Dementia (1955)

One of the strangest of all American films tells the story of a tormented “gamine” who murders her father and an aggressive man, then begins to wonder if it was only a dream. Think early Corman / AIP meets Maya Deren, this bizarre murder beat noir is told entirely without dialogue. The stark Expressionism-influenced cinematography was by Ed Wood’s cameraman William Thompson (and to be honest, the camerawork on Plan 9 is remarkably technically competent, at least in comparison to the rest of the flick). The super spooky exotica score features wordless vocals by Marni Nixon, best known for doing the actual dubbed female singing in many classic musicals including My Fair Lady. It’s one of my favorite of all film scores. The direction is often credited (nowhere in the film mind you) to a Mr. John Parker, who never made another film. Rumors abound that the direction was done by AIP character actor favorite Bruno Ve Sota. I’d like to believe that this was Ve Sota’s doing. I’ve always loved the dude as an actor and director, so I like to think he had one serious statement of artistic expression in him. Make sure to watch the original cut, not the Daughter of Horror reissue with narration by Ed McMahon!

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Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

Two moron showbiz entertainers parachute onto a remote tropic island. They are taken in by the local tribe (all of whom speak English). The chief’s daughter is a lab assistant to a mad scientist stationed on the island, who is conducting dastardly experiments in degeneration. One of the all-time greats. Bela Lugosi’s name appears in the title, but the real stars are Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, an AstroTurf Martin and Lewis who even attracted legal attention from Jerry’s lawyers. The film reeks of second tier showbiz desperation catapulted into surrealism. Seventeen-year-old Sammy Petrillo does an eerily spot on impersonation of Lewis, minus any sense of pathos and way more antisocial. Petrillo went onto appear in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Doris Wishman’s Keyholes Are for Peeping, in addition to releasing a rare proto-Jerky Boys prank call record entitled My Son, the Phone Caller in 1962. Brooklyn Gorilla was directed by the great William “One Shot” Beaudine, whose auteurist trademark is his distinct lack of style. This is his masterpiece. I find this movie constantly entertaining and hilarious. If you want to see a bad Bela meets a comedy team flick, check out Zombies on Broadway.

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Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Dr. Goldfoot (Vincent Price) has created an army of female androids rocking gold bikinis. His plan is to send them into the world to marry wealthy men and then have the men sign over their assets. Struggling secret agent Craig Gamble (Frankie Avalon) discovers the plan and sets out to foil it. God bless Vincent Price. The man was such a consummate professional that even in such lowbrow fare as this, he always gave a hundred and delivered the dialog as if it was just as witty and sparkling as any other film he was in, which Dr. Goldfoot certainly is not. Coming from AIP, this was their attempt to cash in on both the superspy craze and the It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World loud comedy trend. It’s enjoyable if you have a high tolerance for this sort of colorful camp and aggressively dumb humor. All others beware. The most amusing aspect is when it becomes a spoof of The Pit and the Pendulum towards the end. The Supremes sing the earworm theme song.

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Who’s Minding the Store? (1963)

For a director such as Frank Tashlin known for his madcap cartoony feature films (he began in animation himself) and a performer such as Jerry Lewis known for his comedic mugging, Who’s Minding the Store? is relatively restrained and could appeal even to non-Jerry fans. Jerry plays Norman, a man proud of his humble life of working a series of odd jobs. His goal is to earn a fortune but do it by himself. His girlfriend Barbara (Jill St. John) loves him and wishes to conceal her wealthy background. Barbara’s mother gets wind of their courtship and sets out to sabotage it by employing Norman in her department store, giving him a series of thankless tasks which he will no doubt bungle in a wacky and hilarious manner. This is a classic Jerry fantasy, where a man child manages upward mobility, praising the myth of American capitalism, all the while remaining sincere and true to his sense of pathos. There’s an uncomfortable sense of misogyny, where the women either fall helplessly in love with Jerry or are shrews hellbent on destroying him. These inescapable subtexts don’t detract from the enjoyment of Tashlin’s perfect eye for design and Jerry’s impeccable timing and execution of gags (which really this film is ultimately a series of, with the narrative strand entirely secondary).

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Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968)

I’m just about as huge a fan of Jerry Lewis as someone can be in 2019, but I’ll readily admit that even a man whom I would unironically term a genius has made some dogs. The films he starred in yet didn’t direct (or have Frank Tashlin at the helm) are always a dicey proposition. Don’t Raise the Bridge… may be the least entertaining flick I’ve seen him in. This time around, Jerry stars as a rich kid intent on getting his wife back. He converts their home into a nightclub much to her shock when she returns. She threatens to sue him for fraud because she didn’t sign on. To recoup losses from the scam, Jerry concocts a scheme with his grifter buddy (Terry-Thomas) to steal plans for a new drill his wife’s new suitor is working on. The pair find buyers, but unfortunately things become increasingly complicated and honestly, I stopped caring at a certain point. I’m not sure if the plot became overly convoluted or the film couldn’t maintain interest or both. Jerry is relatively restrained this time around, playing a more adult character than usual. It’s difficult to engender sympathy for this obnoxious rich dude. The villains of the piece are some knife-wielding Arabs which felt tasteless in 1968 and is even more uncomfortable to watch today. Director Jerry Paris was better known as an actor, appearing as the dentist neighbor on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. His other behind the camera effort from the same year, Never a Dull Moment, is an overlooked comedy gem.

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The King of Comedy (1982)

Although its reputation has steadily increased over the last few decades, The King of Comedy remains possibly the most underrated film in Scorcese’s output. It’s Taxi Driver played as a comedy, where the laughs are derived from the uncomfortable nature of the story. As far as cringe comedy is concerned, this is probably the most teeth-grating ever made. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a wannabe standup comedian, unemployed and living with his mother. He stalks late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in a desperate attempt to get him to audition Rupert and eventually put him on the air. Rupert is so deep into his delusion that he is unable to take no for an answer, let alone any subtle hints that his behavior is thoroughly obnoxious. Eventually him and an arguably more deranged superfan Masha (Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Jerry. Scorcese pulls the hattrick of making the film both entertaining and difficult to watch, the latter due to Pupkin’s abrasive personality and narcissism completely untethered from reality. Pupkin still emerges a weirdly sympathetic protagonist, another fucked up dreamer intent on achieving his goals even though he has minimal talent. The film may be difficult to warm up to because struggling artists of any sort may see themselves a bit too closely in Rupert’s dreams, if not his actions. It’s a brilliant performance from De Niro. Even though his character is closer to himself, Jerry Lewis is also great as the cynical successful entertainer, one unable to live a comfortable and secluded life due to hanger-ons being present everywhere, a world where everything believes he owes them something as a public figure. This is one I’ve watched over a dozen times and it never gets old.

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Charley Varrick (1973)

Don Siegel’s late-period neo-noir is the special morally ambiguous and airy take on violence which could only come from the greatest decade for American films, the 1970s. Walter Matthau stars as Charley Varrick, who, along with his wife and a few other partners, rob a small town bank, hoping for an easy few thousand dollars. It turns out that the bank was a laundering drop off for the mob. The gang makes it away with nearly a million dollars, but the mob and the feds are both hot on their trail. Matthau manages to look world weary without ever losing his cool, always keeping one mental step ahead of everyone else. It’s one of his greatest characters from a career filled with interesting ones.

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