2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 21: Empire of the Ants (1977)

DAY 21: MURDER SHE ROACH: One about pesky varmints, pests or creepy crawlies.

If you love Joan Collins, you have to get used to her being abused. She gets a demonic baby that doesn’t want to be born, she’s choked out by Santa after getting that blood out of that nice white fur carpet and then, she gets gassed by a queen aunt. It’s not easy being Joan.

This American-International Picture says that it was inspired by H.G. Wells short story of the same name, but it’s really just a nature gone wild thanks to man movie, but I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing. I mean, how many movies have giant ants that blast humans with clouds of fog that take over their minds?

We watch as polluted materials get loose in the swamp, just as land developer Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins) brings a bunch of new clients to see her beachfront property. The land is worthless, of course, but then an army of giant ants busts in on the scene and everyone flees for their lives.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that the ants use pheromones from the queen to take over an entire town and the sugar factory there, as they prepare to do the same to the world.

Beyond Ms. Collins, this movie also has Pamela Shoop (Nurse Karen!), Robert Pine (who was in The Day of the Locust, a movie that disappointed me as a kid because there were no giant locusts), Jacqueline Scott (William Castle’s Macabre), Albert Salmi (Superstition), Robert Lansing (who should know all about nature on the loose, thanks to being in Day of the Dolphin and Creature from Black Lake) and Robert Lansing (who was in a ton of TV, including playing Control on The Equalizer).

This was directed by Bert I. Gordon, the master of process shots to achieve giant creatures menacing actors. That said, he also used large rubber ant parts, which Joan Collins hated, as she said that they scratched her.

You can watch this on Daily Motion.

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 20: Don’t Look Now (1973)

DAY. 20: HINDSIGHT IS 20/20: This one’s gotta have flashbacks in it (since looking ahead doesn’t seem to be working amirite?).

Don’t Look Now is the kind of movie that people should talk about in the same hushed tone that they reserve for The Exorcist and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and they don’t. That makes no sense to me, so perhaps these words will do something to change that.

Compared to Performance, director Nicolas Roeg’s directorial debut (he co-directed with Donald Cammell), this is a simple film. Compare it to anything else and it’s as complex as it gets. Roeg had already contributed to the horror genre with his director of photography work on The Masque of the Red Death, but this rumination on loss stands apart, using the genre itself to try and make sense out of the senseless.

In the same way that the giallo plays with themes of misinterpretation and mistaken identity often when it comes to sexual identity, this movie does the same when it comes to trying to get through the grief of losing a child and perhaps a marriage.

It’s also a deconstruction of how we perceive time through the lens of film. Instead of just flashbacks, this movie is filled with a fluid sense of time, in that we experience the past, present and the future almost simultaneously, as if we were Jon Osterman becoming the ubermensch Dr. Manhattan.

Real-life couple Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner (ironic, as this movie concerns a drowning death) were suggested for the leads of Laura and John Baxter, but Roeg only saw Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in his film. Sutherland was worried that the film gave a bad name to ESP, but Roeg told him this was the story they were telling.

John and Laura have come to Venice after the death of their daughter Christine in a drowning accident. While working to restore an ancient church, he meets two sisters. One of them, Heather (Hilary Mason, I Don’t Want to Be Born), is a psychic and she reveals that a great danger is coming for John. This danger — in all ways that we see time in the film — hangs as heavy as the death of his daughter, who the psychic reveals that she can see around the couple.

That night, before dinner, John and Laura finally make love after a long period of coolness, as she is relieved that her daughter seems to be at peace. This moment — the love scene is intercut with them getting ready for dinner afterward — plays with our notions of time, making this entire scene feel like a dream. It could also very well be an actual sex scene, as it was rumored for years that the acting couple was really having sex, to the consternation of Christie’s boyfriend Warren Beatty, who was usually the one doing the cucking.

At dinner, the couple is briefly separated and John sees what he believes to be his daughter. This image of her in the red coat she died in dominates the movie, luring him into more foreign places and deeper dangers. As their son is injured at boarding school, Laura must return home. Despite this, John sees her as part of a canal funeral procession. And oh yes — there’s also a serial killer on the loose.

I know that I often discuss the spoilers of films that are half a century old here, but in the hopes that you haven’t seen this film, I want you to enjoy the mystery that it presents for yourself. Roeg emerges as a consummate filmmaker here and this English giallo shot in Venice deserves so many more words than it has received.

If you don’t already own this — and you should — it’s on Amazon Prime.

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 19: The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

DAY 19. BEYOND THE DARKNESS: Watch one with a love story in it. There’s more than one way to get mushy!

Inspired by the true story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the notorious “lonely hearts killers” of the 1940s, The Honeymoon Killers tells the tale with Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler, in her film debut, as the leads.

Ray starts the film by seducing Martha and stealing money from her, but it turns out that she may be every but his equal, using her wits to help him con and even kill numerous women from lonely hearts ads.

From relationship to relationship, Ray promises to never cheat on Martha, but there’s no way that he can keep up the con. Along the way, every one that crosses their path dies, often horribly.

Originally to be directed by Martin Scorsese, who was fired from the film, it was taken over by writer Leonard Kastle, who only created this one film. Named by François Truffaut as his “favorite American film,” it looks more like a grim documentary than an exploitation film.

American-International Pictures was going to distribute this, even making ad materials, but dropped it due to the film’s “extremely gruesome and misanthropic” tone. Their loss — it’s a work of art.

I’m enthused by the fact that an ad appeared in Variety at some point in the late 70’s announcing a sequel. Although never made, the story would have involved an imagined death row conjugal visit between Ray and Martha , resulting in the prison birth of brother/sister twins who were separated at birth. Years later, the pair meets and becomes adult murderers/lovers, never suspecting that they are siblings. This movie needs to be made.

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 18: Deadline (1980)

DAY 18. RESURRECTIONISTS: Watch something that came out on one of the many reissue labels that we love like Arrow, Criterion, Bleeding Skull, Scream Factory, Indicator, Vinegar Syndrome, AGFA etc.

Vinegar Syndrome has a near-magic touch, finding movies that once gathered dust in the back racks of mom and pop video store horror departments and restoring them and doing their homework, getting the filmmakers to contribute and be interviewed so that the fullest picture of what they made can be finally displayed.

Deadline is a great example of what they do.

Writer Steven Lessey (Stephen Young, Soylent Green) is a horror writer who wants to be seen as an artist but is only known for his bloodier stories, such as The Executioners, a film in which children tie up their grandmothers and set them ablaze, or the shower scene bloodbath — quite literally — that opens the film or the gonzo psychic goat that forces a man to shred his own arms off or the appearance by Rough Trade as a band empowered by German scientists to make people explode via their bowels or the children clawing their way out of their mothers. His imagination is quite horrible in all the very greatest of ways and Deadline is at its best when these moments of insanity blast into the frame and by the very end, threaten to overwhelm reality.

While all that art against commerce war is going on inside his head, his marriage is falling apart and the horror of his writing intrudes into his children’s lives in a very shocking way. His agent responds by plying him with coke and women of loose morals, which leads to a brawl while watching his latest film that decimates the fanciest of houses before the drama leads to its foregone conclusion.

Deadline is a film that shocked me in parts and stayed with me way longer than I thought it would. It’s crazy seeing it in such high definition, as this is the kind of film that belongs marked with tracking issues. While he has worked mainly in television, I’ve heard that director Mario Azzopardi has also made a fact-based film called Savage Messiah which is the equal of this film.

This is everything you want from a horror film, whether you simply want an effects-based shocker or something that makes you think about the people who create the horror that helps you escape. Make it your own film. See it your own way.

You can get this from Vinegar Syndrome.

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 18: Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)

DAY 18. RESURRECTIONISTS: Watch something that came out on one of the many reissue labels that we love like Arrow, Criterion, Bleeding Skull, Scream Factory, Indicator, Vinegar Syndrome, AGFA etc.

The American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) represents the world’s largest theatrical catalog of exploitation cinema. Their home video line presents a diverse selection of movies, ranging from new preservations of classics from the vast library of Something Weird to the wildest in shot-on-video (SOV) titles.

They’ve released some awesome things over the last few years, such as Scary MovieGodmonster of Indian FlatsThe Sword and the Claw and so many more. Now, they’re heading to the deepest, dankest and scuzziest parts of Florida to bring you this burst of weirdness.

Shot in Hollywood, Florida, this tale of Stanley (Wayne Crawford under the name Scott Lawrence, he also wrote Valley GirlBarracuda and Jake Speed) and Paul (Abe Zwick in his lone acting role) starts after they escape from Baltimore and go on the lamb. Paul begins to dress in drag and act as Stanley’s Aunt Martha while falling for Stanley, who only wants to do drugs and freaks out the moment a girl starts to undo his pants.

Thomas Casey wrote and directed this. This is the only movie he’d direct, although he also wrote Flesh Feast. That’s a shame that he didn’t make more films, because this movie captures the seedy side of life better than most. I honestly have no idea who this movie is for — at the time that it was made — but know that it’s perfectly made for maniacs like me who buy nearly everything AGFA puts out.

Florida is a weird state. The movies that come out of it are even stranger. This is probably one of the oddest. You can get this now from AGFA (through Vinegar Syndrome).

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 18: Warning from Space (1956)

DAY 18. RESURRECTIONISTS: Watch something that came out on one of the many reissue labels that we love like Arrow, Criterion, Bleeding Skull, Scream Factory, Indicator, Vinegar Syndrome, AGFA etc.

The majority of my paycheck? That goes to my wife.

The rest goes to movies.

Arrow Video gets a good chunk of what I have and they’ve been putting out an amazing mix of films this year, including plenty of wonderful Japanese films like 1958’s Uchūjin Tokyo ni arawaru. (Spacemen Appear In Tokyo), which was released in the U.S. as Warning from Space. It was the first color science fiction movie made in that country.

Made by Daei, the same people who would gift us with Gamera, and released in the U.S. eleven years after it came out in Japan, this movie has been pointed to as one that Kubrick watched as he grew fascinated with science fiction.

The Pairan aliens of the film are perhaps the best reason to watch this. They’ve never looked better than now, with the gorgeous remastered transfer that’s on Arrow’s new disk. Designed by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, they’re unlike any aliens we’d imagine in the West. Instead of humanoid creatures, they’re stars that dance their strange ballet toward camera as they wonder how to reach Earth’s scientists.

One of those aliens decides to take the form of entertainer Hikari Aozora and reach out to our scientists and World Congress to borrow our nuclear weapons to obliterate another planet in the path of our world called Planet R. As no one decides to listen to her, we’re forced to deal with all the impact of having a rogue planet come closer and closer to us. The whole “listen to science’ mantra that our world is ignoring happens here as well, but sadly, we don’t have human-sized star aliens with one giant eye to right our course.

Trust me, just watch those Pairans bounce around your screen is worth the price of this blu ray. The new Arrow Video edition of this movie also features commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV, author of Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, and a newly restored English dub track.

DISCLAIMER: We were sent this film by Arrow Video. That said, we spend a lot of money on movies and don’t change our reviews just because we get review copies. Buy physical media!

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 18: Island of Blood (1982)

DAY 18. RESURRECTIONISTS: Watch something that came out on one of the many reissue labels that we love like Arrow, Criterion, Bleeding Skull, Scream Factory, Indicator, Vinegar Syndrome, AGFA etc.

Vinegar Syndrome has been assaulting my budget this year, what with box sets of the Amityville direct-to-video films, forgotten Spanish giallo, Mexican horror reissues and, of course, Spookies.

They’ve rescued hundreds of movies from their namesake, the chemical reaction that deteriorates motion picture film over time. Chances are, if it was a movie that played a drive-in, grindhouse or was in the horror section of your mom and pop video store in the 1980’s — or the back room, where you had to sneak in — then they have it.

Imagine, if you will, that someone made Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but made it about actors on a deserted island and started with one of them being boiled alive. Yes, that’s the movie we’re speaking of right now, 1982’s many titles Island of Blood AKA Whodunit? AKA Scared Alive).

Oh yeah — every murder in this is based on a punk song! That said, the lyrics to the song are mostly “stab me, boil me, burn me, face to face.” Therefore, it really isn’t a large stretch for the murderer to use the ways to kill in the song to, you know, kill.

The very same song features the lyrics, “Lonely as a child- you were wet, you were wild. You were… selfish. Crying out late at night with your covers pulled up tight- you were… helpless. Fear me! Fear me!”

All manner of murders follow, as simple as an exploding boat and as complex as a shower that sprays out battery acid. That takes some planning.

I wouldn’t say this is the finest slasher you’ve never seen. Nor would I claim that it’s even really all the good. But hey — if you’ve made it through everything and you’re hunting down slashers that no one else has watched — I’m speaking to myself — then this will do.

Writer/director William T. Naud also made Hot Rod HullabalooThunder In DixieBlack Jack and Ricky 1, a movie where a male gigolo becomes a boxer.

You can watch this on Tubi or order it from Vinegar Syndrome.

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 17: Scare Package (2020)

DAY 17. VIDEO STORE DAY: (10th anniversary!!) This is the big one. Watch something physically rented or bought from an actual video store. If you don’t have access to one of these sacred archival treasures then watch a movie with a video store scene in at least. #vivaphysicalmedia

The last Family Video in our area closed this year. Both of the spaces have been filled with new stores, as if someone you love had been replaced by someone you never want to meet.

I try not to dwell on it, but honestly, life hasn’t gotten better once we lost video stores.

That’s why the Scarecrow Challenge is so important to me. It’s a chance to celebrate physical media, as well as genre films, in all their wonder and glory. 2020’s Scare Package may have been a movie that I caught on the Shudder streaming service, but it feels like it was made by people who know more than a little about the feeling of having a stack of rented movies on top of your VCR and a cold beer in your hand.

Written and directed by Aaron B. Koontz, Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan and Baron Vaughn, it revolves around Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium, a store stacked with horror tropes that we expect and that subvert those expectations. This framing sequence allows the employees and the video tapes of the store to tell several stories, along with bringing Chad into the orbit of the Devil’s Lake Impaler (Dustin Rhodes!) and even Joe Bob Briggs.

Here are some of the other stories.

“Cold Open” tells the story of a man named Mike Myers, who yearns to be the main character in the many movies he walks into. Instead, he is the one that moves the characters through their stories. Pay attention to Mike, as he makes another appearance.

“One Time in the Woods” takes the slasher trope and body horror and goes wild, with more gore than in twenty modern films.

“M.I.S.T.E.R. (Men In Serious Turmoil Establishing Rights)” is about werewolves and the occult and men’s help groups, while “Girls Night Out Of Body” concerns sugar skull lollipops and “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” is concerned with the multiple ways that slashers are dispatched and yet come back, again and again, ruining lives.

Finally, “So Much to Do” features plenty to do all amidst the worries of having one’s favorite show get spoiled.

While not every segment hits perfectly, many of them do, making one remember the feeling of getting to the third or fourth video in a stack of weekend movies, knowing that you still have a few more hours left in a Saturday night, an entire Sunday to sleep in and plenty time to watch teh rest before they’re due back at the store.

You can watch this on Shudder with and without commentary by Joe Bob Briggs. You can also get this on blu ray from Diabolik DVD, which lives up to the demands of video store day. And hey — if you live near a video store, take advantage of it! You never know when the things you love will go away.

2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 16: Frank (2014)

DAY 16. MASKS ARE REQUIRED: You guessed it, at least one character has to wear a mask for the entire movie.

Chris Sievey was a comedian and musician who started his music career by hitchhiking with his brother and heading to the headquarters of Apple Records, where they did a sit-in and demanded to meet one of The Beatles. Instead, they got to play a song for the head of A&R Tony King.

His band The Freshies had their biggest hit with “I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk,” but were mostly known only in Manchester. Then, a character that Sievey created, Frank Sidebottom, took over.

Frank was originally a superfan of The Freshies but the popularity of the character led Sievey to focus his output on strictly making records as Frank. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Frank appeared on the British version of Remote Control, as well as live performances and even a comic strip. He disappeared until 2005, when his Frank Sidebottom’s Proper Telly Show in B/W appeared on television and then he never went away again until Sievey’s death. His song “Christmas is Really Fantastic” was a big hit and there was even a social media campaign to get his song “Guess Who’s Been on Match of the Day” on the charts.

Jon Ronson was the keyboard player for Frank several times, touring with him while beginning his writing career, which has brought him into the orbit of David Icke and Alex Jones before anyone in this country really knew who they were, unlike now when conspiracy theories are everywhere. His book The Men Who Stare at Goats became a movie, then he mined his past to create the script — based on his newspaper article and co-written with Peter Straughan — for the mask-filled movie we’re about to discuss.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) dreams of being a rock star, but has no idea how to get there. One day, by whim or fate or accident, he watches a man try to drown himself. That man was the keyboardist for the Soronprfbs, an experimental group that he is invited to play with that very night. Walking in off the street, he sees the lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), a man with a very large masked head that he plugs a microphone into. Before he can get his bearings, the band begins to play and the performance just starts to come together when Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) flips out and destroys her KORG keyboard.

The band moves on. Jon cannot.

Soon, Frank calls him and invites him to join the band. Unknowingly, that means going to Ireland for an extended period to record an album. Jon struggles to be accepted by the rest of the band, which includes Baraque and Nana (Carla Azar, from Autolux, which is fantastic). As he secretly records the band, they begin to get noticed, which is the very thing that Frank both wants and fears most.

Stephen Rennicks from The Prunes wrote much of the music in this and it feels so real. The scenes where the songs come together are magical. And the scene in the diner, where fans are asking Jon about the band and wondering how crazy everyone is and not understanding that they are real people, underscores the issues of mental illness versus art that Roky Erickson, Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston all really lived.

I’ve only seen one other Larry Abrahamson film before, 2015’s Room, but I really need to take the time and track down everything else he’s made. This movie really took me on a journey and I found myself filled with emotion at the end, as Frank is revealed.

You can learn more at the official site and Facebook page. This has my highest recommendation.

Halfway through the 2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge

Whew! We’re halfway through the third Scarecrow Challenge we’ve done — Letterboxd lists for 2018, 2019 and 2020 are all posted — and you should totally support Scarecrow Video, the largest independently owned video store in the United Staes. You can check out our visit to the store right here!

DAY 1. FAMILY TIME: Tired of seeing the same faces every day? Look at a movie instead! Rated PG or less. Ease in to it!

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

DAY 2. SLUMBER PARTY: Watch one with a sleepover in it.

The Last Slumber Party

DAY 3. STOCKED UP: When you’re in it for the long haul, you’re gonna need supplies. Watch something with a supply run in it.

Dawn of the Dead

DAY 4: HUNKERED DOWN: One with recluses, shut-in or people locked inside their home.

Evil in the Woods

#Alive

DAY 5. GOING POSTAL: Something involving the postal service or shipping or getting a delivery. #savetheups

Postal

DAY 6: POLL PLOT: One that involves elections and/or voting. *government not required.

The Park Is Mine

The Campaign

DAY 7. THEY’RE OUT TO GET YOU: One with heavy paranoid (real or imagined). 

Black Circle Boys

Scarab

DAY 8. EQUAL SLICE: One where women get top billing.

Antebellum

DAY 9. OG NETWORK: See something made after 2010 with no visible cell phones. No texting while watching this one!

Big Money Rustlas

DAY 10. PLASTIQUE VIVANT: Mannequins are creepy enough standing still but what happens when they come to life?

The Devil’s Passenger

Window Dressing

Mannequin Two: Mannequin on the Move

DAY 11: ¿QUE ES UN MURO FRONTERIZO?: Watch anything from Mexico, Central or South America.

El Macho Bionico

DAY 12. THE FIRST WAVE: One by an indigenous filmmaker or indigenous cast members. 

These Walls

DAY 13. OPEN SOAR: This should focus on flying or aviation somehow.

Exorcism at 60,000 Feet

The Concorde Affaire

DAY 14. THE MONSTER MILE: One about cars or racing.

Safari 3000

Car Crash

DAY 15. HELL ON FOUR WHEELS: Must involve characters in wheelchairs.

Wired to Kill

Mr. No Legs