To me, when it comes to movies or music, it’s all about the connections. How an utterance or a name drop of an artist or film that pertained to something you are fanatically waxing over at the current time, sends you scurrying about trying to locate related products. And how one thing leads to another in the eternal chasing of media to titillate our hearts, minds, and souls. This is my ode to the love connection that started at one point in time and that seemingly endless pursuit that followed, all from a want that ignited a fire within my soul… and how it grew and grew to incorporate more and more media. My love affair with the film The Monster and The Stripper (1968) began even before I had the chance to view it. It began out of a simple and painstaking process in the pursuit of all-inclusive media on a subject, something I used to (and still do) call connecting the dots.
Being a lover of exploitation trash back in my day equated to being outside the norm. And for a time period when fitting in was what everyone aspired to, I fought my primal trash urges mightily at times. But, there came a point post-high school where I had to let my alternative music and exploitation film freak flag fly and it has flown magnificently ever since. Not that before that point was I not enamored with alternative music and exploitation film, but it was kept on the down-low. I can honestly point to the video age and the flotation of video cassettes that unleashed my inner media freak.
When the mixing of youth and obsession hit me like a ton of bricks, the hunt knew no bounds. This during a time of no internet and very few resources beyond driving from here to there in an endless pursuit. Musically and ultimately film wise one of the most important building blocks was a film called Urgh! A Music War! (1981) By the early 1980’s I was at a point in my life where I detested disco and was disgusted at what rock and roll music had become. I never enjoyed punk beyond the Ramones and early Black Flag, so I was looking for something, anything to revitalize my lagging interest in music. Growing up with older siblings, things like The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Supremes and various other bands were constantly blaring out of the family’s console stereo. But those contemporary bands and others never did much for me. When my mother would put on her well-worn record albums of early Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, now that music really spoke to me and moved me. It had a basic primal urge to it, and for a child with severe hyperactivity, those short song bursts blew through me quickly enough before my short attention span could lose interest.
Back to Urgh! A Music War. A friend let me borrow his VHS of this film when it was released and the rest, as they say, is history. The film is just a number of live performances from some of newer bands at the time like XTC, Wall of Voodoo, Klaus Nomi, The Surf Punks, Gang of Four and The Cramps, to name but a few. Some bands included in the film I was familiar with, others I was not. But the band that forever altered my musical compass was the aforementioned The Cramps. I had knowledge of them beforehand but had scarcely heard any of their songs, except occasionally on a local college radio station. So, when their part in the film came along, it was nothing less than mind-blowing, direction shattering and taste altering. In that one song, “Tear it up,” (written by Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette, and David Paul Burlison) The Cramps ripped through such a strange and scorching rendition of that song, that I was shocked, enthralled and intoxicated. This was what rock n roll was all about in my book, a frightening mixture of primal urges and anarchy that sent people into wild lust filled convulsions. Throw in the tough, snarling beauty of Poison Ivy, the monstrous, lurching, pelvic-thrusting Lux Interior, the steady backbeat of Nick Knox and the short time guitarist Julien H. Grindsnatch (Julie H Rose), and my young mind was forever perverted.
You are probably wondering when do we get to The Monster and the Stripper in my title? Soon very soon. Just a few more connections and we will be there! So, as I explored The Cramps musical output and their inspirations… it sent me in many different directions, including towards rockabilly. And there I discovered among others the unhinged Hasil Adkins, The Burnette’s and after a few more connections it finally led me to the great Sleepy Labeef. Well, when a friend who worked at the local college record store, which I frequented informed me that Sleepy Labeef had actually appeared in a horror film, and played the monster no less, I was off on my next media search. Being that these were still the days of pre-internet saturation, I had to turn to the good old gray-market to secure me a copy of The Monster and the Stripper. So, that’s how one connection led to another and another in this endless media hunt that many of you are familiar with. Now some of you who are familiar with the days of gray-market VHS copies, remember the perils of purchasing these items. You quite honestly did not have a clue as to what you were getting quality wise. The tapes were sent snail-mail and were most times contained in either a black or see-through plastic case and sometimes the title of the film was written in marker or ink on the sticker, sometimes not. And the tape quality ranged from acceptable to down-right awful. But, being as these were the only real avenues for purchasing obscure films, you just had to buy them and accept what you got. A few classic examples on the quality of gray-market VHS tapes that I purchased through the years included the first Johnny Garko starring Sartana film If You Meet Sartana… Pray for Your Death (1968), which I found out most angerly was sans the last twenty minutes. Another would be the Tony Anthony Italian western A Stranger in Town (1967), which besides having considerable audio distortion along the bottom of the tape, had amazingly large Greek subtitles fighting along that tape bottom for space with that rolling distortion. That’s not to say that all purchased through these avenues was shit, as I accumulated a fine collection of very nice-looking quality-wise Jess Franco films through one specialized dealer.
But, looking back I would not change a damn thing. I find that in this age of on-demand entertainment that I can pick and choose on a whim what I want to watch, and I find myself dismissing many films because of the sheer volume of choices. And because, after thirty plus years of connections, many of them have finally come to an end out of apathy or the end of the line of an artist. This piece is a love letter to not only the film The Monster and The Stripper, but also to my media past, which I look back on with much love and admiration.
The Monster and The Stripper, while made after the emergence of the “roughie” cycle of films, without a doubt still has its sensibilities in the nudie-cutie genre of films. But, with its at times shocking violence, the film is also firmly entrenched in the “roughie” cycle of films. In fact, the beginning of the film is a tame nudie flick, that shows the workings of a strip club and the shady characters surrounding it. The second half when the monster is properly introduced, you get a few violent set pieces and the brawling of two female characters which helps send this production tumbling into dirtier, nastier territory. The mixing of monsters into the nudie-cutie genre of films was nothing new by the time this film was released in 1968. Films like the Lee Frost, Bob Cresse and Wes Bishop inept monster-mash House on Bare Mountain (1962), the quirky and charmingly campy Kiss Me Quick (1964) and the amazingly un-erotic The Orgy of the Dead (1965), which was written by the legendary hack Ed Wood and directed by the equally incompetent Steven C. Apostolof.
What has fueled my year’s love affair with this film is that it’s hard to comprehend. Not that it’s a complex film with a deep narrative, it’s just the opposite. It’s a film with the thinnest of plots and cardboard stereotypical characters. But for all the lack of depth in characters and narrative, the film just unfolds itself in uncomplicated stupidity and cheesy splendor and seems to be saying to hell with making sense. This film is plain and simply exploitation trash at its finest. And the reason the film works so well is that it’s at a deranged mixture of ineptitude that at times seems like a bad high school play and at other times a cheap vaudeville shows and at other times a gore film. And the film never presents the monster as evil and never is any judgment seemingly ever passed on it. Even though it kills multiple men and a woman in its vengeance, it’s never spoken of or referred to as a dangerous killer of men, even though its past murderous activities were reported in the local newspapers. As strange as the Swamp Thing not being addressed as overly violent is, it fits in so well with corny dialogue and paper-thin narrative.
There lives in the swamps of Louisiana an eight-foot-tall creature with the strength of ten men, called the Swamp Thing. The Swamp Thing attacks men as they navigate through his swamps trying to capture him. Many miles away on Bourbon Street in New Orleans nestled amongst the various strip clubs is a club that is run by a man named Nemo, who works for the syndicate trafficking drugs. Nemo is alerted to the possibility of a guaranteed money-making endeavor by one of his men named Gordon… that is if they could only catch and then display the fabled Swamp Thing at their club. So, Gordon, Coke, and Stud, along with a local swamp dwelling boy named Timmy, set out to capture the monster. During their expedition, the monster attacks the men unexpectedly and is able to kill two of the men, Stud by ripping him apart and Coke by ripping his arm out and beating him to death with the detached limb. But ole’ calm and collected Gordon with the help of Timmy tricks that nasty Swamp Thing and when the exact moment calls for it, Gordon shoots him with an elephant tranquillizer.
The Swamp Thing is played by the 6’-5” rockabilly legend Sleepy Labeef with an unruly head of hair, minimal make-up, a loincloth and a set of large rotten teeth. While Labeef is no actor, he is not asked to do any more than making noises including pig grunts and wave his arms around manically. As a matter of fact, not one person in the cast turns in a good performance and that is another reason this film works so well. The fact that all are inept in their turns, makes this a surreal experience, but the charm and aplomb that is afforded these paper-thin characters makes one forget about the shortcomings and embrace the limitations, and wallow in the uncomplicated muck. Gordon arranges for the Swamp Thing to be transported back to Bourbon Street, so he can appear upon stage during the striptease performances. Of course, bringing that nasty, dirty Swamp Thing to the strip club can only lead to trouble, just as the exploiting of King Kong had done in that classic 1933 film. In fact, the Swamp Thing even falls for a girl sort of, but as Timmy says it’s not “like that.” But when the evil, conceited star of the show Titania, uses her striptease fire dance to excite the caged monster, he bides his time for revenge. The Swamp Thing as we are informed by Timmy, who has come with Gordon to help train the Swamp Thing, is that Swampy hates fire and guns more than anything else. The Swamp Thing is fed live pigs and chickens, including a live chicken on stage during his segment of the show. In fact, Gordon during his introduction of the monster during the stage show says they feed him live chickens and pigs and, “The squeals from the little animals as he tears them apart- will make the strongest man vomit!”
This deviously insane film sprang from the creative team of June and Ron Ormond, who produced a number of “B” westerns before moving into more provocative endeavors, together helming a number of exploitation films, including Frontier Woman (1956) and Girl from Tobacco Road (1966), White Lightnin’ Road (1967) among others. Ron after years of exploitation fare decided after a near-death encounter to helm some of the worst religious films ever committed to celluloid. The young boy named Tim is played by their son Tim Ormond and June Ormond plays Bunny, the older stripper in the film. June performs one of the worst strip dance routines ever and thankfully never disrobes beyond her long johns but does have fittingly enough a sign that reads LSD stuck on her lumpy bottom. Ron Ormond appears in the film also as the shady club owner Nemo. The Monster and The Stripper was originally released under the title The Exotic Ones in 1968. This is sadly Sleepy Labeef’s only big-screen acting credit, but he continues to perform his music to this day bringing his backwoods rockabilly music to his adoring fans.
The Monster and The Stripper is at times padded out with too many lame songs and dance routines and also some amazingly boring striptease dances by the various strippers. But we also get some stunning deadpan, stilted dialogue, a spirited, enthusiastic catfight, and a boring, leering, inept cop working to bust the drug ring and bring the owner of the club Nemo to justice. Nemo employs the older stripper Bunny to whip his girls into shape and the beginning of the film is built around the auditions of various strippers, including the good girl about to turn bad, Mary-Jane. The soundtrack consists of generic infectious jazz, with some assorted vocal songs- but does not boast one rockabilly song.
Unfortunately, The Monster and The Stripper has never been given a proper DVD or Blu-Ray release. And the only way to find it these days is to pay steep prices on eBay for the VHS release of it. Which really is a shame as the film deserves to be out there for the exploitation masses to consume. So, concludes my love letter to the film and the connections that led me to it. While it’s not a great film, its entertaining as hell. And it was also fun as hell – taking a walk down memory lane with all of you. And you know what? My name is Mike… And I love my movies like my music, a little on the trashy side!