Search This Blog

Monday, October 26, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 21: The Undertaker and His Pals (1966)

Written and directed by T. L. P. Swicegood

Ray Dannis:  Mr. Mort, the Undertaker
Warrene Ott:  Friday / Thursday
James Westmoreland:  Harry Glass

Hoo boy. It's just a little over an hour long, and it's written and directed by someone with a real name that looks like a pseudonym. For that matter, the two top-billed stars have names that look like typos. It's cheap, It's nasty. It's got the an apparently sincere use of the "wah, wahh, wahhh waaaahhhhhhhh" trombone on its score. And it wouldn't have been made if Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! didn't turn out to be massive successes on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits. But for all that, I found this one to have a certain kind of cockeyed charm. Sort of similar to The Barbarians, if you've seen that. Everyone involved looked like they knew exactly what kind of cheapjack movie they were making and ran with it, and (weirdly enough for a movie about murderous cannibals) it's all in good fun.

Before I go any further, I'm going to make one of those True Confessions that I have to bust out every so often at the Checkpoint:  I don't believe I've ever seen an actual first-generation gore movie from the Sixties. The video stores I frequented when I was in my gorehound phase didn't carry any of them, and by the time Netflix and services that offer totally legit downloads of rare films popped up I really wasn't all that interested in seeing any of them. Thanks to attending B Fest for the last fifteen years, I've been exposed to plenty of films that I wouldn't have had any particular interest or ability to locate, though, and this one happened to play at the 2001 marathon, my first Fest attendance. And also, coincidentally, a 24 hour long movie marathon that took place two days after I had a cast removed from a broken arm and shattered wrist. What I'm saying is that my first viewing may have occurred under less than ideal circumstances because I was punch-drunk on my own fatigue toxins and my arm was in constant pain (which lasted for four years or so before fading away completely, but that's neither here nor there).

I remember being actually slightly charmed by this movie the first time I saw it; I have a weakness for corny jokes and vaudeville-style humor when the mood hits me. I'm willing to bet that the filmmakers who put this one together share the same enthusiasm, but at a much higher level. The tone of the film is oddly charming--it plays out a little bit like devoted readers of Mad magazine trying to make a live-action film parody crammed with lots of odd little jokes in the margins like a Jack Davis drawing. Sadly, the sense of humor is much more Dave Berg for most of the film. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, The Undertaker and His Pals may just be a (barely) feature-length adaptation of "The Lighter Side Of...Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street".

The film starts with that most noble of efforts, the padding scene. In a sepia-toned sequence, three guys on motorcycles ride around in circles by an ENTER NOT DO sign painted on the concrete by a phone booth. One of them goes into the booth and selects a name. Then they drive off, probably looking for Sarah Connor. More poorly lit shots of the bikers in black leather on black motorcycles driving at night ensue. They go to an apartment building where one of them--not wearing gloves, mind you--touches the mailbox of a Ms. Sally Lamb, confirming that's who he's looking for. The other two drive off in the loudest, most conspicuous manner possible.

Inside the Lamb apartment, Sally's writing a letter to her boyfriend in the Navy and showing off her legs for the camera. All three bikers gain entry into her apartment and stab her to death. The photo of her boyfriend changes from a smile to a surprise-and-shock face, and then to stunned bewilderment (see what I meant about a Jack Davis drawing?) while the movie switches to living color to show off the blood from the kill scene. Which makes this the oddest take on The Wizard of Oz and its justifiably legendary shift to Technicolor that I've ever seen...

After Sally does the head slump that indicates death, the bikers cut her legs off, wrap them in newspaper, and abscond with them. The camera slowly zooms in on a pair of ceramic comedy and tragedy masks on Sally's apartment wall when things fade to black and the title comes up on a black screen. Good luck finding out who plays which part in this movie according to the movie; I'm trusting the IMDB on this one.

Sally Lamb's parents go to Mr. Mort the Undertaker's office (with a chintzy "We give trading stamps" banner out front), and the Mort turns on the soothing taped Muzak that he uses during services, after a false start where we get the first line of a pop song called "There's Never Been a Devil Like Me". I know which one I'd rather have played at my wake. Sally's parents appear to be the only mourners at her wake--a testament either to a lonely life or the miniscule budget for this movie. Mort offers a few comforting words to the grieving mother and hands the padded and comically long bill to Sally's father ("TWELVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS?!" "See, you've forgotten your grief already!"). Mrs. Lamb is furious at her husband and Mort for talking about money at Sally's wake and the undertaker doesn't help things by pointing out that he had to sew plastic legs onto Sally's body so that she'd fit properly in the casket.

The camera pans--sort of--across the street from the funeral home and to a building that allegedly contains the office of Harry Glass, Private Detective. He's got a series of passive-aggressive and just plain aggressive notes on his office door meant to drive clients away. Harry's a real piece of work, paying attention to paperwork rather than smooching with his secretary (which she initiated--that's not how harrassment is "supposed" to work in the Sixties!). They go out to dinner (although the office scene appeared to have been set in the middle of the day) at a greasy spoon actually called The Greasy Spoon Cafe. The owner, Doc, was thrown out of medical school for being "very, very weird". And on the chalkboard menu, there's a special:  Today's only offered dish is Leg of Lamb (complete with mysterious marimba note on the score when the board gets its closeup). This scene is also where we learn that Harry's secretary is named Ann Poultry; every single person in the audience mentally clicked a stopwatch when they heard her name, of course.

The waiter / bus boy / dishwasher, Spike, can't help but mention the weird murder in which someone named Lamb got their legs cut off. Harry says that Mr. Lamb stopped by his office earlier to try and get some measure of justice or satisfaction--apparently the police aren't any use, which is par for the course in this story (otherwise there wouldn't be a series of killings and the film would be even shorter than it already is). Both Harry and Ann Poultry take one sniff of the Lamb meat and leave without eating it--Ms. Poultry says she's going to call the county health department and get the Greasy Spoon schedule for an inspection. 1966 is a little too early for this joke to work completely, I think, but Ann's also wearing a red dress. She's got a gimmick name, threatened the proprieters of the obvious cannibal restaurant and she's wearing the redshirt's shore leave uniform; that makes three for three in the "you're gonna die" sweepstakes.

Ann strips down to her bra and half-slip at home to provide the jerks in the audience something to leer at before she changes into a quilted nightgown. At the same time, her cat yowls offscreen at the three bikers who showed up to scoop her up and impale her on the spiky iron garden fence. She's too terrified to scream when they show up, and the filmmakers show a little bit of talent in that scene by lingering on the fence spikes before panning sideways to Ann's body. The next morning, the police and Harry are investigating at the murder scene; a detective picks up a badge torn from one of the bikers' jackets with his bare hands, getting his own fingerprints all over it. He hands it to Mike to make absolutely certain that the fingerprint technician will have to put in overtime on this job and then says it's the first tangible clue in the five(!) mutilation killings so far. I'm guessing the victims all had names like Stew or Kebab or Frankfurter; let's hope that Harry and Ann haven't eaten at the Greasy Spoon recently...

The film also plays relatively fair with forensics by having the police detective say they know there were three motorcycle-riding killers who left tire and boot prints so they know their general physical sizes and exact tire treads. Harry's not a huge amount of help in coming up with a suspect list; his secretary didn't have any enemies as far as he knew and Ann didn't hang out with bikers. ("She only hated one guy, and that was me." Real helpful, Harry.)

Glass promises not to look into things on his own because that would compromise the official investigation; seconds after the cops walk away the undertaker shows up complete with that marimba note on the soundtrack that played in the diner. I wouldn't have expected a movie this cheap and shoddy to have a leitmotif on the score for its evil characters, even if it was one note. But it totally does.

The undertaker offers Harry a bargain-rate funeral for Ann, who has no relatives. Harry agrees to let Mort handle the funeral, especially after he is quoted the price of $144.98 for the whole shebang. Glass is also smart enough to read the contract first and fill the quoted price in himself. He might be bereaved, but that doesn't make him a sap. Silent-movie music follows as the undertaker walks away, steps on a skateboard someone left lying around, flails wildly as he rides it on one foot down the block and into the street (courtesy of some editing; there's no way in hell that the actor genuinely did any stunts in this scene) and falls down. And there's that "wahh, wahhh, wahhhh, waaaaaahhhhhhh" horn I mentioned at the start of the review. That's a cliche so old I don't think I ever saw it used in live-action film before.

Back in the diner, Spike the counter guy are commiserating with Glass about Ann's death ("Breast of Chicken" is on the special board; let's hope Harry's just there for coffee). Doc, in the kitchen, is reciting medical textbook passages about incisions to his scalpel like it's a love sonnet. He slices his thumb accidentally-on-purpose when he gets worked up, and then the grocery deliveryman shows up with a box of various things that a restaurant would probably need. I'm not sure how The Greasy Spoon stays in business if they only need a two foot by two foot box of groceries in the delivery. One assumes a busy diner would go through that much ketchup, mustard, onions and relish in a week. The delivery guy sees Doc reading about surgery and asks why the diner never orders any meat; he's nosy enough that Doc sneaks up on him with a meat cleaver when he sees the Leg of Lamb in the meat freezer. I have no idea what they're going to serve him as, but considering he's the only black character in the movie so far it'll be some kind of "dark meat" pun.

Another customer comes in and wants the Breast of Chicken, and yes, Spike asks if he wants light meat or dark. The customer gets fed up with Spike's evasive bullshit and lack of items like hot dogs and orders an entire pie, which he chucks in Spike's face (to the accompaniment of those "wahh, wahhh, wahhhh, waaaahhhhh" horns again). Then it's back to the funeral parlor, where Harry sees what $144.98 gets you (and Mort blames him for not letting him pad the bill). Turns out a blood-streaked packing crate is what you get, with a couple beer bottles with candles for atmosphere. Harry decides to punch the shit out of the mortician in lieu of payment. I'd say he's quite justified.

Back at the detective agency, sleazy saxophone music announces the arrival of a new secretary named Friday; she says her sister told her about a job opening (and given that Ann supposedly didn't have any relatives, I'm not certain what Friday's deal is, exactly). Harry sends her down to the Greasy Spoon for dinner and never sees her again. Turns out that telling Doc you've got a pain because you're hungry is something he takes as license to operate. I'm pretty sure anyone that Doc tries to work on is doomed anyway, but even if Friday made it through the procedure safely she would have contracted some kind of hideous infection after her "surgeon" washed his hands in the kitchen sink and put dishwashing gloves on before making his first incision. Spike sterilizes the operation theater with a can of deodorant in lieu of insecticide, which also does not bode well for a full recovery. What appears to be actual surgery footage gets cut into the film for a few seconds (which means that the filmmakers didn't have to work up an actual makeup effect for Friday's demise). Friday screams when she wakes up during the procedure and gets ground into hamburger for another daily special (hyphenated "Hambur-
Ger" on the board).

Mort shows up right after Friday gets the Untold Story treatment, with the rest of her body getting dumped in a convenient giant vat labeled "ACID", which all greasy spoons have in the back. The mortician accuses Spike and Doc of ripping him off; the deal they have with their little murder club is that the diner gets the usable parts of the victims' bodies and the funeral home gets to jack up the prices on the wake and burial of whatever's left. And there's not a lot even a dedicated chiseler like Mort can do with some acid-etched bones and scraps of cartilage. Mort's fussy and irritable over the loss of potential income since he's got bills to pay and he just missed out on a windfall when Glass kept him down to the stated price for the funeral and beat him up. There's also a baffling joke where Spike says Mort's injuries were because "He shaved with a <whatever he says is bleeped out with a cuckoo clock noise>". I guess that might be from a 1965 commercial for Gillette or Shick or Barbasol or something.

The trio rides their cycles by the ENTER NOT DO sign and pick someone else from the phone book again that night, beating a woman named Rose to death with a chain in a sauna (I don't know how they decided to get to the sauna or knew there would be only one woman there for a murder. Anyway, they bludgeon her to death while she screams for about one percent of the movie's total run time. But they got spotted by two other women at the sauna on the way out and one of them pulls an obvious prop handgun on them; the bikers escape but the license plate gets shot off of one bike. Even Harry Glass, World's Stupidest Detective, can put two and two together and get the square root of sixteen in this case.

Back at the Greasy Spoon, Mort is confronted by his droogies about the missing license plate on his bike and the bullet crease on the back of his neck. Doc says he'll have to operate, which brings out a level of panic in the undertaker that he didn't have even when Harry was breaking a vase over his head. Spike says that Mort is a real liability even with the bullet wound treated on the Q.T. and thinks they should just get rid of him. Mort doesn't like being double-crossed and tells Doc that it's time for Spike to get the acid bath instead of him. Doc agrees and it's Spike's turn to go Full Birnbaum.

Harry, back at his office, places a call to "Charlie the Stoolie" at a pool hall, asking who Mort the undertaker pals around with. He finds out about Doc and Spike just in time for a cross cut to Spike getting lowered into the dry ice fog in the ACID barrel, shrieking like a lost soul. Doc and Mort make themselves scarce and Harry breaks into the diner's back room. He finds the ACID barrel and pulls Spike's clean, bones-still-all-attached-to-each-other-somehow skeleton up over the rim when he gets startled by Friday's identical twin sister Thursday (played by the same actress). She flirts with Harry asking if he knows what happened to her twin, and Harry says he's got a pretty good idea by now.

Harry calls the cop in charge of the investigation and gives him the straight dope on the Greasy Spoon and its connection to Mort and the series of horrible mutilations and savage killings in the area. In a parenthetical note, the radio in the cop's office is a Grundig Majestic--I know that because my parents own one, inherited from my maternal grandfather. This makes The Undertaker and His Pals a vintage gore comedy that my mom might be tangentially interested in seeing. Odd, that. (To be fair, she found a decapitation gag in Shaun of the Dead to be perfectly delightful so there's some precedence.)

The bikers follow Harry and Thursday from the phone booth, because nothing's less conspicuous than two men in head to toe black leather and facemasks following your car at night. And into the morning. The Blues Brothers ending chase this is not. And when it cuts back to Harry and Thursday at his bachelor pad, Thursday says it's quarter to four, so maybe the bike pursuit was supposed to take place at night? Or unrelated footage got cut into that sequence? I can't make it make sense.

When Harry goes back from his home to his office the bikers follow him from the beach (and it is unquestioningly morning at this point). Harry must have had a lot on his mind because he runs out of gas during his commute. Thursday, who has been flirting with him to no effect, can't believe the cliche they're stuck in. Harry gets out of his car and gets an immediate ride from someone driving in the opposite direction, leaving Thursday alone in a convertible. The suspense allegedly grows as Thursday enjoys a tasty cigarette and keeps an eye out for anyone approaching. The two surviving bikers show up almost immediately. Thursday makes a run for it and trips and falls twice within ten seconds or so, which has to be intentional. She manages to avoid the bikers by running around the car and denying them room to maneuver; Doc concentrates on her so much that he gets creamed by an oncoming truck. Two down, one to go.

Back at his funeral parlor (I think), Mort makes some kind of bomb in a paint can and tells the camera all he needs is a match. Meanwhile, back at his office, Harry tells Thursday that the gang killed her twin sister. Also meanwhile, the undertaker sets off his paint can bomb (blowing up his motorcycle, I think, to get rid of the evidence--but possibly taking out Harry in the same blast. The movie is amazingly unclear at this particular point), which alerts Thursday to something being up. She runs outside of the office to see what the heck is going on and winds up about eight feet away from Mort, who chases her up several flights of stairs as she runs and he plods on. The movie's actually intentionally funny here, showing that there's no way in hell Mort could catch up with her, and then of course he catches up with her. The soundtrack switches between silent-movie chase piano to slow organ music whenever Thursday or Mort are the focus of the shot as well--there's some effort that went into the sequence, hastily and cheaply shot as it was.

Thursday backs up to the edge of the roof and the undertaker tries to grab her, going over the edge because he is a clod and doesn't have two other people backing him up as he goes for a defenseless woman. But he lives through the fall (which Thursday doesn't notice) and stalks her from behind a curtain. The police detective gives a brief but SUPER PONDEROUS speech about how mankind doesn't need to add any more violence to an already crazy world and stabs Mort through the forehead in a take on Polonius' death in Hamlet. Or just a quick way to wrap up a movie that only has three characters left in it by now.

And then the movie does something actually endearing. That song at the very beginning that Mort played on his funeral-home reel to reel tape deck? The movie's got a full version of it that plays over clips of all the actors smiling and winking at the camera, showing that they're all okay and that it's just a movie. The delivery guy takes a couple aspirin for his massive cranial trauma, Thursday takes a (simulated) bite of a burger at the diner, and every other deceased character gets a brief moment to take a bow before the credits roll--and this is an amateur production to the point where the actors are listed, but not the parts they played. Thanks a lot, guys. Fifty years later when someone wants to review your movie for their blog, extra research is necessary. The credits are done so cheaply that they're just magnetic letters on a signboard; T. L. P. Swicegood didn't have the bread to get them done at a film lab.

But hey--this is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be (which is, more or less, a grindhouse version of a "Hee-Haw!" sketch stretched out to feature length). Every time there's something clunky or cheap or particularly amateurish it adds to the effect rather than detracting from it. And the film tells its story and gets the hell out of the way. There's really something to be said about knowing when to wrap up the story and leave the party. Shoddy, cheap and amateurish is fine, but all those things plus "endless" would make this much more of a grind than grindhouse.

Also, I realized that I've done two cannibal restaurant movies in two years for the letter "U". If there is a third one, I'll be watching that in 2016, most likely. If not? Well, Ravenous is always an option.

This review is part of HubrisWeen, a roundtable where five bloggers are reviewing B movies from A to Z this October. Click on the banner to see what the other reviewers went for this time!

No comments:

Post a Comment