Book Review: Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

First published in 2009, Hellraisers is a fast-paced look at the life and times of four men, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed, and an examination of what they all had in common.

First off, they were all talented actors who were at the height of their careers in the 60s and the 70s.

They all first came to prominence in the UK.  Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed were English.  Richard Burton was Welsh.  Richard Harris was born in Ireland.

With the exception of Oliver Reed, all of them were multiple Oscar nominees but none of them actually won the award.

All four of them could boast filmographies that included some of the best and some of the worst films of all time.

And, of course, all four of them were infamous for their drinking.  They were all, if I may borrow the book’s title, famous for raising Hell.

Hellraisers is a frequently entertaining look at their careers and their legendary off-screen exploits.  All four of them come across as being very different drinkers.  Richard Burton was a depressing drunk, one who drank because he was aware that he was wasting his talents in mediocre films.  O’Toole was a drunk who alternated between being charming and being dangerous, someone who was capable of coming across as being a bon vivant even at his lowest moments.  Richard Harris was the angry drunk but he was also the one who seemed to have the both the best understanding of why he drank and why, at a certain age, it was necessary for him to cut back.  And, finally, Oliver Reed was the showman, the one who viewed drinking a beer the way that others viewed having a cup of tea and who would rather damage his career than allow anyone else to tell him how to live.  He knew that he had a reputation and he was determined to live up to it, even at the risk of his own health.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s Oliver Reed who dominates the book.  There was very little that Reed wouldn’t do while drunk and he was drunk quite a lot of the time.  He was also perhaps the most unpredictable of all of the actors profiled in the book, a raw mountain of energy who kept audiences off-balance.  Personally, I would not have wanted to have been along in a room with a drunk Oliver Reed.  The book has too many stories of Reed dropping his trousers and asking everyone to look at what he called his “mighty mallet,” for the reader to feel totally safe with Reed.  At the same time, anyone who has seen a good Oliver Reed performance knows that he deserved better roles than he was often given.  (Then again, the book is also honest about the fact that a lot of filmmakers would not work with Reed because they had justifiable reasons to be terrified of him and his erratic nature.)  Over the course of the book, Reed comes across as hyperactive, easily bored, and also far more intelligent than most gave him credit for.  In many ways, he was a prisoner of his own reputation.  He was outrageous because he knew that was what was expected of him.  As shocking as some of his behavior seems today, he felt that he was giving the people what they wanted and Hellraisers suggests that he may have been right.

Personally, I don’t drink and I find most heavy drinkers to be tedious company at best.  That said, Hellraisers is an interesting book.  Burton, Harris, O’Toole, and Reed are all fascinating talents and the book takes a look at how their hellraising reputations both hurt and, in some cases, helped their careers.  However, the book is more than just a biography of four actors who drank a lot.  It’s also an examination of a different era, of a time when performers were expected to raise Hell and when one could get away with being a contrarian just for the fun of it.  One can only imagine what the moral scolds of social media would have to say if Oliver Reed were around today!  As a result, this is a book that can be enjoyed by both film lovers and history nerds, like you and me.

International Horror Film Review: The Brood (dir by David Cronenberg)

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all of us command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Canada!  It always seems like such a nice country until you watch a David Cronenberg film.  Hailing from Toronto, Cronenberg started his film career with two satirical, black-and-white science fiction shorts and then went on to become one of Canada’s best-known filmmakers.  At a time when most people associated Canada with politeness and maple syrup, Cronenberg made visceral and often-disturbing films, ones that often mixed sexuality with graphic body horror.  At a time when the genre was being dominated by Italian filmmakers, Cronenberg brought a uniquely Canadian sensibility to horror.

Take 1979’s The Brood, for instance.

The Brood tells the story of one very doomed marriage.  Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola (Samantha Eggar) Carveth are fighting for custody of their five year-old daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds).  (Not coincidentally, Cronenberg was going through his own custody battle when he first came up with the idea for The Brood.)  Nola, who has been emotionally scarred by both her alcoholic parents and her troubled marriage to Frank, is a patient at Somafree Institute.  Her psychotherapist, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), practices a technique called “psychoplasmics.”  Though it’s not easy to describe (and, wisely, Cronenberg doesn’t spend too much time trying to justify the science of it), it basically involves channeling anger and suppressed emotions into body modification.  What you or I might consider to be a hive or a welt is what Dr. Raglan would call a major breakthrough.

Frank is skeptical about Dr. Raglan’s theories but he still takes Candice to visit her mom.  However, when Candice returns from one visit bruised and scratched, Frank is convinced that Nola has been abusing her.  Hoping to both win custody of Candice and prove that Dr. Raglan’s methods are dangerous, Frank starts his own investigation into just what exactly has been happening at the Somafree Institute.

That’s when the children start to show up.  The children are small, with pale skin and light hair and oddly featureless faces.  They never smile.  They never speak.  They show up without any warning and violence always seems to follow them.  They attack both Nola’s mother and father.  When Nola suspects that Frank might be having an affair with Candice’s teacher, two of the children suddenly appear in her classroom.  Candice is scared of the children but still seems to have some sort of connection to them…

Even if you didn’t know this was a Cronenberg film, it would take just one look at the snow-covered landscape to identify The Brood as being a Canadian film.  As was often the case with Cronenberg’s early horror films, the imagery is frequently cold and chilly.  However, The Brood is not a cold film.  With its look at dysfunctional families and its emphasis on Frank’s attempts to protect his daughter, The Brood is actually one of Cronenberg’s most emotional films.  It’s a film about not only anger but also how people deal with that anger.  The killer kids are both literally and metaphorically children of rage.

Even by the standards of Cronenberg, things get grotesque.  Fortunately, the film’s talented cast keeps you interested, even when the bloody visuals might make you want to find a nice comedy to watch instead.  Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds are sympathetic as the father and daughter.  Oliver Reed keeps you guessing as to what exactly Dr. Raglan is actually trying to accomplish.  Nicholas Campbell and Robert A. Silverman, two members of the Cronenberg stock company, both make an impression in smallish roles.  And Samantha Eggar totally throws herself into her role, turning Nola into an absolutely terrifying monster.

Though it never quite reaches the flamboyant heights of either Scanners or ShiversThe Brood is still an effective horror film.  As opposed to some of his other films of the period, Cronenberg actually seems to not only care about the characters in the film but it also comfortable with encouraging us to care about them as well.  As a result, The Brood becomes about more than just trying to shock the audience.  The Brood is a film that sticks with you.

The Brood (1979, dir by David Cronenberg DP: Mark Irwin)

Horror Film Review: The Devils (dir by Ken Russell)

In 17th Century France, Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) may be king but it’s the devious Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) who holds the power. Richelieu has convinced that king that every walled city in France should have its walls blown up, the better to keep track of what’s actually happening within the city. Unfortunately, for Richelieu, Louis XIII promised the Governor of Louden that he would never harm any structure in the city, leaving its walls untouchable. While Louis XIII concentrates on throwing outdoor parties where murdering protestant is the main source of entertainment, Richelieu searches for an excuse to destroy the walls of Loudon.

Along with being frustrated by the fact that Loudon retains its walls, Richelieu is also upset that the unofficial leader of the city is Ubrain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a decadent priest who has not only criticized the discipline of clerical celibacy but who has also publicly opposed the Cardinal’s efforts to increase his own political power. Grandier has made it clear that, as long as he’s in control, the walls of Loudon will never came down and the people of Loudon, fearful of the plague that is ravaging the world outside of the walls, support him.

Among Grandier’s many admirers is Sister Jeanne des Agnes (Vanessa Redgrave), a hunchback who is also the abbess of the local convent. Having become sexually obsessed with Grandier, Agnes requests that he become the confessor of the convent. When Grandier refuses, it sets off a chain reaction that eventually leads to Grandier being accused of worshipping the Devil and “bewitching” Sister Agnes and several other nuns. With the arrival of Father Barre (Michael Gothard), a fanatical witch hunter, the city of Loudon descends into darkness and decadence.

Directed by the infamous (and, let’s just admit it, brilliant) Ken Russell and first released in 1971, The Devils is not an easy film to see. When the film was originally released in Britain, it was controversial for its uncompromising depiction of 17th century torture and its combination of religion and sexual imagery. (This, of course, was a recurring theme in almost all of Russell’s work.) The British censors demanded a few minor cuts before agreeing to approve the film for release. While the British censors focused on the scenes of violence, Warner Bros. also removed several sexually explicit scenes, the most infamous of which was a sequence in which a group of naked nuns sexually defiled a statue of Christ. Also removed was a scene of a priest masturbating while watching the nuns and finally, a scene in which Sister Jeanne masturbated with a charred femur bone. Russell was not happy with the changes and, needless to say, he was even more upset when Warner Bros. removed an additional three minutes before releasing the film in the United States.

In the U.S., The Devils was even more controversial than it had been in the United Kingdom and, while many critics praised it as being a powerful attack on hypocrisy, others described it as merely being pornographic. Despite the cuts that were made, the American version of The Devils was slapped with an X rating and Warner Bros. attempted to distance itself from the controversy that had developed around the film. As of this writing, The Devils has never been given a proper Region 1 DVD or Blu-ray release. It’s rare that ever shows up on any streaming platforms. Even YouTube has only a handful of scenes. If you want to watch The Devils in America, you’re going to have to track down a VCR player and watch it on VHS. And, even then, you’ll only be seeing the version that was cut for the U.S.

Will Ken Russell’s original, uncut version ever be seen in America? It’s a question that many film students have asked themselves. In 2002, a 117-minute edition of The Devils played in London, featuring some of the footage that was cut from the film’s original release. However, that version is still considered to be incomplete and it’s certainly not available here in the United States. The Devils does occasionally show up on Shudder, which is how I saw it earlier this year. Of course, the Shudder version was the cut American version, which Russell repeatedly disowned.

Watching the film, I could understand Russell’s anger. It wasn’t just that scenes had been cut out of the film. It was that the scenes were often edited out with such a lack of finesse that it made the film seem disjointed. Russell was a director known for his hallucinatory and deliberately over-the-top style. When the film abruptly cuts away from showing us its most shocking images, it feels antethical to everything that Russell was about as a filmmaker. On the one hand, it’s easy to say, “Who cares if a scene of Vanessa Redgrave masturbating with a charred femur bone has been removed from the film? Who wants to see that?” But if you watch The Devils, it becomes apparent that it’s not about what would be pleasant to see. Indeed, in many ways, The Devils is meant as a deliberate attack on the senses, one in which shocking imagery is used to awaken the audience from their complacency. As such, the controversy about how the film was cut is not about what’s acceptable. Instead, it’s about the fact that Russell has created a world where it somehow makes total sense that Sister Jeanne would pick up the femur and make use of it. By editing the scene so that it abruptly ends with Jeanne merely looking at the bone, Warner Bros. forced The Devils to not be true to itself.

And yet, despite all of that, The Devils remains a powerful and disturbing film, a hallucinatory collection of nightmarish images and haunting scenes. The excessive stylization that was Ken Russell’s trademark is perfect for this story of an entire community caught up in a frenzy of paranoia and repression. Though a period film (and based on a true story), Russell’s Loudon resembles an alien landscape, an almost expressionistic city of pristine walls and dirty streets. Vanessa Redgrave’s twisted nun stalks through the film like an ominous spirit, both wanting and hating Grandier at the same time. When the “possessions” begin, the possessed finally have the excuse to do what they truly want and to live just as wantonly as the men who previously controlled their lives. Because they’ve come to believe that they’re no longer responsible for their own actions, they can indulge in every depravity. But with Louis XIII casually murdering protestants for sport at his estate and Richelieu manipulating church policy to his own ends, the film asks why the people’s actions are more worthy of condemnation than the actions of the people who rule them.

The Devils has reputation for being blasphemous. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. After I watched the film, I did a little research and I was not surprised to discover that Ken Russell was a practicing Catholic because only a Catholic could make a film that both celebrated what the Church could be while also condemning it for so often falling short. While Richelieu represents the people who use religion as a vehicle for their own drive for power and Sister Jeanne and the witch-hunter Father Barre represents the fanatics who use church doctrine to justify their own madness, it is the sinner Father Grandier who represents what the Church should be. It is Grandier who is ultimately forced to put his own life at risk to protect the people of Loudon.

Is The Devils are horror film? Some would probably argue with my claim that it is. They would probably claim that it’s a historical drama with a heavy political subtext, However, for me, the imagery itself is disturbing enough to justify calling The Devils a horror film. The possessed of Loudon eventually prove themselves to be as mad as any of the infected people from George Romero’s The Crazies and the torture that Grandier suffers is frightening specifically because it’s all based on fact. There really was a town named Loudon that had walls. There really was a priest named Grandier who was accused of practicing witchcraft and who suffered the most vile torture as a result.. The Devils is a film about people driven made by a combination of repression and fanaticsm. It’s a horror film because it’s true and, needless to say, the madness that possessed Loudon didn’t die out in the 17th Century. It’s continued into the present day.

Oliver Reed may seem like an odd choice to play a priest but he gives one of his best performances as the charismatic but foolishly cocky Grandier. Vanessa Redgrave is frightening as the disturbed Sister Jeanne and British actor Murray Melvin is alternatively sympathetic and pathetic as a priest who comes to believe in Grandier’s innocence. For me, though, the film is stolen by Michael Gothard, who plays the fanatical witch hunter, Father Barre. With his long hair and his glasses, Father Barre bears a definite resemblance to John Lennon and the film portrays him as being the 17th century equivalent of a rock star, an arrogant and sensual man who encourages people to indulge in their most secret desires so that he can then declare them to be possessed and in need of an exorcism. Gothard had a magnetic screen presence, allowing him to steal scenes from even formidable talents like Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. Gothard would go on to play the silent assassin in the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only and was, again, memorably threatening. Sadly, Gothard took his own life in 1992.

Someday, perhaps the full unedited version of The Devils will be available. Until then, even the edited version retains its power to shock, disturb, and make you think. Today, more than ever, its portrait of hypocrisy and mass madness feels relevant. The modern age is still ruled by hysteria and paranoia and our leaders are still looking for any excuse to take down any walls that might protect us from having to submit to their will. How different is Sister Jeanne from the people who are currently hurling accusations on social media? How different is Father Barre from the the people who were are currently told have all the answers? We may no longer burn people at the stake but we’ve found new ways to silence voices of dissent. The film may have been set in 17th Century France and first released in 1971 but Ken Russell’s masterpiece is all about the modern age. The Devils in not an easy film to watch or find but it is more than worth the effort to track down.





Horror Scenes That I Love: The House Gets Revenge in Burnt Offerings

Since I reviewed Burnt Offerings earlier today, it just makes sense that today’s scene of the day should be the only emotionally rewarding scene from that film.

In this scene below — which does count as a spoiler, in case you’re one of those annoying toaduckers who complains about stuff like that — the House finally gets its revenge on the obnoxious family that’s been living inside of it.  Now, taken out of context, it may seem a bit harsh to describe the scene as being a crowd pleaser but, if you’ve sat through the entire film, it’s hard not to cheer a little when the chimney comes down.

Seriously, what an obnoxious little brat.

Horror Film Review: Burnt Offerings (dir by Dan Curtis)

This 1976 film is about a family so obnoxious that their own house tries to kill them!

Well, maybe it’s not entirely the family’s fault. The film suggests that the house would have tried to kill anyone who lived there because the house itself is possessed by ghosts or Satan or something of that nature. Still, you can’t help but feel that the house took some extra joy out of destroying the Rolf family.  I know that I got some extra joy out of watching them get destroyed.

Ben (Oliver Reed) is a writer. Ben’s wife, Marian (Karen Black), is a flake who becomes obsessed with the house as soon as she sees it. Their son 12 year-old son, Davey (Lee Montgomery), is …. well, there’s no nice way to say this. He’s a brat. He’s the type of kid who you would be terrified of your kid befriending at school because then he’d want to come hang out at your house all the time. The movie doesn’t seem to realize that he’s a brat but the audience does. And finally, Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) is Bette Davis, which means that she spends most of the movie delivering her lines in the most overdramatic and arch way possible.

The Rolfs are renting the house for the summer. The owners of the house are the Allardyces (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) and you would think that people would know better than to rent a house from Burgess Meredith. I mean, how many horror films in the 70s specifically featured Meredith as some sort of emissary of the devil? The Rolfs are asked to do two things: look after the house and look after Mrs. Allardyce, who lives on the top floor and never wants to be disturbed. The Rolfs are assured that they’ll never see Mrs Allardyce and the Rolfs are like, “Sure! That makes sense!”

Anyway, as soon as the Rolfs move in, the house starts to make weird noises and shingles start flying off the roof and, at one point, Ben nearly drowns his son in the pool.  And while it’s kind of understandable, considering how annoying his son is, it’s still not a good look.

Yep, it’s pretty obvious that the house is evil but Marian loves it, almost as if she’s becoming …. possessed! Meanwhile, Ben keeps having visions of a sinister looking chauffeur (Anthony James, whose creepy smile is the only memorable thing about this film) and Davey keeps standing too close to the outside chimney. You don’t want to do that when a house hates your guts.

It all leads to the inevitable ending, which involves people getting tossed out of windows and *ahem* crushed by chimneys. The family’s so obnoxious that you can’t help but cheer when that chimney comes down.  In fact, to be honest, as little as I think of this movie, I always specifically watch it just to see that chimney come down on one certain character.  Things might not work out well for the Rolfs or anyone else watching this rather slow and predictable movie but at least the house survives.

Fly, baby, fly!

Now, I will admit that I do own this film on DVD, simply because I love the commentary track.  Director Dan Curtis, star Karen Black, and the film’s screenwriter, William F. Nolan, watch and discuss the film and it quickly becomes obvious that none of them remember much about making it.  While Karen Black tries to keep the peace, Curtis and Nolan bicker over who is most responsible for the parts of the film that don’t work.  When Anthony James shows up as the creepy chauffeur, Dan Curtis says that he doesn’t remember his name and then gets visibly annoyed when Karen Black spends the next few minutes talking about what a good actor Anthony James is.  It’s all enjoyably awkward and, as someone who has hosted her share of live tweets, I couldn’t help but sympathize with everyone’s efforts to find something positive to say about Burnt Offerings.

6 Trailers Designed To Bring Out The Beast In You

St. Larry, patron of werewolves

For today’s special Devil’s Night edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse Trailers, we pay tribute to the werewolves!

Sadly, werewolves have been kind of overshadowed lately.  Everyone loves the zombies.  Everyone loves the vampires.  Everyone loves the weird little creatures that secretly control the Dark Web.  But, werewolves — those brave lycanthropes — have not been getting the respect that they deserve.

So, to correct that, here are 6 trailers for the wolves!

  1. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Oliver Reed as a werewolf?  Hey, it makes sense.  This classic Hammer film brought new fame to the werewolves of London.

2. The Werewolf of Washington (1973)

The movie has its issues but that is a great title!

3. Werewolf Woman (1976)

This is an Italian film, starring Annik Borel as a woman who thinks that she’s a werewolf.  And, depending on which version of this film that you see, she might be right.

4. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Meanwhile, back in London, a young American backpacker discovers why American tourists are not universally beloved in Europe.  They have a bad habit of wandering out to the moors on nights when there is a full moon.  This classic film features perhaps the best scene to ever take place in a sleazy porno theater.

5. The Howling (1981)

1981 was a good year for werewolf films.

6. An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)

It’s not a very good film but …. hey!  Look!  Paris!

Have a howlingly good Halloween, everyone!

Rockin’ in the Film World #18: The Who’s TOMMY (Columbia 1975)

cracked rear viewer

Before MTV ever hit the airwaves, there was TOMMY, Ken Russell’s stylized cinematic vision of The Who’s 1969 ‘rock opera’. It was a match made in heaven, teaming Britain’s Wild Man of Cinema with the anarchic rock and roll of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon (not to mention England’s own enfant terrible,Oliver Reed ). Russell both captures the spirit of Townsend’s hard rock opus and expands on it visually with an all-out assault-on-the-senses musical featuring an all-star cast that includes an Oscar-nominated performance by Ann-Margret as the mother of “that deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball”!

The Who’s original album cover

Townshend, the group’s primary songwriter, had been experimenting with long-form rock’n’roll since the beginning, notably the nine minute suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” on their second album A QUICK ONE (retitled in America HAPPY JACK). TOMMY was…

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Horror Film Review: The Curse of the Werewolf (dir by Terence Fisher)

The 1961 Hammer film, The Curse of the Werewolf, is a good example of a film that could succeed on casting alone.

As you can probably guess from the title, this film is about a werewolf.  And there was never an actor more perfect for the role of a werewolf than Oliver Reed.  Set aside Reed’s legendary reputation for wild off-set behavior.  Set aside the fact that Reed specialized in playing men who often seemed to have a beast lurking deep within them, a beast that was constantly bursting out.  With his handsome but scarred face and his burly physique, Oliver Reed looked like a wolf.  If I had to sit down and paint a picture of how I visualized a man who transformed into a beast, the picture would probably end up looking like Oliver Reed.

In fact, Reed is so perfectly cast in this film that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he doesn’t even show up until the last quarter or so of the film.  Clocking in at a relatively leisurely-paced 91 minutes, The Curse of the Werewolf plays out more like an extremely grim fairy tale than a traditional horror film.

It begins in 18th century Spain, with a beggar stumbling across the wedding of a cruel nobleman.  When the beggar asks for food, he’s mocked.  He’s cruelly forced to beg and then, for his trouble, he’s thrown into jail.  Isolated from the world, the beggar’s only human contact comes from his kindly jailer and the jailer’s mute daughter.  When the nobleman tries to force himself on the daughter, he’s rejected.  As a result, he throws the jailer’s daughter into the cell with the now animalistic beggar.  When she’s eventually released, she promptly murders the nobleman but she’s now pregnant with the beggar’s child.

That child is named Leon Corledo and eventually, he’ll become Oliver Reed.  But first, we watch as he grows up, the adopted son of the kindly Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans).  Alfredo’s housekeeper considers Leon to be cursed because he was born on Christmas Day and his mother died in childbirth.  Alfredo may dismiss that as a silly superstition but, as Leon grows up, strange things do happen.  Goats are murdered and, even though a dog is blamed, we know that it has something to do with Leon.

Yes, Leon is a werewolf but interestingly enough, it’s not the full moon that transforms Leon into a beast.  Instead, it’s stress and depression.  When Leon grows up and goes to work in vineyard, he’s fine until he realizes that he’ll probably never be a rich man like his boss and he’ll never have enough money to marry Christina (Catherine Feller).  That’s when he loses control and transformed.

The Curse of the Werewolf is a dark and moody film, directed in an appropriately atmospheric fashion by Terence Fisher.  Leon is one of the more tragic Hammer monsters, having been born with an affliction that he can’t control and which no one else is capable of understanding.  Oliver Reed gives a wonderful performance, revealing the tortured soul that lurks underneath the fearful exterior.  This Hammer film may not be as well-known as the Dracula or Frankenstein films but it’s definitely one that deserves to be seen.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Gor (dir by Fritz Kiersch)

The 1987 film Gor opens with a nerdy college professor (played by Urbano Barberini, of Demons and Opera fame) giving perhaps the worst lecture in the history of underwhelming lectures.  The professor explains that there is a counter-earth, a place that he claims is known as Gor.  Gor shares the same orbit as Earth but it’s linearly opposed to Earth, which apparently makes it impossible to see.  However, the professor says that his father gave him a ring which can transport the user to Gor.  The only problem is that the professor has not figured out how to use the ring.

The students all look incredibly bored with the lecture and I don’t blame them.  Not only does the professor seem to be rambling but he doesn’t even offer up any visual aides.  He could have at least utilized a powerpoint presentation or something.  Instead, his only teaching aide is a whiteboard on which he’s written “counter-earth.”  I have to wonder what their final exam is going to look like.  “True or false.  Your professor is a freaking loon.”

(I found myself wondering what university would possibly grant tenure to some guy who thinks he owns a magic ring but then I remembered Evergreen College.)

The professor’s name is Tarl Cabot and I think that’s a good deal of his problem right there.  When you give a child a name like Tarl Cabot, you’re pretty much guaranteeing that he’s going to grow up believing that he has a magic ring that’ll transport him to another planet.

Of course, in Tarl’s case, it turns out that the ring does just that.  After his teaching assistant dumps him so that she can go on a date with another professor, Tarl crashes his car and when he wakes up, he finds himself on Gor.  Apparently, the ring only works if you crash your car or something.

As for Gor itself, it turns out to be kind of a dump.  It’s a huge desert.  Seriously, check out this counter-earth:

If Tarl wanted to see a desert, he could have just driven around Southern California and saved himself a lot of trouble.

Yes, there is trouble in Gor.  No sooner has Tarl arrived then he’s being attacked by a bunch of barbarians on horseback.  The barbarians are led by the evil Sarm (played by Oliver Reed).  Much as with the case of Tarl Cabot, I think that once you name a child Sarm, you’ve pretty much guaranteed the way that his life is going to turn out.  Anyway, Tarl somehow survives being attacked by the barbarians.  He even manages to kill Sarm’s son, which leads to Sarm declaring that he wants Tarl dead.

Fortunately, Tarl is eventually rescued by another group of barbarians.  This group is led by Talena (Rebecca Ferratti) and she wants Tarl to help her rescue her father from Sarm’s fortress.  But how can Tarl help when he’s literally useless?  Don’t worry!  The good barbarians are willing to train Tarl.  One montage later, Tarl is now a master swordsman.  Now, all Tarl has to do is dress like a barbarian and then track down a little person who can serve as a guide to Sarm’s fortress!

And what a fortress it is!  Sarm may be evil but he likes to make sure that both his guests and his slaves have a good time.  Sarm welcomes Tarl to the fortress and even tries to recruit him over to his side.  (So apparently, Sarm’s over that whole “you killed my son” thing.)  Sarm understands that the best way to recruit Tarl is with a dance number!  As Sarm laughs lustfully, the slaves put on a show.  It’s somewhat out-of-place but at least it distracts from the rest of the film.

Anyway, there’s a lot of problems with Gor but the main one is that the place itself just doesn’t seem like it’s worth all the trouble.  After spending years trying to figure out how to get to the planet, Tarl arrives and discovers that it’s basically the same desert that was used in almost every post-apocalyptic film made in the 80s and 90s.  (In fact, judging from John Carter, it’s still being used today.)  What I always wonder about this type of movie is 1) why is the other planet always full of humans who speak perfect English and 2) why do all of these planets feature a society that resembles that ancient Roman Empire?  Apparently, swords and arrows are literally universal weapons because they’re used on every planet in the universe.

When I first saw that this film starred Urbano Barberini, I assumed that it was going to turn out to be an Italian production.  (In the late 80s, there were several Italian films that featured barbarians fighting in post-apocalyptic landscapes.)  However, it turns out that Gor was a South African production, co-produced by the legendary Harry Alan Towers and directed by an American named Firtz Kiersch.  (Kiersch also directed the first film version of Children of the Corn.)  That said, the film itself is so ineptly dubbed and the production values are so low-budget that it would still be easy to mistake Gor for a film directed by Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso.

Because he’s so badly dubbed, it’s difficult to really judge Barberini’s performance as Tarl Cabot.  At the very least, he looks good with a sword in his hand and he’s cute — if never quite believable — when he plays Tarl as a neurotic physicist.  However, Barberini can’t really compete with Oliver Reed, who devours every inch of scenery that he can find.  Reed bellows and laughs and appears to be drunk in almost every scene in which he appears but at least he seems to be having a good time.  Reed is also required to wear a silly helmet in most of his scenes and I sincerely hope that he got to take it home with him.

Oliver Reed isn’t the only familiar face to pop up in Gor.  There’s also Jack Palance.  Palance only shows up for about two minutes and he looks rather confused as he discusses his plan to conquer the world.  (Apparently, Palance returned in Gor‘s sequel.)  For two minutes of screen time, Palance managed to score himself third billing in the opening credits of Gor, above even Oliver Reed!  Way to go, Jack!

Anyway, Gor is a pretty stupid movie.  I appreciated the random dance number but otherwise, it’s fairly dull and only occasionally enlivened by Oliver Reed’s refusal to go gently into that dark night.  I’m going to guess that films like this were popular with filmgoers who saw themselves as real-life Tarl Cabots and who spent their spare time thinking, “Nobody will laugh at me once they see me with a sword!”  I caught the film yesterday on Comet TV, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite channels for watching bad movies.