Experiments in Terror
URSULA. 1961
Director: Lloyd Michael Williams

Director: Robert Stevens

Damon "Pookie" Packard

Director: American Dental Association

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

The dvd compilation Experiments in Terror (2003) consists of six short films plus minor extras. Though marketed as independent horror shorts, most of the pieces are in the realm of the avante gard, which frequently means so extremely experimental as to be meaningless.

UrsulaA couple of the pieces, however, are pretty close to narratives, especially the child-transvestite & sadism film Ursula (1961), which never quite lets on that the abused little girl in the flouncy dress is a little boy.

It's based rather on the psychological (& autobiographical) horror short story "Miss Gentilbelle" by Charles Beaumont, which apparently is no longer as classic as it once was as most of the handful of reviews I could find of Ursula didn't even get that Ursula's a boy.

This story would also be filmed later in the same decade as as Miss Belle (1968), an episode of a television anthology series Journey to the Unknown produced by Hammer film studios, directed by Robert Stevens whose work was mostlly in television but occasionally transcended mere series production, as with Consider Her Ways (1964) for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

I have to fall into asides here to speak of Robert Stevens' treatment of these classic tales. Consider Her Ways based on a classic short story by John Wyndham is minimalist & expressionist in its evocation of a human society organized like insects into rigid classes.

The title derives from the bliblical quotation "Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways" [Pr 6:6], & worked into the text of this tale is every argument against the necessity of the warlike male, favoring the feminist utopia which is in reality dystopic.

Dr. Jane Waterleigh (Barbara Barrie) awakens in a matriarchal society where men no longer exist due to a virus created by one Dr. Perrigan. The virus had been created to control the rat population but wiped out all human males, resulting in the all-female society Jane has awakened in, while testing a hypno-drug back in her present.

Jane is now Mother Orchis, & her sole purpose in life is to give continuous parthenogenetic birth from her enormous pampered body, while being denied even the simplest recreation. Rebelling against the society in which she finds herself an inert horror, the female police want to arrest her for reactionary attitudes, & she's just in all sorts of trouble, slated to have her mind erased.

Fortunately, just as the moment of a pique of horror, she returns to her own time. She tracks down the researcher who is developing the rat virus. As he will not give up his research, Jane pulls a gun & murders him, though once incarcerated she learns that the murdered researcher's son is continuing the first Dr. Perrigan's research.

In the Hammer production Miss Belle based on "Miss Gentilbelle," the boy (Adrienne Posta) having been raised as a girl happens on a book of art treasures & figures out from classical statuary that he's not a girl.

He begins to express himself as a boy, with horrific consequences from his insanely sadistic mother (Barbara Jefford). One of her punishments is to put a collar & chain on the poor kid, feed him in a dog bowl, & not permit him any behaviors other than those of a dog.

Beaumont's original story is a harrowing & intelligent study in child abuse, & the Hammer teleplay captured that pretty well. The earlier short film Ursula is much more of a horror story about the making of a butcher-knife weilding psycho killer, not the subtler horror of the telefilm or the original tale.

Even with its penchant for overstatement, the source material is so good that an exaggerated treatment couldn't completely ruin it, & Ursula is much the best film of the six on the dvd collection. It's not too surprising that it received the Golden Medallion Award at Cannes in 1961.

Ursula (Calvin Waters) in "her" flouncy dress with half-slips is forced always to be ladylike, but cannot help but express boyish behavior. Falling from a tree "she" tears her dress. For punishment, Ursula's maniacal mother (Dorothea Griffin) rips a wing off of the child's beloved parakeet.

Alone in the owl-haunted night beneath the moon, Ursula buries the little bird, weeping into a rising storm. Later in bed, nightmares of screaming birds, storms, shadows, & the horrific Mother hamper sleep.

Having found a replacement pet in the form of a frog, this is such an inappropriate pet for a little girl that the insane mom eagerly kills that pet as well. In the end the child breaks, & goes for the butcher knife. The ending is too easy & predictable, & completely robs the tale of its potential for insights, but it's still a very interesting script & not badly made.

Dawn of an Evil Millenium Beginning with a quote from H. P. Lovecraft, if you look real hard you may find the influence of HPL in the super-8 production Dawn of an Evil Millenium (1988). The film is so tongue-in-cheek that there's nothing of the atmosphere or cosmic mystery of Lovecraftian horror, going instead for the slasher look, but too absurdist for even this to have any impact beyond the gross.

Underground director Damon "Pookie" Packard is rightly little known, but perhaps least unknown for Episode II: The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary (2003) which is a lot funnier than his "Lovecraft" film, not that that's saying much.

The narrator, or a voice in the head of an ugly-ass homeless bugger (Packard) with fangs from a kid's Halloween kit, states that eyes & ears were constructed for him so he could listen to the galactic dialogue.

A title card informs us we're "Somewhere In Downtown LA." The bloody-fanged tramp apparently trips & falls into an underground world, but a scene later he's not there anymore, so who knows.

Goofy horrors abound. One guy's head explodes just off camera. Another does kung fu against an invisible enemy, then he explodes too, off camera. The tramp with the halloween fangs & voice in his head is evidently the cause of these horrors, though who knows.

At one point the fang-clown or perhaps it's a second fang-clown is in black-face participating in a car chase, because movies have car chases. Stuff explodes, no idea what.

There's apparently (but who knows) a demon-hunter armed with what might be a flair gun, running about achieving nothing but I guess he's tracking the fang-clown, who might be from Alpha Centauri.

There's stuff going on in outer space clipped from some old movie, or photographed off a vintage video game, all meaningless. The blood-drenched clown-fang tramp is magically on Alpha Centauri locked in mortal battle with another fang-clown who has a nose like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Then the fang-clown's back on earth getting himself a swell Oldsmobile so he can drive around killing streetwalkers.

This is a "comedy" if ridiculous can be regarded the same as humor. It alleges to be a trailor for an 18-hour epic adventure movie (the only good joke in the whole thing, acknowledging how boring it's all been). it's very gorey in a camp sort of way, intentionally silly as can be, terribly adolescent, & by & largely stupid.

Looks like it was fun to make, but it's not much fun to sit through. At about twenty minutes, it feels unbearably long. Yet Packard meets all the qualifications as an underground cult film legend among fans of the trashiest drive-in-era slasher horrors, his primary influence. And most of his films including Dawn of an Evil Millenium would surely be enjoyable for would-be filmmakers delighted by the fact that it doesn't take any skill or talent to make a movie.

Haunted Mouth Besides the six short films that make up Experiments in Terror ther's also a section of "extras" on the disc, mostly trailers for bad movies of the 1950s through 70s, a couple of which really are short subjects in their own right:

The trailer for A Date with Death (1959) constitutes a lecture on subliminal messages impedded in film, almost effective as poker-faced comedy. A trailer for Homicidal (1961) stars director William Castle interviewing people leaving the premier, & warning viewers not to reveal the ending or he'll track us down & kill us himself. The rest of the trailers are just trailers.

The final "extra" is a short educational film The Haunted Mouth (1974) produced by the American Dental Association. It's an instructional on tooth decay framed like a haunted house story, with Ceaser Romero as the invisible narrator named Plaque.

It could've been clever or funny, but it way too soon devolves into straightforward lecture on tooth care & is fascinating mostly for how boring educational films can be even when they try feebly to incorporate entertainment value. It's no wonder nobody wanted to take credit as its director.

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Experiments in Terror

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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