What The Hell Is Chris Watching Now? – Tourist Trap (1978)

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For those Fright Fans familiar with my viewing habits this time of the year, you know I’m neck-deep in three different viewing challenges over on Letterboxd, most notably the fifth annual HoopTober horror viewing challenge. But this viewing is related to the Horror x52 challenge (52 horror movies in 52 weeks) that I’ve been working on since the summer.

In comparison to the other films I’ve viewed and reviewed so far in my “What The Hell Is Chris Watching Now?” series, 1978’s Tourist Trap is probably the most known of these random cult classics. This was my very first viewing of it, and I felt it had enough oddballness (is that a word?) going for it that it fit with the spirit of why I started writing these posts. So let’s dive into this 40-year-old film, shall we?

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The Rifleman has a rifle!

The story centers around a group of guys and girls out on a random road trip when one of the cars gets a flat. We open on Woody rolling the tire to whatever gas station he might find along this back road that saw better days before the highway came through and diverted traffic. Within the first five minutes, we witness Woody getting whacked by either a poltergeist or a telekinetic attack after getting trapped in the remote gas station! Gotta love it when a film hits the ground running, right?

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Woody, we hardly knew ya . . . .

Well, of course the rest of the gang (featuring a young and brunette Tanya Roberts) goes looking for Woody and have their own car troubles out of nowhere. It just so happens that the breakdown is on the property of Mr. Slausen, played by the legendary Chuck Connors! Friendly Mr. Slausen runs a waxworks museum that saw better days and better business before the highway came along, too. In his efforts to help the remaining four protagonists, things get more and more creepy when he talks of his brother who made the wax figures but went to the city. About this time is when we start seeing someone wearing various masks and wigs, stalking the quartet.

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Anyone else getting a Leatherface vibe here?

I don’t want to say much more about the story because there is a plot twist (which most of you will see coming) and various plot points that make this film unique and interesting enough to stand out as an early slasher that more horror fans should make an effort to see. The final 5 minutes or so had some nice “Wait. What?” moments to make you glad you took this journey to it’s totally messed up ending.

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As Al Snow use to ask: “What does everybody want?!?”

Another reason to watch this is to pick out the influences behind it and the influence it may have had on some classics that came after it in the 80’s. Beyond the obvious House Of Wax inspiration there is a strong Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe throughout this, and that’s probably due to the co-writer of the screenplay having been the editor for TCM. Tourist Trap also uses the same effects crew as TCM. The telekinetic part may have been a note from Carrie, and one of the jump scares is a straight up homage to Psycho. For the films that came after, I have a feeling that Motel Hell was heavily influenced by this. The level of dark humor, the remote roadside setting, and the use of an aged-but-known actor in the lead can’t help but make me come to that conclusion.

I must note at this time that there is essentially a remake of this film that was an utter waste of my viewing time: 2005’s House Of Wax. Yes, they try to claim it was a remake/reboot of the 1953 classic, but come on! The 2005 film has far more in common storywise with Tourist Trap than with the true House Of Wax with Vincent Price. I mean, the only good things about the 2005 film is seeing Jared Padalecki pre-Supernatural and that Paris Hilton gets killed. Seriously.

Anywho, if you want to watch this, I strongly suggest watching it how I did. Watch it on Shudder with the “Last Drive-In” commentary from the legendary Joe Bob Briggs. The nuggets of truth and trivia and just plain ol’ fun he drops elevates any movie.

Now to get back to my movie challenges . . . . .

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Keep watching, Fright Fans!!!

What The Hell Is Chris Watching Now? – Belladonna Of Sadness (1973)

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A couple of years back, I started doing the “HoopTober Challenge” created by user Cinemonster over on Letterboxd because I love horror (obviously), making film lists, and being challenged to watch new stuff. During that time, there was one film that popped up on numerous lists in the category of “Films From Another Country”: 1973’s Belladonna Of Sadness. Given the fact that I’m also doing the “Horror x52 Challenge” and the “Birth Year Challenge”, both created by user kynky, waiting until now to watch it helped me kill two birds with one screening.

Belladonna Of Sadness (aka Kanashimi no Belladonna; La Sorciere, Tragedy of Belladonna, or Belladonna) is an animated Japanese production written by Yoshiyuki Fukuda and
Eiichi Yamamoto, and directed by Yamamoto, based on Satanism and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet. It tells the tale of young Jeanne and Jean, lovers preparing to wed in medieval France. Seeking the approval of the local Baron on their wedding night, the Baron instead demands a tax from Jean that he knows cannot be paid. Going beyond claiming “prima nocta”, the Baroness encourages her husband to share Jeanne with the entire court.

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Follow this, Jeanne vows her revenge, and in doing so sows the seeds to allow the devil in. Jeanne rises within stature and wealth within the village only to be struck down by the envious villagers and the wicked Baroness. When she has hit rock bottom after being cast out of the village, the devil manifests in his full power and seals the pact with Jeanne that brings her into her full powers as well.

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For the rest of the story, I encourage you to go watch this for yourselves, Fright Fans. This film is visually stunning and quite beautiful at times with the primary use of water colors for the animation. Most of the animation is actually camera pans across still paintings, but you let that go as the story draws you in as you cheer for Jeanne to gain her vengeance. The score by Masahiko Satoh is dead-on jazzy 70’s but not to the point of being obnoxious and fits perfectly.

The obscurity of this film is one of the reasons I picked it for this post, but there are some definite WTF?!? moments within it as well, dear readers. The animation depicting Jeanne’s rape is visually shocking in the way that it combines symbolism with the literalness of this violent assault. There is also nudity and fairly graphic sex many times throughout the film, including the devil looking (and acting) very phallic whenever he appears, growing larger with each appearance. And at about the 19 minute mark, I think I witnessed the birth of tentacle hentai when Jeanne’s torn dress kind comes to life.

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But the capper for the sex scenes? Well the orgiastic magical rites that Jeanne enacts with the villagers, of course. I’ve been mulling over how to best describe these scenes for the last day or so, and here’s the best I can come up with: Picture Yellow Submarine and The Electric Company (yes, the 70’s kids show with Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno) dropped acid with shrooms and formed the largest gang-bang daisy chain you’ve ever seen. … You want to go watch it now, don’tcha? Wait! I left out the bit that looked like someone giving a shocker to a greyhound. Don’t worry. You can’t miss it.

The witchcraft, possession, murder, and devils make this an amazing Asian art-house entry into the sub-genre of animated horror, and I highly recommend watching this wherever you can. It’s currently up on Shudder and has been played on Turner Classic Movies “Underground” block on Saturday nights in the past. Let me know what you think when you do. It does cast quite the spell on a viewer.

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What The Hell Is Chris Watching Now? – Alien Contamination (1980)

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Pop quiz: What do you get when you borrow from Lucio Fulci, Ridley Scott, and Cronenberg and use Columbian drug money to help finance it? That’s right, Fright Fans! You get this sci-fi horror production, Alien Contamination (aka Contamination).

Following his success of the 1978 “space opera”Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi wanted to stay in the realm of sci-fi for his next film. After seeing Ridley Scott’s legendary classic, Alien, Cozzi decided he wanted to make pretty much his own version but on a fraction of the budget. Keeping the eggs, the acid, and an alien creature, but keeping the setting to just Earth, Cozzi was underway. Shot in just 8 weeks with locations in Rome, New York City, Florida, and Columbia (we’ll get back to that one), Cozzi had his film.

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“Da suits! Day do nothing!!!”

Now granted, also because of the budget, the big alien creature wasn’t stop motion and was animatronic instead, the creature wasn’t what Cozzi wanted. As the viewer, you only get to see random quick, poorly lit shots of the entire creature. But by that point you don’t really care.

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This is where the Cronenberg influence comes in. The acid from the eggs? Well, it’s actually spores released by the eggs when they are in a hot and moist environment. When the spores explode from the eggs, anyone that is splattered by the eggs also explodes!!! In a few of the shots, you get the impression that Cozzi spent a good chunk of the budget on the sternal and gut explosions that happen several times throughout the film. Some are slightly laughable but others are fairly impressive. The graphic nature and slow motion filming of the bodily explosions actually earned Alien Contamination a spot on the “Video Nasties” list for excessive blood and gore.

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Crap. I just realized I hadn’t even mentioned an important thing: the plot! A derelict cargo ship coming into the harbor in New York City doesn’t answer any hails. Upon searching the boat, the harbor patrol, a scientist, and a cop find a few dead bodies and a curious collection of pulsating eggs, that look like footballs made from alligator hide, in the boiler room by some steam pipes. Now remember what I said makes the eggs go boom? Yep. Welcome to the game, Victim #1!!!

Bring in more scientists and more government agencies, and we learn the eggs came from space (dun-dun-DAH!) when two astronauts (one played by Ian McCulloch of Zombi fame) returned to Earth. Someone has been hiding and producing more eggs on a Columbian coffee plantation for their own nefarious plots (or are they??) for world domination!

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Talk about “walking on eggshells”!

Okay. All the Columbian stuff? Yes, this film was partially financed with Columbian drug money. Hell, a couple of the gunmen that greet the cop and the scientist at the plantation probably weren’t even actors and provided their own guns! Cozzi did say that the drug smugglers where pleased when the film turned a profit on their investment, though.

In the end . . . oh yeah. The ending. This hits the Fulci influence home for me. With the derelict ship floating into the harbor and an ending shot showing NYC again and a potential threat within it, I thought I was watching Zombi again. Seriously, fright fans, this is not a great movie by any means, but it was fun to watch it for what it is. Watch it with friends, have a few laughs, and be surprised by the bodies going *BOOM*.

Trailer for “Contamination”

“What The Hell Is Chris Watching Now?” – Killer Nun (1979)

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Nunsploitation

A subgenre of exploitation films which centers on aberrant secularized behavior of religious women and had its peak in Europe in the 1970’s. (Cobbled from Wikipedia.)

This was my first adventure into the dark little corner of this particular subgenre. I think before this the closest I came to seeing a nunsploitation film was 1971’s The Devils. That infamous film had at least ten times the budget of this plus the star power of Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. Killer Nun has the fading star power of Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, War And Peace) as the lead, Sister Gertrude, and the less than 5 minutes of screen time of Alida Valli (Suspiria) as her Mother Superior.

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Alida Valli (Miss Tanner in Suspiria) as Mother Superior

There are 3 main reasons why I chose to watch this one:

  1. It’s available on Shudder.
  2. It’s a Section Two “Video Nasty”.
  3. I needed to watch a “video nasty” as part of the “Horror x52 Challenge” that I’m participating in on Letterboxd.

Let’s perform our penance and talk about the film for a bit. Set in modern times, which happens to set it apart from the medieval time period used in most nunsploitation tales, Sister Gertrude isn’t the most stable of people after having a brain tumor removed recently and developing a morphine addiction during her recovery. The Sister with a growing smack habit breaks bad and goes to the city to score when her stash dries up at the care home (don’t know what else to call the institution she helps run with its odd mix of residents/patients).

Prior to this outing, we get to see one of her “psychotic” moments of anxiety and distress while assisting the doctor. If you deem to watch this or already have, can you please tell me what instrument they are using for her psychotic break scenes? Seriously. I’m torn between it either being a theremin or a singing saw. Whichever it is, it made me chuckle a bit at the choice of it for those musical stings.

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Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) with Dr. Poirret (Massimo Serato)

Anyway, back to the outing. Sister Gertrude decides to get some with a rando from the bar, and this leads to one of the more ridiculous simulated sex scenes I’ve ever seen for any Italian horror film out of the 70’s. Given the height difference and doing it standing up against a wall, either the dude was trying to jab it through her navel or his penis can contort like an elephant’s trunk. … Okay, yeah. I nitpick things like this. Sue me.

For the first 40 minutes, not a hell of a lot happens. But then the Killer Nun dons some pink Playtex dishwashing gloves (which made my mind think giallo), and the body count and intrigue both begin to build. Intrigue, you say? Why, yes I do! It’s around this time that the vast majority of the viewers can see a twist coming, but even then it comes off well.

Another “close but not quite” moment I liked was a scene when Sister Gertrude has everyone in their rooms praying for one of the deceased while she kneels in the hallway. As the camera slowly and steadily pulls back down the hallway away from her, she’s kept in the center. This scene would have been a greater moment for the film through the cinematography if it had been a dolly shot instead of handheld. I say this because you can see the minor tilting of the plane/frame as the camera man is backing up, and the centering of the frame shifts just a bit during the pull back as he dodges a couple of chairs that are off to one side of the hall. If they couldn’t do the dolly, they could have at least removed the obstacle of the chairs!

For the aspects that most likely earned it the “video nasty” tagging, there is the drug use, the sex, the violence, some torture (a deliciously done murder using injection needles), but oddly there isn’t really any anti-religion sentiment or social commentary to it. From what I’ve been reading, this also sets it apart from most other nunsploitation films.

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“Okay. Just a little pin prick . . .”

In the end, I can recommend checking this one out. Not a great film, but not a bad one either. Give it a view if you have Shudder, or check it out elsewhere. You just might make a habit out of nunsploitation films!

Until next time, Fright Fans, keep it weird and keep watching!

[TV Review] AMC’s “The Terror”

by Joe Meyers

“The Terror”

Series Premiere Air Date: March 25, 2018
Season 1 Finale Air Date: May 21, 2018

Starring:
Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier
Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames
Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir
Adam Nagaitis as Cornelius Hickey
Ian Hart as Thomas Blanky
Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence
Ciarán Hinds as Captain Sir John Franklin

Based on the 2007 novel, “The Terror”, by Dan Simmons

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“Based on a true story.” That line has been used on so many works of the horror genre, and beyond, that it sometimes seems like it’s lost any real meaning. However, in the case of AMC’s “The Terror”, it’s 100% earned. The series is the recounting of Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic, via the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to locate the Northwest Passage in 1845–1848. The expedition was lost, it took over the next 150 years for people to piece together the crews’ fate, and the two ships were not discovered until September 2, 2014 (the HMS Erebus) and September 12, 2016 (the HMS Terror). Of course we don’t know exactly what happened to the crew on their voyage, but Dan Simmons uses the factual information we have to create several plausible reasons in his novel for why the crew was doomed. Oh, and he also throws in a monster that stalks the crew members as they’re trapped in the icy wasteland.

The showrunners, David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, did a great job guiding the adaption of the 784 page book into a ten episode story. This was all about building atmosphere, wallowing in the dread, and allowing the characters to develop over time. The cast is outstanding, with Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, Ciarán Hinds, Adam Nagaitis, and Paul Ready as clear standouts. The look of the series is quite breathtaking as well. From the opening credit animation to the set design, it all melds to feel desolate and overwhelming. This helps put you in the mindset of the characters as they struggle to survive.

The plot revolves around the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror becoming stuck in the ice pack as they search for the Northwest Passage. Things only get worse when the crews’ actions unwittingly releases a monster upon themselves. When the ice doesn’t melt enough for the ships to move on, some hard decisions are made. Further compounding their problems is the food stored for the journey may be slowly poising them as the crew begins to succumb to various symptoms. Finally they deiced to leave a small contingent behind at the ships, and the remaining crew takes off on foot in an attempt to eventually, hopefully, get rescued.

While the monster takes on way more significance in the novel, the series uses it sparingly. It delights more in using the terror of the ugliness of the human race, and the uncaring force of nature itself to create horror. So, while the monster is a threat, the greater menace is the darkness in man and the depths they’ll go to in order to survive. Make no mistake, “The Terror” is a bleak, slow burn of a character study.

I have very few complaints about the series. I do wish the monster wasn’t shown as early as it was, and the CGI used to render the creature could have used more of the budget. There was a chance to really build some tension throughout the ten episodes regarding the creature that wasn’t taken advantage of but they decided not to allow the mystery to linger. I also thought they didn’t quite convey the passage of time well. These episodes take place over the course of three years, but I think that doesn’t get shown properly to the audience. A friend I spoke with about this show actually thought they had missed an episode at once point because of this issue.

Besides that though, “The Terror” was a triumph of horror television. As with most adapted stories I prefer the source material. I’m actually glad I waited a month to write about the television series. When it first ended I was comparing to the novel too much, and time made my enjoyment of the show grow. If any of you even half way enjoyed the series, please pick up the Dan Simmons novel. It’s easily one of my favorite books over the last 15-20 years. While this tale is over, “The Terror” as a television series may not be done yet. The producers are working with AMC to see if it will be renewed. The idea is to use the series as an anthology, with each season being a self-contained, and non-connected, tale of horror. With “American Horror Story” long ago deciding to tie all of their seasons together, I welcome this idea. Everyone involved in season 1 proved they know how to put together a top notch product, and I’d love to see where they take it from here.

[TV Review] The “State of the Union” of…FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, Season 4A

by Joe Meyers

***THE FOLLOWING CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS***

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I admit I was seriously skeptical about the “crossover” with THE WALKING DEAD and FEAR THE WALKING DEAD when it was first announced. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they were going to make it work. Thankfully, any and all doubts I had about the event have been entirely erased. The new showrunners, Andrew Chambliss and Ian B. Goldberg, have course corrected the series with Season 4A of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD in a big bad way.

The start of Season 4 had us time jumping all the way to events after the Season 8 finale of THE WALKING DEAD, as Morgan (Lennie James) decides enough is enough with Rick Grimes and Company and he begins a trek out west. I’m actually glad they chose Lennie James to move to FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, because he’s such a great actor and Morgan deserves more of the spotlight than he was getting on AMC’s flagship zombie series.

Along the way we meet the rest of the new characters for this year. John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) has immediately become my favorite character in the Walking Deadverse. His sweet, odd, retired police officer, and sharpshooter worked his way into my heart from his first scene. I’m really enjoying Maggie Grace’s Al, short for Althea, as well. Having her act as a journalist, documenting the stories of people she comes across, was the perfect way to find out what happened to the core cast from the end of season 3, as well as information on some of our newcomers. Thankfully, Al is much more than just a plot device character. Topping off our new characters is the mysterious June (a.k.a. Naomi, a.k.a. Laura), played by Jenna Elfman, who ends up being a major player in the show’s new direction.

Eventually John Dorie, Al, and Morgan run into the old guard of Alicia Clark (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), Luciana Galvez (Danay García), and Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) all looking worse for wear. I enjoyed the interactions between the two groups, and this is where the season really kicks off. We have several different plot threads running across two timelines for this first half of the season. We find out John Dorie is looking for the love of his life, who up and left him one day. Over the course of several episodes we get more information on “Naomi”/”Laura”/June, and find out she’s the one John Dorie’s been looking for. Alicia, Victor, Luciana, and Nick’s journey from the end of season 3 until now gets teased out through the entirety of season 4A, with the culmination of the story ending at the close of the mid-season finale.

Over the course of the first eight episode, we lose two major characters who’ve been with us since the start of the series. The first to meet his end is Nick Clark. Now, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this character at the beginning, but I grew to really enjoy him on the series. I was unaware that Frank Dillane had requested to be written out of the show, so Nick’s death was a total shock to me. His exit really reminded me of Tyrese’s good-bye seasons ago in THE WALKING DEAD. While it was alluded to over the course of these eight episodes, the fate of Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) was held until the mid-season finale. I don’t think it was a shock to anyone that Madison was dead with the way the older group were acting, and the fact she was only seen in the flashback plot. Unlike Dillane, Kim Dickens did not ask to leave the show as it’s been revealed the new showrunners made the call to shake things up.

I know both of these deaths have angered some longtime fans, but I welcomed them. It truly does show that on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD everyone truly is in danger. Now I want to tune in every week because I’m unsure of what will happen next. This has sorely been lacking in THE WALKING DEAD for some time, and I hope they take a page from this series when they return for season 9 at the end of the year. As for FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, this is now “must see TV” for me, and I can’t wait for the mid-season premiere for episode 9 on August 12th, 2018.

 

What The Hell Is Chris Watching Now? – Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984)

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“We all have our personal horror stories to tell.

May yours never be as devastating as Miss Helen Black’s.”

Well, as long as I don’t live a repressed life and pick up a random Rick James puppet from a thrift store, I think I’ll be good!

Seriously though, this is another one of those films you hear about on “so bad it’s good” lists or by word of mouth from friends that like oddball, low-budget films. And I can definitely declare that Chester N. Turner’s Black Devil Doll From Hell falls into both categories for me.

Released in 1984 after being filmed over several years on a budget of about $10,000, this felt like a labor of love to me on some levels. In comparison to stuff like Birdemic that is just so bad it’s truly bad, you get the impression that the folks behind this were actually trying to give it their best effort with what they had available. Turner even took a correspondence course on film making before starting this production. Originally intended to be part of an anthology film (Tales From The Quadead Zone, Turner’s only other film), the script ended up being too big to be just a short. So why not whip out the camcorder and the Casio keyboard (what better way to write and perform your own score and soundtrack) and make a feature-length film out of it?

Our story is that of Miss Helen Black, a devout and pure woman saving herself for marriage. One day she enters an antique shop and notices a ventriloquist dummy sporting impressive cornrow braids (which actually were inspired by Rick James). The shopkeeper warns her that the dummy’s original owner was “an East Indian” and that the doll grants the owner’s “most heartfelt desire”. She also tells Helen that she has sold the doll 4 times already, but each time the doll somehow finds its way back to the shop.

After purchasing the doll and getting home with it, Helen takes a shower with the doll sitting on the toilet. That’s when the puppet wakes and uses its apparently telekinetic powers to slowly slide open the shower curtain and get a gander at a wet, soapy, and suddenly aroused Helen!

Confused by these feelings, Helen decides to sleep on it, only to have some rather dark erotic dreams featuring the puppet. After a bit of “How’d you get over there?!?” with the puppet moving around on its own, it jumps her after another shower (just like in the dream!) and knocks her out cold. Waking up later, confused and tied to the bed, Helen is raped by the puppet. The effect this assault has on her is to awaken her repressed sexual desires to the point of her begging to be fucked by the puppet. (Funny outtake: The puppet’s head popped off during the filming of the sex scenes. Talk about getting a little head!)

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“I said, WAKE UP, BITCH!!” – The Puppet

The next day, the puppet is nowhere to be found. Cue a montage of Helen cleaning her house for the next several minutes. Sure, she can clean her house, but she can never clean this stain upon her soul. In wanton desperation to satisfy her new-found lust, she invites in a street hustler she had ignored and rebuked the day before. But even his mighty and sweaty hip action cannot satisfy her. This bit made me think Turner was probably influenced some by the classic adult film The Devil In Miss Jones, where a repressed virgin is introduced to sex and depravity after death and is eventually condemned to a Hell where she cannot get any sexual gratification, no matter how much she pleads or begs. Following the disappointing sex and Helen telling him, “Just finish up, and get the hell out”, we are given the most terrifying moment of the movie: A full-frame close-up of the street hustler giving us his “O” face. **shudder**

As with any possessed doll movie, you know things ain’t gonna end well for Helen. Granted the real life happy ending for Shirley L. Jones, who played Helen, is that she ended up marrying the director after the production was completed.

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Helen has literally fucked with this puppet for the last time . . . 

The cut I watched was just over 90 minutes on Shudder. There is a VHS cut out there that was butchered down to 70 minutes by Hollywood Home Video without Turner’s input after they had picked it up for distribution. Granted, I can see where many things could be trimmed here and there throughout, but it’s still kinda shitty to cut a person’s film without them. There remains the look and feel of having just popped in a much-loved videotape, complete with tracking distortions and warbles throughout. Given the content of the movie, by the end I felt like someone had meant to give me their home movie but accidentally gave me one of their home-made soft core fetish porn tapes instead!

Until next time, Fright Fans, keep it weird and keep watching!