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While lamenting the passing of that remarkable purveyor of pulp cinema Mike Vraney, I remember that I received my first exposure to the exalted cinema of producer, writer and director Jerry Warren through Vraney's Something Weird video label. The FDA should investigate Vraney's release of Warren's The Incredible Petrified World as a foolproof narcotic-free sleep aid. Licensed from Kit Parker Films, the trio of fantasy pictures in The Jerry Warren Collection Volume 1 displays the full spectrum of Warren's talents, from P. to U. We can take in his rather interesting initial effort, jump ahead about a decade to see him massacre a couple of South American movies, and then finish up with a grade triple-Z non-movie that boggles the mind.
The fascinating Jerry Warren is often a source of
In cases like this I try to save the best for last, but 1956's Man Beast comes first chronologically. W. Lee Wilder's The Snow Creature from 1954 is probably the first thriller about a Yeti and there have been several more, including Nigel Kneale and Val Guest's superb, highly recommended The Abominable Snowman. Warren didn't write Man Beast, with the result that the by-the-numbers script by B. Arthur Cassidy 1 goes a bit beyond 'serviceable' into 'halfway presentable' territory. We have no problems keeping the stock characters straight, the action is clear and the dialogue isn't overtly stupid. Most importantly, Warren's snowman monster is not bad at all. It doesn't actually do much of anything, but it's not the embarrassment one expects.
As happens in at least five or six low-budget sci-fi thrillers, a beautiful girl enlists several men to search for her missing brother. High up in the Himalayas, a scientist, a coward and a local guide (Tom Maruzzi) help Connie Hayward (Virginia Maynor) in her quest. They're eventually joined on the mountain path by the talkative Varga (George Skaff). He not only knows quite a bit about the 'unknown' Yeti, he seems superhumanly adapted to the high altitude. Sure enough, someone on the expedition is hiding his real identity, and is leading the little group into an ambush by hairy monsters with clubs.
Man Beast was filmed around the snow line above Bishop in the Owens Valley, and most of the time effects a pretty good match between new footage and what looks like old stock film from earlier alpine sagas. The illusion is better if one doesn't pay too much attention to footgear and backpacks. Warren betrays the poverty of his production by shooting night scenes against black muslin backgrounds. Unfortunately, the flares and lights illuminate wrinkles on the backdrop. Is this the inside of Jerry Warren's garage? One of the first shots seems to be stolen from the Fox Movie Ranch, where a crumbling set for (a guess) The Keys of the Kingdom serves as the exterior of a native trading post.
(Spoiler). The big revelation contains some fairly adult ideas, even though they never get beyond the dialogue stage. (Spoiler, no kidding) Expert mountaineer Varga is really a Yeti, albeit five generations away and inbred with humans. He has a white hairy chest. Most of his Yeti tribesmen are old-fashioned monsters of limited intelligence, but they're working on that problem by kidnapping and impregnating human females ("five in the last year!"). Varga intends to wipe out the expedition and take the curvaceous Connie to a breeding cave (heh, heh), or something to that effect. As Varga has already killed her brother, Connie is understandably miffed. The show wraps up with a halfway good fight scene (relatively speaking). In a better picture we'd be at the halfway mark, so that we'd learn more about the Yetis, or have a lot more action. But for what it is -- a lot of hiking through the snow to get to a few monster scenes -- Man Beast gets a pass.
And it should get a pass, just like most every five 'n' dime monster production of the 1950s. Those filmmakers might not have been great talents but they took big risks -- a $20,000 budget in 1955 would buy a respectable house -- and got their films distributed in a climate in which big studios and exhibitors had ways of keeping the independents from seeing a dime. According to the interviews in Tom Weaver's books Jerry Warren was a real piece of work. Unheralded assistants like Brianne Murphy may have contributed a lot to the films he produced out of the back of a station wagon. Yet the cast is obviously dedicated to the project. They filmed in the real snow, which anybody will tell you is no fun whatsoever. So the lowly Man Beast is all right.
Our sympathy begins to wane with 1964's Curse of the Stone Hand a frustrating concoction made by yanking sequences out of two separate South American dramas and reconstituting them into a new framework. Actor John Carradine shows up for about two minutes, to defraud distributors and ticket buyers alike. K. Gordon Murray frequently redubbed and cut Mexican horror and fantasy films for U.S consumption (The Bloody Vampire, The Living Coffin), but he exercised good sense compared to Jerry Warren's "creative" butchering of what appear to have been rather well-made suspense stories. Several years before, Warren had directed fifteen minutes of truly wretched reshoots to turn the moody American-Swedish science fiction movie Rymdinvasion i Lappland into the execrable Invasion of the Animal People. For Curse of the Stone Hand Warren yanked one segment each from the Chilean movies La dama de la muerte ("The Lady of Death," 1946) and La casa está vacía (The House is Empty, 1945). Both of these pictures appear are handsomely shot and display qualities every bit the equal of Hollywood work, with elaborate sets and costumes, professional acting, good cinematography and expressive camera moves. They are of course completely unknown here; most Americans have no idea that Chile had a film industry.
We can tell that these were quality movies that might have held interest if just left alone. "Editor" Warren hacks both of them to bits, losing all sense of continuity. He then plasters on his new material with clumsy narration written by himself and read (at least in part) by actor Bruno VeSota. It's a mess from one end to the other, as the insert material doesn't begin to match the visual quality of the original movies. A wraparound prologue tries to relate both stories to the same European house. The supposed curse involves stone statues of human hands that surround the property, forming some kind of diabolical barrier. In new footage, John Carradine and a few other Warren regulars (like Catherine Victor) are shoehorned into the story line, commenting on what's happening and in general getting in the way.
Watching Curse of the Stone Hand is an exercise in frustration. The first story is an adaptation of the oft- revived The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson. In danger of losing his house to creditors, a man tries and fails to gamble his way back to liquidity. But he's offered the chance to gamble with his life in a secret 'club' by offering the proceeds of a life insurance policy if he loses. Other club members are assigned as executioners. What we see are the bare bones of the story, erratically cut down to nothing. The victim's wife is barely in the show. Yet it's still marginally involving.
No stone hands figure in that story, so we figure that the second tale The House of Gloom will play catch-up. A family is ruled by a cruel older brother, who perversely tries to dominate and control all the women in his life. The sets are impressively atmospheric, but almost nothing happens. Warren's editing removes all dialogue scenes, leaving behind a quizzical, meaningless set of entrances and exits. Pasted-in Warren actress Katherine Victor talks to people through doors and emotes with doubles that don't talk back. We expect this second show to link up with Warren's plaster-of-Paris stone hands in the framing story, but they turn out to be completely irrelevant and are never explained. An obnoxious surrealist purposely making nonsense of the original movie couldn't have done more damage.
What's more, as the original Chilean films were made in the flat 1:37 format, theater projectionists in 1964 would have a hell of a time trying to keep important information on screen without cutting off the heads of the characters. Kit Parker and VCI wisely present Curse of the Stone Hand full-frame.
The final taste of timeless movie art as created by Jerry Warren is 1966's The Wild World of Batwoman, also known as The Wild Wild World of Batwoman and She Was a Hippy Vampire. National Periodical Publications was not amused, as the replacement "Vampire" title was reportedly prompted by a copyright infringement lawsuit -- TV's Batman was an enormous hit, and under any title the picture is based on familiar iconography from the comic strip. Was a tacked-on opening scene where three Batgirls identify themselves as "synthetic vampires" invented to sidestep the lawyers?
This time the show is a Jerry Warren affair all the way, put together on the scale of backyard productions by the late lamented Ray Dennis Steckler. In fact, someone needs to straighten me out on what the deal is with Warren and Steckler. The villain of Batwoman goes by the name "Rat Fink". In the same year, backyard moviemaker Steckler released his own superhero satire Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. Its costumed hero characters are named Rat Fink and Boo Boo. Why didn't car customizer and artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth sue both of these filmmakers?
Wild World of Batwoman is a superhero farce without superheroes. The masked Batwoman (Katherine Victor) wears a low-cut outfit and has a bat painted on her chest with eye makeup. She leads a group of 'Batgirls', fairly useless Go-Go dancers that simply send messages over their wristwatch communicators. There are no fight scenes, only comedy nonsense. Batwoman does deck one bad guy with her fist, and actually looks good doing it. Some comic henchmen, a silly scientist and his hunchbacked aide assist the evil Rat Fink (Richard Banks) in stealing an Atomic Hearing Aid, which can hear any conversation at long distance. Rat Fink wears a cape, a black hat and a black facial stocking. Various 'adventures' occur in secret hideouts, mad labs and an underground kingdom that consists of stock shots from The Mole People, including shots of the Mole Men. Bat Girl Dee Dee (Suzanne Lodge) is kidnapped, the bad guys use "Happy Pills" to incapacitate the good guys, the Batgirls dance to the electric guitars of "The Young Giants" at Malibu Beach. There are no production values to speak of and no action scenes beyond several breaks to watch the Batgirls dance. A sluggish pace hampers the general spirit of fun.
What the film does have is spirited performances. Ex-noir veteran Steve Brodie Out of the Past works for the hearing aid company, while the fruity Dr. Neon (George Mitchell) takes a short break from his German accent to try out an Ed Wynn accent. An obscure actor named Mel Oshins has a great grin and attitude as henchman Tiger, who falls in love with the kidnapped Dee Dee. After all the running around in circles, the 'story' ends with more running around in circles when the Evil Rat Fink uses a "Body Divider" to generate five or six copies of himself.
The film has one bizarre moment in which the characters deliver a prescient message about the abuse of technology to violate the privacy of our personal lives, which would play splendidly if cut into a montage with Edward Snowden and President Obama. But that insight passes quickly. If one had to classify Wild World of Batwoman it would land at the bottom of the stack of limp party pictures like Albert Zugsmith's Sex Kittens Go to College. In comparison, Philip Kaufman's disorganized, improvised superhero satire Fearless Frank (Frank's Greatest Adventure) comes off as a masterpiece. Yet the marginally competent Wild World of Batwoman hangs together in its own inimitable way. In abysmal movie terms, it's actually halfway entertaining, just to see how ridiculous it can get.
VCI's DVD of The Jerry Warren Collection 1 contains good encodings of these three notorious exploitation features. The bit rate is more than adequate, and the worst flaw we see is a splice in the opening scene of Man Beast. That title and Batwoman are widescreen-enhanced. As explained above Curse of the Stone Hand is left at 1:37, a wise choice. Each movie carries removable English subtitles.
VCI has included several fun extras. Please alert Martin Scorsese, because we now know that a longer version of Man Beast exists, one that padded the picture beyond its pulse-pounding 67-minute running time. A set of dialogue scenes has been rescued from the only known source, a print dubbed into Spanish (and none too well).
Trailers are included for each title. A commendably honest blurb for Curse reads, "Unlike Anything You Have Ever Experienced in a Theater!" A second trailer for Batwoman carries the Hippy Vampire title card. C'mon, Jerry, the word is hippie. The first blurb up in the trailer reads, "Batmania At Its Battiest!" making explicit Warren's intention to rip off TV's Batman. A 'Trivia' selection in the extras menu leads to a vague statement about a lab dispute that spoiled Warren's first bookings of Batwoman. Reading between the lines, we wonder if the problem was that Warren foolishly checked his film elements into a lab owned by 20th Fox -- the studio producing TV's Batman.
I'm taking the last extra as a joke, as it is far more ridiculous than anything in Warren's movies. A Tom Weaver interview with Katherine Victor from his book Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes isn't Weaver's original recording, but a re-enactment. I tuned it in for about a minute before asking myself, "Why am I listening to this?"
This is just Volume 1 ... the Jerry Warren Collection Volume 2 is prowling out there somewhere as well, with Attack of the Mayan Mummy, House of Black Death and Creature of the Walking Dead. I imagine that VCI must be hiring extra staff to handle the extra volume of orders.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Jerry Warren Collection Volume 1 rates:
1. This is a risky thing to assert, as writer Cassidy has no other credits listed in the admittedly un-authoritative IMDB. That lovable rogue Jerry Warren is notorious for playing tricks with his credits. Maybe the writer doesn't exist and Warren did write this picture after all. However, 4 out of 5 experts agree on another point: Man Beast's top billed "Rock Madison" is a pure invention for the advertising -- the actor plays no role and doesn't even exist. Did Warren think that filmgoers might believe they were going to see a movie with Rock Hudson or Guy Madison?
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.