Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"Leave the Monkey Alone..."

"Leave the monkey alone," John Carradine tells a booze raddled looking Lon Chaney Jr in 1967's Hillbillys in a Haunted House.  Except that it isn't a monkey, it's a gorilla.  Or, to be more accurate, it's a man in an ape suit - George Barrows (of Robot Monster 'fame') and his infamous ape suit, to be specific.  Nevertheless, it remains the most memorable piece of dialogue in the movie.  Hillbillys in a Haunted House is one of those films which 'bad movie' aficionados like to watch 'ironically' and sneer at for its ineptness and poor quality.  But really, what do you expect from a film from the Woolner Brothers, notorious distributors of drive in schlock?  Sure, the movie's cheapness and general shoddiness is evident in its next to non-existent continuity, terrible day-for-night shots, moth eaten sets, and effects which are anything but special.  Worst of all, perhaps, is the way in which every time someone bursts into song (which they do quite a bit), the sound quality switches to that of a theatre with booming reverb.  The reason for this becomes apparent at the tend of the film: the last fifteen minutes, or so, are effectively a concert at a (presumably) Nashville venue, shot from a single, locked down, camera.  Clearly, the producers were too cheap to make proper studio recordings for the musical sequences in the film, instead using recordings made during this climactic concert.

For all of its inadequacies, Hillbillys in a Haunted House isn't entirely without interest.  A sequel to the previous year's Las Vegas Hillbillys, it saw Ferlin Husky return as hick country singer Woody Wetherby, with Joi Lansing replacing Mami van Doren as Boots Malone, (or was it really Joi Lansing's sister who, as readers of James Ellroy's paranoid crime fantasies will know, replaced Joi after she was murdered), and Don Bowman (who had played himself in the previous film) as their comic relief manager, Jeepers.  Seeking shelter from a storm as they drive to a show in Nashville, the trio find themselves in a supposedly haunted house.  After shenanigans involving Lon Chaney, the gorilla, skeletons, ghosts, werewolves and the like, they find out that the haunting is all fake, designed to keep snooping locals way from the house, which is the base for a spy ring led by Carradine, Basil Rathbone and a Chinese lady, who are stealing secrets from the missile plant in nearby Acme City.  The villains are foiled and the trio finally make it to Nashville for that concert.  Along the way various country artists, including Merle Haggard and Sonny James, turn up to perform numbers. It's a bit like a backwoods version of a Scooby Doo episode, with less convincing ghosts.

But heck, where else can you find a movie that brings the likes of Merle Haggard and Ferlin Husky together with horror icons Chaney, Carradine and Rathbone?  A pretty irritated looking Rathbone, to be sure.  But who could blame him?  This must have represented a career low.  Carradine, by contrast, clearly couldn't care less - he'd be doing this kind of low rent nonsense since the forties, and would carry on doing it until his death in the eighties.  For Chaney, it would mark the beginning of the final downward slide for his career, which would culminate in the humiliation of working for Al Adamson on Dracula vs Frankenstein, shortly before his death.  Compared to that, Hillbillys in a Haunted House looked classy.  The last theatrical feature directed by Jean Yarbrough, a veteran director who had bounced around the B movie units of various Hollywood studios, turning out low budget musicals, comedies, westerns and occaisional horror flicks, (thereby making him the obvious man to helm this feature), Hillbillys in a Haunted House leaves you wondering about the late sixties drive in market - was there really a demand for hillbilly, country and western, horror and espionage crossover comedies?  The film seems determined to include elements of as many popular TV and movie hits of the time as possible: the presence of Rathbone and the horror stuff seems to reference the Corman Poe adaptations, whilst the hillbillys are obviously there to cash in on the popularity of The Beverly Hillbillies (in which George Barrows played a gorilla for a couple of episodes), whilst the spy element overtly references The Man From UNCLE (in which George Barrows played a gorilla in a couple of episodes).

It's questionable whether there ever was a demand for hillbilly movies at all.  Indeed, it is questionable whether any of the characters we meet in the Hillbillys in a Haunted House really are hillbillys - simply liking country and western music, driving cars sporting long horns as hood ornaments and talking in thick southern accents does not a hillbilly make. I'm pretty sure that sitting on porches, drinking moonshine from jugs and wandering around barefoot whilst wearing dungarees comes into it somewhere.  But the sixties were an innocent age as far as movie hillbillys went - by the early seventies they were being portrayed as murderous, sodomising, inbred banjo strummers, before transmogrifying into the good ol' boy moonshiners of those Burt Reynolds  backwoods action movies.  In the final analysis, whilst it easy to sneer at something like Hillbillys in a Haunted House, it is what it is - a cheapjack disposable b-movie intended to form half of a drive in double bill.  It was never intended to withstand close analysis or rigourous criticism - it is purely ephemeral entertainment.  It has to be said that, compared to many of its contemporaries, it is relatively slick - undoubtedly this is, in no small part, due to old directorial hand Yarbrough's steady touch.  It still represents eighty, or so, minutes of reasonable entertainment (although not necessarily for the reasons originally intended by its makers) if you are in an uncritical mood on a rainy Sunday afternoon, (or early Saturday evening, in my case, when I found it infinitely preferable to Strictly Come Dancing).



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