has been compared to the plot of Citizen Kane, probably as close as either of them got to a truly great movie — Sr. launched the Fairway International studio with the intent of promoting Jr. as an actor-singer-rock star in the manner of Elvis Presley. Not that he had the kinds of budgets available to him that Elvis’s producers, Hal Wallis and Sam Katzman, did — The Sadist was reportedly an unusually expensive Fairway International production at a budget of $37,000, and financial resources were tight enough that writer-director James Landis (any relation to John?) wrote his script so that all of it took place outdoors during daylight and therefore he didn’t need to rent lights.

The surprise is that The Sadist is actually pretty good: it opens much like your typical drive-in exploitation movie of the time, with a pair of eyes on a black field, an uncredited narrator (Arch Hall, Sr.) announcing the theme of the film — “The words of a sadist, one of the most disruptive elements in human society. To have complete mastery over another, to make him a helpless object, to humiliate him, to enslave, to inflict moral insanity upon the innocent. That is his objective, and his twisted pleasure!” — and a fade-in onto a grainy, low-contrast, washed-out black-and-white image of a black Chevrolet pulling up to a garage in the boonies in the desert between California and Arizona (a favorite location for Arch Hall, Sr.).

Its occupants, Carl Oliver (Don Russell), a fifty-something married man whose son is about to graduate from West Point in two weeks and who’s on his way to a Dodgers game because they’re playing the Reds from his former home town of Cincinnati; Ed Stiles (Richard Alden), a history teacher at a local high school; and Doris Page (Helen Hovey, Arch Hall, Jr.’s cousin), the math teacher colleague Stiles has a crush on, soon are confronted by the Sadist himself: Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall, Jr.), along with his mentally retarded girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning). The characterizations were based on spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate — who since have inspired more prestigious movies like Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers — though a later reissue of The Sadist under the title Sweet Baby Charlie seems to have been aimed at making audiences think it was really about Charles Manson — and at first Hall couldn’t be more repulsive, with his dirty blond hair combed up in what’s attempting to be an Elvis-style pompadour and looks more like a bouffant (there’s a reason why the naturally blond Elvis kept his hair dyed black his entire career!), his denim jacket and skin-tight blue jeans revealing an almost microscopic basket (are we supposed to think this guy went crazy because other kids teased him about the small size of his dick?) and his perpetual sneer that makes him look like he’s getting butt-fucked with an oil drill.

At first The Sadist seems like any other cheap exploitation film of the period, but as it goes on it gets surprising scope and power. Even its weakest element — the utter incompetence of Arch Hall, Jr.’s portrayal, his attempt to overplay the psycho role in the manner of James Cagney, Richard Widmark and Neville Brand (instead of adopting the cooler, twitchier approach to serial-killer acting pioneered by Anthony Perkins in Psycho) when he not only can’t overact, he can’t act at all — turns into a plus. The sheer weirdness of Hall’s appearance and aspect in the role sets him apart from the normal human beings he torments (though, aside from one chilling scene in which he forces Doris to stick her head in the ground and literally eat dirt, his actions are psychotic but not really sadistic); I found myself thinking of Herman Melville’s line in Billy Budd that to understand Claggart you had to cross “the deadly space between” his character and normal humanity.

James Landis’s script is weak when he tries to write dialogue — his attempts to get us to sympathize with the victims only makes them sound whiny and pathetic — but as the film progresses and relies less on dialogue and more on action, Landis emerges as a suspense director of real power and a plotter whose script is far enough away from the usual clichés that we’re really uncertain as to how it all comes out. At one point Doris openly boasts that the police are going to come and rescue them — and when two police duly arrive on motorcycles, Charlie takes them totally by surprise and calmly shoots them.

The plot centers around Charlie’s insistence that Ed fix the broken car so he and Judy can steal it — it’s the only consideration that keeps Charlie from killing him immediately as he does with Carl — and in an attempt to blind him long enough to escape Ed sprays Charlie in the face with gasoline, leading Charlie to swivel in a blind (in both senses) rage and ultimately inadvertently kill his girlfriend Judy, which sends him spiraling downward from street-smart, cunning killer to total madman. One expects from the usual clichés that Ed and Doris will both make it out of the film alive; instead Charlie guns down Ed and Doris flees in panic across the desert, finally hiding out in another picturesquely abandoned house — and just as you’re beginning to wonder whether Charlie is going to kill her too and get away, he falls down a disused well into a nest of rattlesnakes and nature finishes him off the way man couldn’t. (Landis was a good enough script constructionist that he set this sequence up with an early one in which Doris came upon a snakeskin left behind by a snake who shed it, and tells Ed and us how afraid she is of snakes; the irony, of course, is that snakes finally save her life.)

At least part of the unexpected quality of The Sadist comes from its cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (billed as “William” in the credits), making his U.S. debut as a director of photography after having fled Hungary following the defeat of the 1956 revolution; he’d signed on with Fairway as a second-unit cameraman on Wild Guitar and this was his first full d.p. credit: he subsequently made such other teeny-budget exploitation titles as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Rat Fink and Horror of the Blood Monsters before Robert Altman discovered him and gave him his first “A” assignment on McCabe and Mrs. Miller (though the prestige of working with Altman didn’t immediately enable him to quit the drive-in schlock; two years after McCabe and Mrs. Miller he shot something called Blood of Ghastly Horror, also known as Echo of Terror, Psycho a Go-Go and The Man with the Synthetic Brain), leading him to win an Academy Award for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and shoot prestige successes like The Deer Hunter as well as prestige flops like Heaven’s Gate and The Black Dahlia.

Here, despite being saddled with a micro-budget, lousy low-contrast film and no lights, Zsigmond actually manages to get in some creative camera angles and intense depth-of-field shots. But The Sadist is more than an exploitation film dressed up with some nice photography; the jumpy editing style, though probably also a function of the micro-budget (just about every transition is a jump cut because dissolves cost money), actually gives this movie a contemporary feel, and it’s also surprisingly well acted, at least by the women. Arch Hall, Jr. is a special case — as I said before, he’s untalented but he’s also sufficiently weird as a screen presence to be totally believable in his role (especially when he’s waving his guns up and down in the air, emphasizing the phallic nature of firearms — it’s been a staple of the psychological literature since Freud to comment on the fact that penises are long, cylindrical objects that shoot out things which create life and guns are long, cylindrical objects that shoot out things which destroy it) — and the other males are borderline incompetent, but the two actresses are genuinely good.

Marilyn Manning is chillingly effective, somewhat reminiscent of Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (but at least she doesn’t suck her thumb!) but achieving genuine pathos in her characterization of someone with so few resources of her own that she’s an easy mark for Charlie’s domination. Helen Hovey is a bit stuck-up at the beginning, but as the story progresses and its events break her down and force her to act on an instinctive level for sheer survival, the artifice comes off and we start to accept her not as an actress playing a part but as a woman driven to the limits by sheer terror, symbolized in a nice visual effect by the way her hair, tightly wrapped in a bun at the beginning, flows down haphazardly by the end.

Landis deserves credit for doing the civilized-man-driven-to-barbarism-by-the-barbarian trope far more subtly and effectively than Sam Peckinpah, whose pornographic love of photographing violence for its own sake got in the way of his feeble attempts at moralizing; I haven’t seen Straw Dogs since it was new, but I recall it as an offensive movie which pushed the we’re-all-barbarians-at-heart idea way beyond what I was willing to accept and made me feel like I was being manipulated to accept an essentially fascistic view of human nature. The Sadist seems to hold up as an unusually compelling movie despite the limits of its budget and its star, and it’s surprising that James Landis didn’t make it into the big leagues; perhaps he was ahead of his time, since it’s easy to imagine a director who could handle edgy violence and psychosis this well fitting in neatly to today’s film industry. — 5/17/07