Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Sinister Urge (Headliner Productions, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was hoping to get at least two — possibly three — of the movies from the Sinister Cinema box in, starting with Ed Wood’s last non-pornographic commercial feature, The Sinister Urge (1960). Unlike some of the other Wood titles, which have been kicked around and have ended up pretty much under the control of Wade Williams (my collection of them is on Rhino Home Video from the Williams editions), The Sinister Urge was made by Headliner Productions and licensed by them exclusively to Sinister Cinema for video release. This means that Sinister had access to better master material than usual, and the film itself is surprising because — like Wood’s immediately preceding film, Night of the Ghouls — it’s a quite competent, professional piece of work, no better than most low-budget exploitation films of the day but also no worse.

There are a few of the oddly syntaxed lines of dialogue Wood indulged in (including a weird scene in the police station where a good deal of the exposition takes place in which they start the scene talking about staking out a pizza parlor and end it talking about staking out an ice-cream place — later these are revealed to be two separate locations but at the time we’re left wondering if they dispense both from the same place) and some obvious technical crudities (notably the mike that comes into view at the top of the screen and visibly follows the actors until Wood blessedly cuts to a different angle where it was properly off camera), along with the mediocre-to-nonexistent acting skills of the cast: Jean Fontaine as the villainess, Gloria Henderson, mastermind of a pornography racket whose “enforcer,” Dirk Williams (played by 19-year-old Dino Fantini with one of the most amazingly gravity-defying male hairdos ever filmed), goes out of control and starts restaging the scenes in Gloria’s porn photos with her models, who always seem to frequent the duck pond at Griffith Park where he can locate them easily and kill them without anyone else noticing. Wood’s attitude towards porn (at least in this script — for the remaining 18 years of his life he would make as much of a living as he made at all from writing porn novels!) would do Catherine MacKinnon proud — the lead character, police lieutenant Matt Carson (played by former Republic serial villain Kenne Duncan), explains to his sidekick that porn is more deadly than drug addiction because “some people pick up these pictures and can’t resist trying it.”

What’s most interesting about The Sinister Urge is how much Wood’s directorial skills had actually increased from the dog days of Bride of the Monster and Plan Nine from Outer Space: the film is well lit (the fact that most of it takes place in daylight helps), there aren’t any jarring breaks between “day” and “night” scenes, the action is competently staged and even Wood’s notorious cut-ins of stock footage are handled far more smoothly than in his previous films. Two major sequences (at the pizza and ice-cream parlors) came from his unfinished J.D. epic, Rock and Roll Hell a.k.a. Hellborn, started in 1956 (the black-on-black robbery sequence in Wood’s previous Headliner film, The Violent Years, was also a clip from this never-completed film), but they’re cut so smoothly into the action that only the fact that they have no particular relation to the overall plot of The Sinister Urge gives away that they were stock from another project. (There’s a bit of dialogue that ties the fight at the pizza parlor into the porn racket, but it’s done with both the speakers off camera.)

For all its crudity Wood’s direction has a singular vitality — it’s striking that the worst Wood-associated movies we’ve seen have been The Violent Years and Orgy of the Dead, both of which he only wrote and others directed — and one can well understand his jealousy that his film career stopped while other directors of equal or less talent went on to become contractees at studios like American International and make at least decent livings! There’s also a charming sequence in the office of Johnny Ryde (Carl Anthony), the director of Gloria’s porn productions (who, in a case of Wood’s art anticipating his life, goes on self-pity jags during which he laments how he could have made good movies if he hadn’t got sidetracked into porn), in which he and Gloria interview a young aspiring Hollywood hopeful — and the walls are adorned with lobby cards for The Violent Years, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster and Plan Nine from Outer Space.

The problem with The Sinister Urge isn’t Wood’s direction but his script — which has way too many separate plot strands to be wrapped up in 75 minutes, as well as one typically Woodsian scene in which the cops decide to try to entrap Dirk by sending a policeman in drag into the park (all of a sudden this is a “personal” Ed Wood movie, even though the sequence is there just to use a stock clip of someone fighting a man in drag and knocking his wig off which Wood had filmed for a previous project) — and the usually lousy quality of the acting. Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy claims that most of the supporting cast came from an acting school run by one Harry Keatan, who is in the film as Jaffe, the porn cinematographer — and if his own schticky performance (at one point he loses the Swedish accent he’s had through the whole previous part of the film, the actor he’s playing with actually asks him, “Where’s your accent?” — to which he improvises an explanation; and this being such a low-budget film Wood couldn’t afford a retake and had to use the scene in the final cut!) is any indication of how he was teaching his pupils it’s no wonder none of his graduates ever became stars. — 8/26/02


I showed one that I’d planned to run the other night but screwed up and played one of the other items on the disc instead — the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 incarnation of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s The Sinister Urge, a key transitional film in Wood’s career because it was his last above-ground directorial effort and it was about pornography — indeed, it took a typical hard-line anti-porn stance as befit the exploitation picture tradition it came out of, which allowed certain filmmakers to dramatize seedy sides of life as long as the depictions were couched in viciously moralistic denunciations of them — prefiguring Wood’s subsequent career as a pornographer himself through various cheap novels as well as at least two more films, Take It Out in Trade (1969) and Necromania (1972).

The Sinister Urge has a certain tragic art-prefigures-life air about it in the character of Johnny Ryde (Carl Anthony, who’d played a policeman in Plan Nine from Outer Space and had only one post-Wood credit, a 1982 film by Lloyd Davis alternately called Raw Force and Kung Fu Cannibals), who recalls his past as a director making truly great films and his fall from grace to a point where he had to shoot porn to survive — a plot device that not only anticipates Wood’s own subsequent fall into porn but also the premise of a highly regarded cult film from from 1974, Inserts, written and directed by John Byrum and starring Richard Dreyfuss as a hot-shot silent director who falls from grace in the early years of sound and supports himself making porn in the big Sunset Boulevard-style mansion he bought when he was a success.

But the main intrigue in The Sinister Urge centers around the character of Dirk Williams (Dino Fantini, a compact 19-year-old with a gravity-defying hairdo and a commendable ability to portray the classic switchblade-wielding J.D. “type”), a go-fer at the porn studio who goes sufficiently off the rails that he kidnaps girls (including ones who’ve worked there as models), takes them to Griffith Park and kills them, staging the crime scenes to look like pornographic poses. At least that’s what’s supposed to be happening, but neither Wood as director nor Fantini as star are good enough to convince us that he’s going through all that trouble; all we actually see is Fantini descending on his victims, knife in hand, and having a surprising amount of trouble subduing them before he kills them and leaves their bodies where they fall.

Charles and I had previously watched The Sinister Urge “straight” (courtesy of a Sinister Cinema VHS tape) and had been more or less impressed — yes, it has some of the hallmarks of an Ed Wood film, including elliptically loopy dialogue, mismatched stock footage, continuity problems (in one scene the police officers who respond to one of the murder calls drive off in a Ford and arrive in a Dodge) and generally lousy acting — Harry Keatan, who plays the cameraman at the porn studio and plays him as an obnoxious Jewish stereotype, also ran an acting school where a lot of the other cast members were trained, and as I pointed out when we saw this one before, if Keatan’s own performance was any indication of how he taught his students, it’s not surprising none of them became stars. (Let’s see: at the top of the list of acting teachers displaying their own chops in films there’s Lee Strasberg in The Godfather, Part II — and at the bottom there’s Harry Keatan in The Sinister Urge.)

But it also is relatively coherent and occasionally even exciting, and it benefits from two quite good performances — from Jean Fontaine (I wonder if anyone saw her name on this film and ended up disappointed when they bought a ticket and saw it wasn’t Joan Fontaine) as Gloria Henderson, straw boss of the porn racket (though there are two sinister-looking guys from “The Syndicate” to whom she answers), whose gravel voice and hard-assed demeanor are just right for the role; and Dino Fantini, who like Arch Hall, Jr. in The Sadist isn’t a conventionally good actor but manages to make the psycho believable — the scene in which he opens his switchblade, puts the blade to his lips and kisses it isn’t exactly the freshest or most subtle imaginable bit of symbolism, but it’s a lot more sophisticated than Wood’s films usually got.

There’s also a curious scene in which we step from the well-worn paths of low-budget exploitation into Wood’s personal world — the two cops attempting to find the porn-inspired psycho killer, Lt. Matt Carson (Kenne “Horsecock” Duncan, making his final film after a career that stretched back to the silent days and included several villain performances in Republic serials — “Horsecock” would seem a more likely nickname for a male porn star but Rudolph Grey, whose book Nightmare of Ecstasy on Wood is the definitive source on him and was the basis for Tim Burton’s Wood biopic, swears he was called that off-screen and came by the name honestly) and Sgt. Randy Stone (James “Duke” Moore), decide to have a decoy hang out in the park and try to entrap the killer. Only they decide the assignment is too dangerous for a policewoman, so instead they get a male officer (Clayton Peca) in drag — and he duly encounters the killer, and they have a fight scene in which Dirk knocks off his wig and flees the scene in disgust that his would-be victim turned out to be a guy. One can tell why real-life cross-dresser Wood wanted a scene like this in his film, though frankly Clayton Peca’s drag is so risibly obvious one wishes Wood had played the role himself.

The film also includes a sequence — set up with one more laughably discontinuous moment in which the cops say that a pizza parlor is a front for the distribution of the porn, only it turns into an ice-cream parlor and then back to a pizza place in the dialogue (though presumably one business could have been dispensing both) — and there’s a gang fight (not especially well staged, but then Wood was never exactly a master of action) Wood actually lifted from an unfinished project he’d had to abandon four years earlier, a Rebel Without a Cause-inspired juvenile delinquency film alternately called Hellborn and Rock and Roll Hell. (Another sequence from this — a murky and impossibly underexposed scene of armed robbers fleeing the scene of their crime in a car — turned up in Wood’s immediately previous film, Night of the Ghouls.)

The Sinister Urge was probably a not-bad exit for Ed Wood as “straight” director; like Night of the Ghouls, it showed that by this point in his career Wood had pushed his directorial skills to their limit and achieved mediocrity, and while it may not be as dementedly silly as Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster or Plan Nine from Outer Space, The Sinister Urge is a mostly competent piece of low-budget filmmaking whose biggest limitation is less the strangulation-level budget or Wood’s quirks than the fact that enough of the Production Code was still in place — and was a factor even for someone as low-down on the Hollywood food chain as Wood’s producer, Roy Reid of Headliner Productions — that they could make a film that mentioned porn but not one that got all that explicit showing it. Indeed, the funniest joke the MST3K crew came up with on this film was to comment (accurately) that a woman who’s supposedly modeling for porn pics is actually wearing more clothes than she had on when she showed up at the filmmakers’ office (where the walls were emblazoned with posters for previous Wood projects — Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster and the Wood-scripted, William Morgan-directed The Violent Years). — 3/27/10