Within the last thirty days, American cult cinema has taken two huge hits. Last month, the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away, and then, just this past Sunday the American Icon, Ted V. Mikels left us. Both of these creators paved the way for low-budget horror throughout the seventies, but where Lewis got into film through the Nudie Cuties and was an expert marketer, paving the way in both nudie films and gore films, Mikels was a true lover of filmmaking from the very beginning and while he provided plenty of titillation in his films, rarely was there explicit sex, nudity, or gore. Mikels got his start with the 1963 release, Strike Me Deadly, a more-or-less straight action/thriller shot on 35mm. He followed this up with two very different types of films, The Black Klansman (1966) and Girl in Gold Boots (1968). The Black Klansman is probably his most cinematic film, touching on sensitive social issues while telling its revenge story, but Girl in Gold Boots fails in its attempt to expose the seedy side of Go-Go dancing (but it made a very entertaining Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode). The second film Mikels wrote and directed in 1968 (co-wrote, actually, with M.A.S.H.‘s Trapper John, Wayne Rogers) became the first film to really make his name: The Astro-Zombies. That’s not to say The Astro-Zombies was good, but it did provide the second of three cult classic appearances by the amazing Tura Satana, the first being Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (of course) and another re-teaming with Mikels for 1973’s The Doll Squad – but more on that later. Despite being mostly known for the Misfits song about it, The Astro-Zombies features spies, a mad scientist (played by the king of low-budget mad science, John Carradine), strippers, and solar-powered cyborg zombies killing people with machetes. As with Lewis’ iconic Blood Feast, The Astro-Zombies became a huge hit on the Southern drive-in circuits, reportedly bringing in over three million dollars on a $37,000 budget. And that’s when tickets were something like fifty cents apiece or a drive-in carload for a dollar! The success of The Astro-Zombies led to Mikels’ first horror-comedy, although not many theater owners really thought it was much of a comedy with a name like The Corpse Grinders (1971)! A brief summary of the plot makes it plain that comedy was on Mikels’ mind: A cat food company is losing money before discovering that human flesh is the secret ingredient all cats truly crave. After deciding that their deal buying corpses from the freaky local gravedigger was becoming too costly, and dangerous, murder gets added to the ingredient list. Meanwhile, cats who love their Lotus Brand Cat Food discover they can eliminate the middle man by attacking and murdering their owners. Made for around $47,000, The Corpse Grinders is a masterpiece in sleazy suggestion that wound up number eleven in the top fifty grossing films in 1971. There is practically no on-screen violence, no nudity, no perversion of almost any kind, and yet when it’s over there’s the sense you just watched a murder-filled nightmare of necrophilia and molestation. The characters are mostly one-dimensional, but our two corpse grinders are given surprising layers to play – layers like Landau (Sanford Mitchell) knowing sign language and hiring the poor and the disabled for the but having no moral qualms about killing someone for his own gain, and Maltby (J. Byron Foster) being greedy and perversely attracted to pretty girls, alive or dead, but trying to provide some sort of moral compass for Landau. The gravedigger Caleb (Warren Ball) and his wife Cleo (Ann Noble) are also quite the pair, abusive to each other, but both are kind of broken in their ways. Caleb feels cheated out of everything good in life, and Cleo carries around and cares for a weird baby doll as though it were alive. There’s no explanation for it, and it’s one of the greatest touches in the film. Overall, The Corpse Grinders is very nicely shot and although not a lot really happens, Mikels uses color wonderfully throughout. This is a nice little insight into just what he can accomplish when given the opportunity. I kind of love this film. Part of the reason that this film became so successful was Mikels’ marketing. He packaged The Corpse Grinders with two other films he’d purchased the rights to, The Embalmer and Undertaker, for a demented triple-feature that had audiences lining up around the block to the theaters and up the road to the drive-ins. Next up was Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973), his take on witchcraft, followed quickly by The Doll Squad (1973), his take on spy movies, and after a brief side-project – Alex Joseph and His Wives, about noted 70s polygamist Alex Joseph, starring noted 70s polygamist Alex Joseph and his wives – came Ten Violent Women (1982), Mikels’ take on the women-in-prison genre. Basically, if Ted V. Mikels felt the urge to make a movie, no matter what the subject, he did it, even if it meant taking out mortgages on his home to do so, as he wouldn’t take studio money. And what a home it was! In 1968, Mikels got divorced and bought Sparr Castle in Glendale, California and moved in with a rotating group of four to seven women at any given time: his “castle ladies.” Much has been made of this living arrangement, especially with Alex Joseph and His Wives on his resume, and some writers have called the live-in ladies strippers, but Mikels always claimed that there was nothing funny going on. The women were given jobs on his films both behind the scenes and as actors, with quite a few of them moving on to other film jobs after leaving the castle. How much of that is true, I can’t say, but out of respect for Mikels, I’m going to leave it there and let him have the last word on the subject. 1973 was also the year that he produced the zombie classic by director Bob Clark, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things! All in all, ’73 was a very good year for Mikels. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils doesn’t have much by way of blood orgies or she-devils, really. Although Lila Zaborin gives just about everything she has to bring the satanic majesty of coven leader Mara to life – and beyond! Mara runs a coven of witches who are mainly preoccupied with doing ritualistic dances for the glory of Satan and getting glimpses of their past lives. She also runs regular séance sessions for the public and every now and then commits magical murder for hire. The overall story doesn’t really stick to a traditional approach to storytelling, and this throws some viewers off, expecting something more mainstream, with building action. Instead, Blood Orgy is a passive-aggressive tale of white magic vs. black magic, with Victor Izay‘s Dr. Helsford being slowly drawn into Mara’s orbit by the movie’s climactic Sabbath ritual. Events occur one after the other, but none seem to really build on what comes before. This grants the film’s narrative a dreamlike quality that some might just find boring, but I was entranced and truly appreciated the fact that if the old white men hadn’t intervened at the climax, only a couple of sacrifices would have died instead of every single witch and sacrificial victim in the house. Who’s really the hero here? However, the film is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of Mikels’ home, Sparr Castle. The colors are rich and vibrant, and the blacks are deep and dark. There’s a warmth that shooting on film brings and no matter how cheesy or low-budget Blood Orgy is, it always looks good. Yes, even when strange lightning is shooting out of people’s hands. The Doll Squad was Mikel’s second pairing with Tura Satana who played a supporting role in this tale of an all-female spy squad, led by Francine York, as Sabrina Kincaid and sent on a dangerous mission to stop a Bond-style madman intent on overthrowing world governments with the threat of worldwide bubonic plague. Luckily, the Doll Squad is on the case! This one is a lot of fun, with lots of kick-ass girls in black jumpsuits machine-gunning and karate chopping bad guys. Hell, you know it’s a fun one since it inspired both Charlie’s Angels (Aaron Spelling was at the movie’s premiere in ’73, then, curiously, debuted his TV show in 1976) and Quentin Tarantino’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill. It’s goofy and mostly nonsensical, and they didn’t have the money for good special effects (thus the exploding soldiers who simply disappear in cheesy superimposed fireballs), but it had heart. After Doll Squad and Ten Violent Women, Mikels fell off the radar for a few years, getting himself tied up in trying to get his war film Mission: Killfast financed and finished. He made some films, but none of them really had the same spirit. During this time, he also made the shift from shooting on 35mm film to shooting on video and it hurts the final product in almost every case. No matter how cheap the early films were, they were still films and looked great. Once he began shooting on videotape and using rudimentary CG, the quality took a hit that was hard to overlook. As a way of balancing out the scales, Mikels began to dig into his own back catalog and from 2000 through 2012 was mostly preoccupied with making sequels. First with The Corpse Grinders 2 (which saw cat-like aliens on the prowl for a new food source getting involved in the corpse grinding action), then with Mark of the Astro-Zombies in 2004 and finally Astro Zombies: M3 – Cloned (2010) and Astro Zombies: M4 – Invaders from Cyberspace (2012). Sadly, Mark of the Astro-Zombies would be Tura Satana’s last featured role on film, aside from a brief appearance as an unnamed judge in Sugar Boxx (2009) and providing a voice for Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009). She’s credited with an appearance in Astro Zombies: M3 – Cloned, but only provides a voice-over to images of her from the original Astro-Zombies. Another reason to be sad about Mark of the Astro-Zombies is that it just isn’t very good. Luckily, Astro-Zombies: M3 makes up for it somewhat, embracing more humor than the second film and also featuring a return of the Doll Squad, with Francine York reprising her role as Doll Squad leader Sabrina Kincaid, if only to call in a younger team to help take out the rampaging Astro Zombies. While these later films can’t hold a candle to Mikels’ early work, there’s still an enthusiastic embrace of absurdity, silliness, and cheesy titillation that many filmmakers these days would steer far clear of. Ted V. Mikels isn’t a legend because he made great films. He’s a legend because he never stopped having fun making films. He demonstrates with nearly every effort just how much you can accomplish if you’re dedicated and just don’t give a shit about the judgment of others. 2016 can stop killing people any time now. I’m fucking tired of it. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response Advance Review: Private Property (1960) Blu-ray - Psycho Drive-In November 6, 2016 […] distribution outside of the mainstream with no studio backing. But this isn’t a film like Corpse Grinders or Blood Feast, which worked similar circuits. Stevens had set out to make a dark and sexual noir […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.