Yeah, I know . . . Mickey Rooney was a big star in the 1930s and 1940s, and, for most, seeing him in an ersatz, horrified version of the noir classic Sunset Blvd. is considered a fall from grace, but I really like him here. His work as B.J Lang is as memorable to me as was his work as the mentally handicapped Bill Sackter in the CBS-TV movies Bill (1981) and Bill: On His Own (1983). Yeah, I know, this forgotten Rooney resume entry is on a Mill Creek box set, which leads the many to write off the movie as a “stinker” and that the Mick is slumming, and that we’ve seen it done better with Terrance Stamp and Samatha Eggar in The Collector (1965).
Chalk up my affections for the film as result of seeing it for the first time on my first solo drive-in excursion with a few friends on an undercard with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) . . . and for the life of me, I can’t remember the main feature. . . . Brainworm alert!
In the world of exploitation, you’ve heard the term “hagsploitation” mentioned to describe aging actresses, aka hags, regulated to finding work in horror films, holding on the last vestiges of their once glamorous, contract player-studio system careers.
And we’ve reviewed most, if not all of them.
Edith Atwater was just one of the many, ’40s starlets finding work in the hagploitation, aka psychobiddy, sub-genre: a genre where old, crusty women either terrorized “sinning” young women or are simply jealous of the girl’s youth, so they “gaslight” them into insanity. You know Edith Atwater, best, from Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s The Body Snatcher (1945), which was her third feature film; she also appeared in Strait-Jacket (1964) with Joan Crawford — herself a “hag” actress with the likes of Berserk! and Trog. Edith then fell into a lot of TV work for the remainder of her career into the mid-’80s to pay the bills. In between, she did another hagster with Die Sister, Die! (1971).
In line behind Joan Crawford was Tallulah Bankhead with Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), studio starlet Veronica Lake, who took her final bow with Flesh Feast (1970), Wanda Hendrix closing out her career at the age of 44 with the Gothic, Civil War tale, the really fine The Oval Portrait (1972; another Mill Creek recycler), and ex-20th Century Fox studio-starlet Jeanne Crain attempted an early ’70s comeback with The Night God Screamed (1971).
So, if the women are packed in a “hagsploitation” crate . . . where does that leave the older, male actors, such as Mickey Rooney? Such a film is B.J Lang Presents — a film which falls under the “trollsplotation” tag* used to describe aging actors stuck in horror films — a film that found a new, video ’80s shelf live under the title, The Manipulator.
So, you’ve noticed the name of Luana Anders in the credits?
Yes, that means this Rooney tour de force also fits nicely into the hag-cycle of ’70s horror films. We first enjoyed Anders in the teensploitationer Reform School Girl (1957), but remember her best for the incessant UHF-TV replays of The Pit an the Pendulum (1961) and Dementia 13 (1963). By the late ’60s, with an A-List film career not coming to fruition, Anders, like many actors, transitioned to television, appearing in the likes of That Girl, The Andy Griffith Show, and Hawaii Five-O, just to name a few.
The writer and director behind the madness, as it were, is Yabo Yablonsky, in his debut in both fields. His is a name know you known courtesy of his Sly Stallone connection for writing the WW II soccer-war drama, Victory (1981). In between, Yabo gave us the forgotten TV films — which played as Euro-theatricals — Revenge for a Rape (1976) and Portrait of a Hitman (1979), courtesy of their starring then/still hot Mike Connors (then of TV’s Mannix fame) and Jack Palance (with Rod Steiger, Bo Svenson, Ann Turkel, and Richard Roundtree), respectively. Of course, martial arts junkies know Yabo best for giving Joe Lewis — one of only five men to beat Chuck Norris in the ring — his film debut in Jaguar Lives! (1979)**.
Okay, enough with the backstory. Let’s unpack this film . . . one where Mickey Rooney cuts loose in an amazing performance. (Yes, amazing. This is my review, after all.)
The plot is simple: Rooney is the once respected, Hollywood’s premiere makeup man, B.J Lang, who, ironically, aged out of the business and has been tossed aside by the glitzy-guady Grauman’s Chinese Theatre crowd. So he snaps and kidnaps an actress (Anders), holding her hostage in an abandoned prop house on a forgotten studio backlot to “star” as Roxanne to his Cyrano in his “movie” version of Cyrano De Bergerac — made of his own reality mixed with his hallucinations. To that end: Mick’s talking to mannequins and people who aren’t there, as he longs for the days — as did the off-her-nut Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950) — when he had the ear of Cecil B. DeMille.
Yablonsky may be — as you can tell from his continued work as a writer (which included lots of uncredited “doctoring” work) — a decent writer, but he’s no director of distinction. Clearly, he’s influenced by the earliest splatters of Italian Giallo, here, (mixed with a soupçon of Phantom of the Opera; the 1925 version with Lon Chaney, Sr. or Claude Rains 1943 version, take your pick), hence the creepy mannequins — and more so as B.J Lang remembers the gold ol’ days of putting makeup on Marilyn Monroe: so he puts the makeup on himself and struts around like the actress — as an ersatz Norman Bates. Then there’s the zoomin’ n’ swooshin’ experimental camera movements, the shakes, the psycho color palate — and for a little ’60s acid tripping, lots of strobe lights. So, in the directing and cinematography departments, many opine there’s no class nor style. Uh, maybe they’re right: the proceedings are more of an attempt to copy Mario Bava than to bring anything unique to the lens. Name a camera trick. Yabo’s got it jammed in there, somewhere in the frames. As with his actors: he’s going for it and making an impression.
In the end this is a Rooney and Andres joint (more so for Rooney) — with a slight cameo by Kennan Wynn as wino bum squatting in the theater (who Rooney subsequently ofts) — with the duo going at it with gusto, which, for me, makes it worth the watch.
This pretty much got (very) loosely remade-ripped (more effectively) as Fade to Black (1980) and that film, as with The Manipulator, also has more detractors than fans. You can watch a free-rip of The Manipulator on You Tube. Of course, it’s available on Mill Creek’s Drive-In Movie Classics 50-movie pack, which we are featuring all this month at B&S About Movies.
* You need more trollsploitation flicks with aged-out and down-and-out A-List actors reinventing themselves in a 70s horror film? Then look no further than Tony Curtis in The Manitou and BrainWaves (the latter also with Keir Dullea), Kirk Douglas in Holocaust 2000, Rock Hudson in Embryo, Fritz Weaver in Demon Seed.
** We’ve reviewed the films of two of Chuck’s other opponents: Tonny Tulleners in Scorpion (1986) and Ron Marchini, whose career we dedicated a week of reviews.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.