Monday, 8 August 2016

The Undertaker and His Pals (1966) [Mini Review]

Director: T.L.P. Swicegood
Screenplay: T.L.P. Swicegood
Cast: Warrene Ott (as Friday/Thursday); James Westmoreland (as Harry Glass);  Marty Friedman; Sally Frei (as Ann); Rick Cooper
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) # 14

Post Blood Feast (1963), when gore first made its real impact American genre cinema, The Undertaker and His Pals starts with three masked motorcyclists breaking into a woman's apartment and killing her, stealing a leg or so for their nefarious means with red paint blood split . The photograph of her sailor boyfriend reacts to all this with a variety of horrified expressions as he watches on, the same ghoulish humour here as in Herschell Gordon Lewis' splatter films. Like Blood Feast, this is a one hour long film about cannibalism, an undertaker and two dim-witted owners of a rundown diner killing people (mainly women) to improve their businesses, the undertaker able to charge ridiculously expensive funeral costs for the victims and the diner owners able to supply their courses with cheaper meat. It does emphasis that, once the door was kicked down in terms of adult content - gore, sex and nudity etc. - sixties American cinema got even more stranger as small independent companies churned out these exploitation films, and that's before the decade changed to the seventies and even stranger materials were produced. The film gets weirder from the opening, but whether it's a detriment to the film or for future enjoyment on re-watches is entirely vague for me, especially from how much slapstick there is between the gruesome content. This silly humour works at points, like the unfortunate person who's dunked into a vat of acid, but you also have the undertaker accidentally stepping on a skateboard and gliding along a long stretch of street in a moment of Jerry Lewis slapstick.

The result feels like a mutated cross between more older innocent films in its comedic content and tone, like the cast waving to the viewer in the end credits in their various forms of death, really stands out against the violence and sick humour. Not only, while sparse, is the gore actually quite gruesome for its time and the film has a misanthropic streak that tonally jars against the broad humour. Blatant sight gags, puns and absurd jokes, such as actress Warrene Ott playing twins named after the days of the week, contrast against some of the more eyebrow raising content, such as how main hero detective Harry Glass (Westmoreland) glibly accepts that his lovesick secretary has been killed and is immediately lusting after women after her death, part of the continuing question of where the film's gender politics lay. Particularly when the film has an intentionally exaggerated tone, the undertaker played as flamboyantly as possible with his two cronies as dumb as you could get, the moments of meanness in the humour or sights such as someone getting run over by a truck really do stick out more. No surprisingly to match this the ending is a series of absurdities of increasing insult to injury and a door literally backfiring for someone. This tonal discrepancy, between the sick humour and moments of innocence, is likely to charm many as it is to baffle others. It's a step higher in quality than some of Herschell Gordon Lewis' work at this time, but is still likely to even baffle some diehard fans of this weird type of American exploitation cinema. 


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