Film Review: The Cleaning Lady (dir by Jon Knautz)

The Cleaning Lady opens with a close-up of several mice in a box.  A hand reaches down and scoops up the mice, one-by-one.  The mice are dropped into a blender.  We watch as a finger turns the blender on.  Now, before anyone panics, we don’t actually see the mice get turned into puree or anything like that.  (Indeed, if we had, I would have stopped watching the movie right at that moment.)  Still, just the sound of that blender coming to life was enough to make me cringe.

It’s also a signal of the type of film that The Cleaning Lady is going to be.  This is a dark horror movie about some seriously damaged individuals.  If you think that things can’t get any darker than mice being dropped in a blender, just you wait.

The film opens with the travails of Alice (Alexis Kendra), who has a nice apartment and a married boyfriend.  The problem with having a married boyfriend is that, no matter how much you love him, you still have to deal with the guilt of being a homewrecker.  Unfortunately, Alice is “addicted to love” and she simply cannot seem to resist the urge to call Michael (Stelio Savante) and ask him to come over to her place.  Not even attending a support group seems to help.  (Of course, Michael does invite her to to go to Italy with him and, seriously, who could resist a free trip to Italy?)

As for Alice’s apartment, it’s nice and big but what’s the point if you can’t keep it clean and neat?  Fortunately, Shelly (Rachel Alig) is here to help!  Shelly is the cleaning lady and she has a habit of mysteriously materializing in Alice’s apartment.  At first, Alice is a little bit nervous around the heavily scarred and withdrawn Shelly.  However, Alice soon comes to appreciate Alice’s ability to unplug a drain and dispose of dead rodents.  Soon, Alice is making Shelly dinner and inviting her to stay over and watch movies.  Alice even drives Shelly home one night and is shocked to discover that Shelly apparently lives out in the middle-of-nowhere.

Now, admittedly, Alice’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic.  There’s a hint of elitism to Alice’s attempts to be nice to “the help.”  Even more importantly, spending time with Shelly gives Alice something to do other than calling up Michael.  Alice is using Shelly to break her addiction.

What Alice doesn’t realize is that 1) Shelly’s become a bit addicted to her company and 2) Shelly is willing to do just about anything to get closer to Alice.  I’m not going to spoil things by discussing just how far Shelly goes but let’s just say that things do a get a bit extreme.  And that’s even before the knives and the axes come out!

The Cleaning Lady is hardly the first horror film to be made about obsession, nor will it be the last.  That said, it’s still an effectively creepy film.  By making Alice as obsessed with Michael as Shelly is with Alice, the film brings a few unexpected wrinkles to its plot and both Alexis Kendra and Rachel Alig do a good job bringing their characters to life, with Alig even managing to generate some sympathy for poor, scarred Shelly.  Alig especially deserves credit for underplaying a few key scenes, as opposed to going full psycho.  The fact that Shelly rarely speaks above a whisper actually makes her far more intimidating than she would have been if she had spent the entire movie screaming at her prey.

All in all, this is an effective indie horror film.  Of course, after seeing the film, it’s possible that you might never look at a blender the same way again….

Coming Down The Mountain: Runaway! (1973, directed by David Lowell Rich)

Runaway! begins with a train starting a slow descent down a snowy mountain.  On board the train are collection of skiers, gigolos, conductors, and engineers.  One couple discusses their upcoming divorce.  An athletic father tries to bond with his less-athletic son.  A slick con artist tries to convince a depressed young woman not to throw herself from the train.  A group of skiers put on an impromptu concert, banging on their suitcases like bongo drums.  They get so loud that the conductor doesn’t even hear the engineer desperately trying to contact him.  What none of the passengers realize is that the train’s brake engines have frozen and the train is about to start hurtling down the mountain.  Unless the chief engineer can figure out a way to stop the train, everyone’s going to die!

Made for television in the year between the release of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Runaway! is a low-key but entertaining disaster movie.  With a running time of only 70 minutes, Runaway! doesn’t waste any time getting down to business and, even if it is a low-budget movie, there’s no way that an out-of-control train racing down a mountain can’t be exciting.

Compared to the other disaster movies of the era, Runaway! does not exactly have an all-star cast though there are some familiar faces.  Vera Miles and Ed Nelson are the divorcing couple while Martin Milner is the father who puts too much pressure on his son.  Ben Murphy is the gigolo who refuses to pay for a ticket on general principle while Darleen Carr is the woman who wants to jump to her death.  Most of them are just there as placeholders.  It’s obvious from the start that the real stars of the film are going to be the train and the mountain.  However, the famously gruff character actor Ben Johnson manages to make an impression just by being Ben Johnson.  Johnson plays the chief engineer and, as long as he’s manning the engine, you know that the train’s passengers are in good hands.

Runaway! has never been released on DVD or even VHS but it is currently available on YouTube.

The Fast Covers of Speed Mystery

Speed Mystery was one of the many magazines of the pulp era that specialized in violence, sex, and crime.  It was originally called Spicy Mystery Stories and was first published in 1934.  It was popular at the time but, after nine years of being known as Spicy, the title was changed in 1944 to Speed Mystery.  The new, more sedate title was probably meant to placate the moral guardians of the time but the magazine’s content remained the same.  Under the title Speed Mystery, the magazine ran another 2 years, publishing its final issue in 1946.

Here are a few of the covers of Speed Mystery.  When known, the artist has been credited.

by Allen Gustav Anderson

by Hugh Joseph Ward

by Hugh Joseph Ward

by Hugh Joseph Ward

by Hugh Joseph Ward

The artist or artists responsible for the rest of these covers is unknown.  If I had to guess, I’d say the majority of them were done by Hugh Joseph Ward, as well.  However, I can’t say for sure:

Music Video of the Day: Gimme All Your Lovin’ by ZZ Top (1983, directed by Tim Newman)

Judging from this video, the early 80s were a mystical time when the ghosts of ZZ Top haunted the desert and improved the lives of random people.  That was the plot of three of ZZ Top’s best-known videos, the first one of which was for Gimme All Your Lovin’.

This video follows a gas station attendant (played by Peter Tramm) as he not only gets to go on an adventure with the “ZZ Girls” but also gets to drive the ZZ car, a red, 1933 Ford coupe known as “The Eliminator.”  At the end of the video, he wakes up to discover that it was all a dream.  Or was it?

Though ZZ Top had been performing since 1969 and had a dedicated fan base of Southern rock enthusiasts, the video for Gimme All Your Lovin’ was largely responsible for introducing them to the MTV generation.  It also introduced some of the best-known parts of the ZZ Top mythology.  In particular, the famous ZZ Top hand gesture started with this video.  It wasn’t planned ahead-of-time.  Instead, the members of the band had done several shots in which they watched the Eliminator drive by them and they came up with the gesture out of pure boredom.

The Eliminator belonged to Billy Gibbons and, by putting it in the video and on the cover of the band’s latest album (which was also named after the car), Gibbons was able to write off, as a business expense, all the money that he had previously spent buying and restoring the car.  Gibbons may have simply been trying to get out of debt but the car went on to become the best-known symbol of the band.

This video was directed by Tim Newman, who was the brother of Randy Newman.  Newman would also direct the two sequels to Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp-Dressed Man and Legs.