Monday, December 8, 2008

Great Grindhouse Double Features: Sssss & The Boy Who Cried Werewolf

I was working the job of a life time, or so I thought, I was managing the Livingston Drive In. It was the summer of “73, I was on break for college. I was soon to be on permanent break ‘cause of the gas shortage of “74, but that’s another story.

I thought this would be a great job, silly me. It was a split shift. You came in at 10am, did paperwork, cleaned up the field, painted, repaired speakers, and other hump work until 2pm. Then you had to be back at 5pm until whenever. I thought I would get to see some great movies. Unfortunately I wasn’t privy to how these films were booked.

Union Drive In got all the Blacksplotation stuff and Spaghetti Westerns. Morris Plains , Troy Hills & Totowa got all the horror, exploitation, and Euro Action films. We got Disney, Egg Head Films, and big mainstream shitty movies.

I could go , on my day off , to any of the other Drive Ins for free. That I did. Then I finally got a horror double bill, Sssss and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. I was excited until I saw the PG rating. “ Gonna suckl” I thought. I had to screen the prints when we opened Wednesday night just to make sure you could see them. Sssss was no problem, but Werewolf was dark. I complained ,but the company didn’t want to replace the film as it was a “package deal” from Universal. Actually ,it was one of Universal’s last double features.

So now I had to leave a recorded message of the start times. How do you say Sssss? I just hissed it and hoped for the best. Sssss was arguably the better of the two films. Starring Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, and Heather Menzies, and supported by 70's stalwarts Jack Ging and a young Reb Brown, Sssss used real snakes , a King Cobra, Black Mamba, & a Python, instead of the fake rubber ones. In fact none of the snakes were defanged for this film. Five King Cobras were brought in from Thailand and the python was from Singapore.

Directed by Bernard Kolwalski ( Attack of the Giant Leeches) and the make up is credited to a John Chambers. Before the credits, Dr. Stoner, ( Martin) is selling something in a crate to a guy who runs a freak show. It seems the demented Doc has been trying to turn his lab assistants into cobras to survive the coming nuclear holocaust. The thing is the crate is one of his failures.

A new assistant is recommended by a rival doctor. David is his new assistant, who Stoner wastes no time giving him “immunization” injections. David has some hallucinatory dreams on this shit.

Stoner has a King Cobra that he calls “The King”. He runs a venom show to get the cash he needs to keep his experiments going. Things go wrong when his pet boa, Harry, is killed by a drunken jock( Brown). Stoner releases a black mamba while the jock is taking a shower. David now is starting to shed his skin. He visits the carnival and comes face to face with his predecessor, now an exhibit, in the freak show.

The professor, who recommended David for the job, tells Stoner his grant has been refused. Stoner knocks him out and throws him in a cellar with a hungry python. Stoner’s daughter, Kristina, is worried about David. She goes to the carnival and realizes that the snake man is Tim, Stoner’s last assistant. She then knows that David is going to wind up the same way.

David now morphs into a King Cobra . Stoner , for some reason, decides to have it out with “The King”. Things are deteriorating rapidly. A mongoose gets out of it’s cage and attacks snake Dave. Stoner is bitten a couple of times by The King. Kristina arrives to find Dr. Stoner dead and “ The King” in attack mode. The sheriff takes the King’s head off with a shotgun blast. Snake David is being chewed on by the mongoose as the film freezes on Kristina’s screaming face.

This was pretty good. The presence of the great character actor, Strother Martin, gave the project credibility. Martin’s earnest performance of the deranged Dr Stoner saves the film from being your typical ‘ Mad Scientist Creates Monster ‘ roots. You actually feel sorry for David as he painfully turns into a snake.

Martin, who achieved fame in films like Cool Hand Luke, The Wild Bunch and others, did a few more genre films, westerns and TV shows before his death in 1980. Dirk Benedict found fame on the TV show, the A-Team. Heather Menzies did a couple of more genre films, Piranha and Endangered Species plus a lot of TV shows. Director Kolwalski directed a ton of TV Shows like Magnum PI, Nightrider, Air Wolf, Jake & the Fat Man and many others before his death in 2007. Look for Addams Family star , Felix Silla as The Seal Boy in the freak show.

As good as Sssss is , The Boy Who Cried Werewolf sucked. I had more problems with rowdy patrons during that film. Where Ssss held their interest, Werewolf seemed to piss them off. First mistake was showing a fully transformed werewolf before the credits. Second was having this whinny bitch of a kid, Scott Sealey, in a pivotal role. The main star, Kerwin Mathews, was in a bunch of regular people meet big monster period pieces like 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jack the Giant Killer, Three Worlds of Gulliver & others. The director, Nathan Juran, was no strangers to giants either as he directed Attack of the 50 Foot woman. Both directors directed Attack of the Something films.

Let’s see, we have an annoying kid, a werewolf that causes traffic accidents, pushes a camper off a cliff, and rips an arm off, ( off camera).Jesus freaks, a tough sheriff( veteran western actor ,Robert J Wilke), some blood , and a lot of boredom. Like the boy who cried wolf story, no one pays attention to this kid. Considering that he did this film and one episode of Emergency!, no one was really paying attention to his career either.

The werewolf make up was an early creation of Tom Burman. However a werewolf wearing a turtle neck sweater just doesn’t cut it for me. I kept thinking about the Warren Zevon song Werewolves of London, the line where , “his hair was perfect”. Even the cheap dissolve transformation scene bites more than this werewolf.

I never saw this film even though I had it running for a week. I was breaking up drunken fights and escorting the rowdies off the lot. Ssss ran twice a night, Werewolf ran only once as the co feature. We started running films around 8;30 pm as the sun was setting. Intermission was at 10pm, then the second film at 10:20. Snack Bar closed at 11;30 pm. Last showing was around 12;30. I only recently caught up with this on a “convention” DVD-R. So I waited over 30 years to see this clunker and ,trust me on this, it wasn’t worth the wait.

Star Kerwin Mathews also did a lot of Euro films, Octaman with Pier Angeli & Jeff Morrow, Barquero with Lee Van Cleef & Warren Oats, and some TV appearances. He died in 2007. Director Nathan Juran also moved on to direct TV shows like Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He had won an Oscar for art direction in 1941 for How Green was my Valley. He died in October of 2002. Looks like a lot of former B Movie directors found a home directing TV shows. More great and not so great grindhouse double bills to come.
42nd Street Pete

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