From the director of The Adventures of Rat Phink a Boo Boo (1966), this is another cinematic curio that is as much a document of 1960s underground culture as an achievement in low-budget schlock. The (thin) plot sees the director doubling as lead actor, playing a ne’er-do-well called Jerry who haunts the sideshows and carnival in Long Beach, California. Behind the velvet rope, a clairvoyant keeps mutated punters who have upset her in a cage at the back of her tent, and with Jerry and his friends queuing outside to have their palms read, a clash between the two is about to take place…
A film more famous for its name than its content is never likely to be a classic, but TISCWSLaBMUZ isn’t devoid of memorable moments. As a brusque layabout, Steckler is a surprisingly engaging lead, and Brett O’Hara as the witch-like clairvoyant Madame Estrella – complete with facial warts that move position from scene to scene – is a suitably baroque villain. The movie runs at least 20 minutes too long, with most of the padding comprising scenes of burlesque dancing that occur almost every 15 minutes. This gives a Bollywood-style construction to the proceedings, as if the director felt viewers would rather be watching a TV variety show than a proper film.
However, two members of the crew give the cinematography the quality of a production 10 times the budget: assistant cameraman László Kovács and camera operator Vilmos Zsigmond. Kovács would go on to shoot Five Easy Pieces (1970), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and Ghostbusters (1984), while Zsigmond improbably has Deliverance (1972), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Deer Hunter (1978) on his CV. Needless to say, the film looks terrific, from the night-time shots of the carnival, a futuristic vision of sodium lamps and neon that seems more like Tron (1982) than 1960s California, to atmospheric shots of Jerry as he walks under the Angel Flight funicular railway in Downtown L.A.
The impressive look of the film is both aided and hampered by the editing, which varies between inspired match cuts of headlights and eyes to hamfisted jumps between scenes. As Don Schneider’s only other feature editing credit was on Eegah (1962), featuring many of the same cast and considered one of the worst films ever made, a cynic might suggest the clever edits on screen were more by accident than design.
I imagine more people have experienced TISCWSLaBMUZ on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in 1997, a TV show where comedians Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy among others watch old movies and make jokes about what they’re watching. As this is a film best appreciated for its visuals, this is no bad thing (although MST3K rarely used the best quality prints). It’s a movie made more enjoyable in the company of friends or with one finger on the fast forward button to skip the repetitive dancing scenes and interminable ending where a (look away now if you didn’t see this coming) mutated Jerry runs along the seashore chased by the police. The one scene where the variety acts and the plot intersect, as the mutants invade a stereotyped voodoo performance, is played out too long, wasting the opportunity for such a crossover.
As a scholar of the development of the modern zombie, I watched it with fascination and would love to ask Steckler about the film’s title. When his character first falls under the influence of Madame Estrella he’s a mesmerised, murderous puppet in the style of Doctor Caligari’s Cesare, before her undefined curse makes him, like his predecessors in her cage, some kind of devolved monster. For everyone else, it’s certainly a curate’s egg worth watching for fans of bad movies; actually, with the opportunity of skipping the boring bits, I’d happily give another one of the director’s films a try.
Watch the trailer: