Looking back at one of the great moments in outsider horror cinema from glorious eccentric Ted V. Mikels.
Ted V. Mikels was one of those gloriously eccentric directors whose films, as wild as they were, could never really live up to the image of the man behind them, who famously lived in a castle with any number of wives and looked every bit the movie eccentric. That he made nothing but ludicrously cheap tat that only ever approximated what you might expect a ‘real’ film to be was all the better – like many an indie director of the late 1960s and 1970s, Mikels had a unique vision of just what a film should be and did not feel bound by convention. This, I have long argued, is what makes low-budget outsider cinema of the era so compulsive. Today, even low budget movies generally look like regular movies – technology and an over-familiarity with filmmaking styles tends to make everything look the same. But directors like Mikels and his contemporaries (notably his buddy and sometimes collaborator ray Dennis Steckler) were guerilla filmmakers in the best way, shooting hit ‘n’ run movies with whatever limited resources that they had, bringing a unique individuality to whatever they did. You watch these films and know immediately that you are watching something entirely unique.
Mikels made weird action films like The Doll Squad, weird science fiction like The Astro Zombies and weird horror movies like The Corpse Grinders. These are the movies that we all sought out during the VHS era and were rarely disappointed by – and frankly, I’ll take these over some contrived and knowing Shudder (Un)Original any day. The Corpse Grinders, made in 1971, is one of those rare films that turns out to be every bit as deranged as you would hope it to be. While the title and the trailer – which has arguably been seen more frequently than the movie itself – promise much, the film actually manages to excel expectations, delivering a delirious, trashy, nonsensical tale that is heavily dosed with strangeness.
The film opens with a cat attacking its owner (in common with all the cat attacks in this film, this is a triumph of sound and crazed acting over actual dramatic action), and then cuts to grave-robbing couple Caleb (Warren Ball) and Cleo (Ann Noble). He looks like a mountain man while she has, inexplicably, a cockney accent and the pair of them bicker constantly, setting the scene for the whole movie. She’s a few eggs short of an omelette, keeping up a conversation with a doll for some reason – this has no connection with anything else in the film but certainly establishes her wackiness. But then, everyone in this film seems somewhat eccentric – it’s the sort of film that even John Waters might consider a bit unrealistic, quite frankly.
Caleb is supplying corpses to Landau (Sanford Mitchell), head of the Lotus cat food company (“for cats who like people”). He grinds them up in his corpse grinding machine and sells the meat in his ‘expensive’ cat food – hence the sudden lust for human flesh that has arisen in the local moggies. Well, cats are notoriously fussy buggers when it comes to food and I can well imagine many of them relishing the chance to chow down on the annoying hairless apes who insist on kissing them on the head. We’re told that Landau and grubby partner Maltby (J.Byron Foster) are raking in the cash, but they work out of what looks like a slum and employ a bunch of odd characters – the one-legged deaf-mute Tessie (Drucilla Hoy) and the mentally deficient Willie (Charles Fox) being the only staff members we meet. Landau is a shifty character, even by the not-exactly high standards of a man who sells human flesh as cat food, and soon he’s made a deal with some sort of gangster (things are a bit vague about his precise criminal activities) to supply fresher corpses while promising Caleb that he’ll “get whats coming to you” – and we all know what that means. Meanwhile, nurse Angie Robinson (Monika Kelly) and Dr Howard Glass (Sean Kenney) have had their suspicions raised by the spate of cat attacks, and are investigating…
This is probably the best known – if not the most widely seen – of Ted V. Mikels’ work and arguably his most demented. At times, it has the feel of an Andy Milligan film, existing one step to the side of normality, as the collection of strange characters spouts ridiculous dialogue in performances that are not so much bad as just plain strange. No one here seems normal, not even our two heroes. Dr Glass starts off as a bitter, booze-soaked surgeon before transforming into a stolid hero, while Angie is just outside the norm for a glamorous heroine and seems to flip emotional states constantly. Similarly, Landau goes from calm and collected to deranged in a heartbeat for no immediately obvious reason, while everyone else is just odd.
Interestingly, for a luridly titled exploitation movie, The Corpse Grinders is fairly restrained in its content. It’s an odd aspect of late Sixties/early Seventies oddball cinema that so much of it was still pitched at the PG rating, back when luridly insane horror films could still be PG-rated in America. So bodies are fed into the corpse grinding machine, but we don’t see any gore, and they go in wearing underwear, which you can’t imagine improved the taste of the cat food. There’s no nudity, though the film does engage in PG-level titillation by ensuring that several female characters strip to their underwear for no good reason (at one point, a woman comes home, gets out a tin of cat food that she fails to open and instead strips to her bra and panties, lies on the couch and watches TV – frankly, she deserved to be eaten by her hungry cat).
Mikels keeps the film pacey – there are few slow points in the film – and now and again creates a certain sense of atmosphere. The basement where the corpse grinding happens is lit in reds and greens, giving it a strange visual feel that is oddly effective (it also looks familiar from other Mikels’ films, including The Astro Zombies) and he adds some flash frames that are also pretty good. But the overwhelming feel of the film is one of weirdness, not horror, with a strange grubbiness – most locations and people look decidedly run-down. How deliberate this is, I don’t know, but it certainly gives the film a curious atmosphere.
This certainly won’t appeal to everyone – it’s too damned eccentric for that. But if you have a taste for the more outré dimensions of early Seventies trash cinema, this will be a very tasty little treat indeed. You should, of course, avoid the 2000 sequel, which simply shows that Mikels was very much a man of his time who was just rehashing past glories on budgets even lower than those he had in the 1970s.
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