Horror on the Lens: Curse of the Swamp Creature (dir by Larry Buchanan)

Today’s horror on the lens is 1966’s Curse of the Swamp Creature!

Probably the best thing about Curse of the Swamp Creature is that it was filmed in the town of Uncertain, Texas, which is right near the Texas/Louisiana border.  Uncertain, which sits on the shores of Caddo Lake, was incorporated in 1961.  Reportedly, when filling out the paperwork, the town’s founders wrote “Uncertain” in the blank for the name because they genuinely hadn’t come up with a name.  And …. well, you know what happens when you try to make a joke on an official document.

Anyway, this film was directed by Larry Buchanan and that’s really all you need to know about it.  Buchanan specialized in making low-budget remakes of other films, though he always claimed that Curse of the Swamp Creature was a totally original idea on his part.  The film is about a mad scientist who lives in the swamp and is trying to reverse evolution.  Things don’t always work out the way that they should and occasionally, the mad scientist has to feed his alligators.  John Agar’s in the movie, of course.


The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: The Yesterday Machine (dir by Russ Marker)

The 1965 film The Yesterday Machine opens with dancing!

Well, okay, actually, it opens with two college students out in the middle of nowhere, listening to an old radio.  Howie Ellison (Jay Ramsey) is working on his car, trying to get the engine to work again.  Margie de Mar (Linda Jenkins) is working on her baton twirling, as one tends to due when stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

As soon as the film started and I got one look at the barren landscape, I knew that it had to have been filmed in my part of the world.  The whole thing just screamed Texas/Oklahoma border.  Then I saw Margie’s boots and then I heard Howie and Margie’s accents and I yelled, “OH MY GOD, THEY FILMED THIS IN TEXAS!”

And, indeed, they did.  The Yesterday Machine is a regional production, through and through.  Nearly everyone in the film has a strong accent and the North Texas landscape is notably flat.  (The film’s harsh black-and-white cinematography actually gives it something of a apocalyptic feel.)  After I watched this film, I did some research and I discovered that this film was shot in Dallas.  Director Russ Marker was a Texas filmmaker and actor.  He apparently directed two films over the course of his short career, this and The Demon From Devil’s Lake.  He also had an uncredited role as a bank guard in Bonnie and Clyde.

(There were actually quite a few low-budget filmmakers working in Texas in the 60s.  The best-known, of course, would probably be Larry Buchanan.  But, at the same time that Russ Marker was shooting this film, Hal Warren was filming Manos: The Hands of Fear.)

Anyway, Howie and Margie are supposed to be heading to a college football game but it turns out that Howie is totally useless when it comes to fixing cars.  So, instead, they leave the car and go looking for help.  After wandering around for a bit, they run into some soldiers who are dressed in Confederate army uniforms.

“Those are some crazy threads, Dad!” Howie says.

Having no respect for Howie’s beatnik ways, the soldiers shoot him and then kidnap Margie.

What’s going on, you may ask.  Well, fear not!  Lt. Partane (Tim Holt) is on the case!  And yes, classic film fans, you read that actor’s name correctly.  Tim Holt, star of both The Magnificent Ambersons and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, lends his gravitas to The Yesterday Machine!  According to the imdb, Holt grew disillusioned with Hollywood in the 50s and gave up the movies, retiring to his ranch in Oklahoma.  He only came out of retirement to play Lt. Partane in this film and Agent Clark in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s moonshiner epic, This Stuff’ll Kill You.  According to imdb, Holt only came out of retirement as a “favor for his friends.”  So, in other words, Tim Holt probably did this movie to be nice.

Helping out Lt. Partane is a reporter named Jim Crandall (James Britton) and Margie’s sister, a singer named Sandy (Ann Pelligrino).  Working together, they investigate why Confederate soldiers are wandering around North Texas and what they discover is that it’s because a fugitive Nazi scientist, Dr. Blake (Charles Young), has built a time machine!  He’s planning on using it to go to the past and help Hitler win World War II!

However, before he does that, he wants to make sure that everyone knows how time travel works.  This leads to a — I kid you not, dear readers — TEN MINUTE LECTURE IN FRONT OF A BLACKBOARD, during which Dr. Blake goes into meticulous detail about how he can travel in time!  It’s interesting because you can tell that the filmmakers actually did go to the trouble of researching all of the theories about how time works and how man might be able to travel into the past and it’s also obvious that they really wanted to show off what they had learned.

But, here’s the thing.  It’s totally unnecessary.  We’ve already seen the Confederate soldiers.  If we’re still watching the film by the time that Dr. Blake shows up then it’s safe to assume that we’ve suspended our disbelief enough to accept that time travel is possible.  There’s no need to convince us.  And, since Young wasn’t exactly the best actor in Texas, having him spend ten minutes madly lecturing the audience wasn’t exactly going to convince anyone that time travel was a plausible reality.  Instead, it just brings the entire film to a halt and kills the small amount of narrative momentum that it had going for it.

Anyway, once Dr. Blake finally shuts up, it’s time to stop his nefarious plans and hopefully make the world safe for college football games.

The Yesterday Machine is a really bad movie but I have to admit that I always kind of enjoy watching these regional oddities.  There’s something touching about everyone’s attempt to turn The Yesterday Machine into a “real” movie and, at its best, the film features the type of enthusiasm that you can only get from a low-budget amateur production.  If nothing else, this movie about time travel is a real time capsule.  Movies like this are about as close to real time machine as we’ll ever get.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Mountaintop Motel Massacre (dir by Jim McCullough)


AGCK!  What a scary woman!  Seriously, the poster for the 1986 slasher film Mountain Top Motel Massacre is pure nightmare fuel!  Unfortunately, the poster above does not feature the film’s tag line, which I happen to love.

You want to know what it was?

“Please do not disturb Evelyn.  She already is!”

BRILLIANT!  Of course, I have to admit that one reason why I love that tagline is because my best friend is named Evelyn and you better believe that, as soon as I came across this film, I called her up and I said, “Please don’t disturb Evelyn.  She already is.”

Evelyn, of course, had no idea what I was talking about because not many people have heard of Mountaintop Motel Massacre.  It’s one of the many low-budget slasher films to be released in the late 80s.  (That said, the film was actually made in 1983 and sat on the shelf for three years before getting a release.)  With a few notable exceptions, these films are pretty much forgotten, except for when they occasionally turn up on TV or when you come across them in the bargain bin.  I found my copy of Mountaintop Motel Massacre at the Movie Trading Company.  It was being sold for $1.99, which is another way of saying, “Nobody in the world cares about this damn movie.”  But I bought it, because I thought the old woman was scary and I love horror movies.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre was filmed in Louisiana and it perfectly captures that whole you’re-going-to-die-as-soon-as-you-turn-off-the-lights atmosphere of the Deep South.  Personally, I was hoping that all the guests at the motel would be obnoxious tourists from up north, the type who would bitch about not being able to get a good philly cheesesteak in Louisiana before being killed and dumped in the bayous.  (Either that or they’d go up to the desk clerk and say, “We refuse to shop at a low class establishment like Walmart.  Where is the closest Wawa?”)

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there were no Northerners in this film.  Instead, all the guests at the motel were locals.  For instance, there was the alcoholic preacher.  And then there was the newlywed couple, determined to have a wonderful wedding night despite not being able to afford the Holiday Inn.  (Why would you marry a man who couldn’t even afford the Holiday Inn?  Why, God, why!?)  And then there was Al, the traveling salesman.  Al checked into the motel with two hitchhikers, both of whom were under the impression that Al worked for a record company.  Al’s kinda sleazy but he was also the film’s designated hero.

Needless to say, not many guests survived the night.  Some were killed by snakes.  Some were killed by sickles to the face.  All were killed by a crazy old woman named Evelyn.  Evelyn owned the motel but she had previously spent three years in a mental hospital.  Before she killed all of her guests, she apparently murdered her daughter as well.  Except, for the fact, that her daughter was later seen walking through the woods.  Was her daughter a zombie or was this just a set-up for a sequel that would never be made?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, Mountaintop Motel Massacre doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Like many slasher films, the film’s plot is pretty much dependent on everyone acting like a total moron.  Usually, I defend the slasher genre by pointing out that, realistically speaking, most people do act like morons in the face of danger.  But, compared to some of the people in Mountaintop Motel Massacre, the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake look like freaking geniuses.

However, with all that in mind, Mountaintop Motel Massacre is still an effectively creepy movie.  It’s drenched in atmosphere and, as played by Ann Chappell, Evelyn is more frightening than your average anonymous 80s slasher.  She spends most of the film running through a series of underground tunnels that are underneath the hotel and the sight of that murderous old woman burrowing from room to room will stick with you long after the movie ends.

So, if you happen to come across it this October, feel free to give Mountaintop Motel Massacre a shot.  If you’re a fan of the slasher genre, you might enjoy it.

And … please.

Don’t disturb Evelyn.


Back To School #11: The Last Picture Show (dir by Peter Bogdanovich)

Monday is the first day of school down here in Dallas so it seems only appropriate that this latest entry in our Back to School series should be a look at one of those most quintessential Texas films ever made, the 1971 best picture nominee, The Last Picture Show.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich and based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show takes place in 1951 and tells the story of two high school seniors, best friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges, reminding us once again why everbody loves him).  Sonny and Duane live in the rural town of Anarene, Texas.  With little to look forward to in the future, beyond perhaps getting a job working in the oil fields, Sonny and Duane are both intent on enjoying their final year of high school.  Sometimes, that means driving down to Mexico for the weekend.  Sometimes, it means going to the only theater in town and seeing a movie.  Most of the time, however, it means hanging out in a pool hall owned by the strict but fatherly Sam (Oscar winner Ben Johnson).  Often times they are accompanied by the intellectually disabled Billy (Sam Bottoms), who responds to everything with a blank smile and spends most of his spare time wandering around with a broom, futilely trying to sweep the dusty streets.


The charismatic and impetuous Sonny is dating the beautiful and self-centered Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd), who is the daughter of the wealthiest woman in town.  Jacy knows that her cynical mother (Ellen Burstyn) is having an affair with an oil worker named Abilene (Clu Gulager) but she’s more concerned with her own future.  Even though she’s dating Sonny, Jacy still accepts an invitation from the awkward Lester Marlow (played by a memorably goofy Randy Quaid) to attend a naked indoor pool party.  At the party, she meets Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), who is rich and will be able to provide her with the future that Duane never will.  However, Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in her because she’s a virgin.  If nothing else, this gives Jacy a reason to stay with Duane, at least until after they have sex.

Meanwhile, the far more sensitive Sonny ends up having an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her performance in this film), the wife of the high school football coach.  It appears that Sonny truly cares about Ruth but then he finds himself being tempted by none other than his best friend’s girlfriend…

Sonny and Ruth

At heart, The Last Picture Show really is basically a small town soap opera, a Texas version of Peyton Place.  The difference between the two films — beyond the fact that The Last Picture Show just happens to be a 1oo times better than Peyton Place — is that The Last Picture Show doesn’t take place in a beautiful, idealized small town.  Instead, the town of Anarene is a believably bleak location, one that will be familiar to anyone who, like me, grew up in the American southwest.  A good deal of the success of The Last Picture Show is due to the fact that it was actually filmed on location in Archer City, Texas.

(Nothing annoys me more than when I see the mountains of California in the background of a movie that’s supposed to be taking place in North Texas.  We don’t have mountains up here.  For the most part, we don’t even have hills.  The land is flat.  You can see forever, if you know where to look.)

Of course, you can’t talk about The Last Picture Show without talking about Robert Surtees’s stunning black-and-white cinematography.  Not only does the black-and-white remind us that this is a film about a fading way of life but it drives home the fact that Sonny and Duane don’t have much to look forward to.  Growing up in Anarene means they are destined for lives without color or excitement.  In the end, can you really blame them for occasionally acting before they think?

Ben Johnson

Ultimately, the success of The Last Picture Show is due to a lot of things.  This was Peter Bogdanovich’s second film as a director and he did such an excellent job here that he’s basically spent the rest of his career trying to live up to this one film.  (That said, Bodganovich also left his wife for Cybill Shepherd — despite the fact that his wife was the one who suggested that he make this film and cast Cybill in the first place!  Don’t worry though — Polly Platt got her revenge by having a far more successful career than her ex-husband and she even produced Say Anything, a film that we will soon be looking at.)  The screenplay, by McMurtry and Bogdanovich, is full of sharp dialogue and memorable characters.  As for the performers, this is probably one of the best acted films ever made.  Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms play off each other well, Cybill Shepherd is the epitome of casual destructiveness, and Ben Johnson is brilliantly cast as the film’s moral center.  My favorite performance comes from Ellen Burstyn, who delivers every line with just the right combination of contempt and ennui.

Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show

Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show

If you’re a Texan, The Last Picture Show is one of those films that you simply have to see.  And if you don’t enjoy it and if you don’t relate to at least a few of the characters (I related to Jacy, though I like to think that I’m a lot nicer in the way I treat people), then you’re not a real Texan.

It’s as simple as that.