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Eegah

by Glenn Erickson Nov 09, 2019

 

Mean-spirited ‘Bad Movie’ satirists forget that production values aren’t everything, even if the collected works of Barry Mahon and Coleman Francis say otherwise. This threadbare backyard production has ‘endearing’ written all over it. I judge many independent movies to be like picture puzzles with pieces missing, and this one is missing a LOT of them. But back when the drive-in was king, there was hope for just about any picture with a determined producer. The Last Time We Saw Arch Hall (we never saw him a first time), he may have been cooking up a sequel to this maladroit teenage caveman epic … if only he hadn’t killed off his main character. But this Turkey actually performed in release: Eegah would rate its niche in film history even if Richard Kiel hadn’t become a star in James Bond movies. Don’t miss the Trade Paper clipping feature at the bottom of the review.

Eegah
Blu-ray
Film Detective
1962 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 90 min. / Eegah! The Name Written in Blood! / Street Date November 26, 2019 / 24.99
Starring: Richard Kiel, Marilyn Manning, Arch Hall Jr., William Watters (Arch Hall Sr.), Ray Dennis Steckler, Carolyn Brandt.
Cinematography: Vilis Lapenieks
Film Editor: Don Schneider
Original Music: Henry Price (André Brummer)
Written by Bob Wehling, Arch Hall Sr.
Produced and Directed by
Nicholas Merriwether (Arch Hall Sr.)

 

Note: The terrible color in these images does not represent the *excellent* color on the Blu-ray.

Does anyone still bother to discriminate against movies given a ‘bad’ label?  In their own way, Ed Wood Jr.’s jaw droppers are as entertaining as a lot of network television. I have a soft spot for plenty of pictures that have gotten the razz over the years, without feeling the need to front a Guilty Pleasure defense. The most interesting article ever in Famous Monsters of Filmland was at least partly written by a young Joe Dante — a 1962 ‘Dante’s Inferno’ list of fifty movies forever to be consigned to a dungeon of shame. Does the article contain the first critical words published about Ed Wood?  Frankly, the films that the article warned us away from, became immediately interesting, as in, Now-I-HAVE-to-See-It.

Kids that imagine themselves to be future film directors may be attracted to supposed cinematic Turkeys, partly to pretend they’d never make the same mistakes. But why does anybody snicker at the maker of Robot Monster — his film got a national release. Good, bad, or existentially confused, the great Ro-Man has entered the culture, and is not likely to exit soon (unless a collector continues to keep him out of circulation).

Where Was I in ’62?   Probably staring at the ads for the Baseline Drive-In in dusty San Bernardino. At ten years old I was already picking through movies playing downtown, but I had no way to attend the mysterious fare being shown at drive-ins. As a typical title was Invasion of the Animal People, I guess I was lucky to be denied access. I also had to miss out on Panic in Year Zero! and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, which to me is the definition of human tragedy. The arrival of Eegah at the Baseline was accompanied by loud radio ads on the pop station K-MEN (129), which made it sound like a must-see (to a ten-year-old).

In the tradition of fabulous restorations that aren’t exactly on the to-do list of the Library of Congress, The Film Detective brings us Eegah. The 1962 film arrived too late to be included in Joe Dante’s Inferno, and had to wait until 1978 to be critically eviscerated, in the Medved Brothers’ brisk-selling softcover book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.

I keep wanting to add an exclamation point to the title, because that’s how I remember it from some of the amateurish ads back in the day. Doesn’t the spelling Eegah! seem better?  Perhaps it will become standard when an enterprising impresario adapts the property for a smash Broadway musical. I mean, it already has three songs.

The storyline of Eegah addresses key issues of its day. On the way to meet her boyfriend Tom (Arch Hall Jr.), teenager Roxy Miller (Marilyn Manning) almost hits a man on a dark desert road. It’s the seven-foot prehistoric Eegah (Richard Kiel). Roxy gets away, and talks about her experience at the local restaurant gathering place. Friends scoff, but Roxy’s father Robert Miller (William Watters, aka Arch Hall Sr.) overhears and accompanies Tom and Roxy to scout the desert the next day. After they find some large footprints, Robert hires a helicopter to drop him alone up on Shadow Mountain, to locate and photograph Roxy’s ‘Cave Man.’

When Robert doesn’t return, Tom and Roxy go searching for him in a dune buggy, and mostly have fun zooming around in the sand dunes. On day two, Eegah kidnaps Roxy and takes her back to his cave, where Robert is also imprisoned, with a broken collarbone. Their grunting captor introduces Roxy to his relatives, a row of mummified corpses. While Roxy tries to dissuade Eegah from getting too personal — he does get her shoulder straps down — Tom wanders about looking for the caveman’s lair. Roxy gives Eegah a shave, which makes him seem more likable… she’s beginning to bond with the big lunk.

Where to start?  Producer Arch Hall Sr. has the distinction of being immortalized in a movie based on his war experience, with his part played by Robert Mitchum. Although it hasn’t been shown much in ages, Jack Webb’s 1961 The Last Time I Saw Archie is screenwriter William Bowers’ ode to Arch Hall Sr., with whom he shared wild adventures in the Air Force. The real ‘Archie’ did well in the economic boom of the 1950s — his winning personality reportedly his key to success — and acquired his homemade movie-making itch more or less as a father-son activity. Arch Jr. would star in several of his shows. At times painfully amateurish, the films were professionally filmed and finished on 35mm. Arch Hall Jr.’s The Sadist (1963) has a high reputation, but it wasn’t directed by his father.

Archie’s The Choppersand Eegah might have been MADE by cave men. Eegah was filmed as a fun DIY project, on a minimalist level: ‘a simple story for simple people,’ as the late film expert and much-missed friend Robert Birchard often said. Apparently deciding that Elvis Presley movies were a template for success, Arch Jr, sings three songs in the movie, adding at least a full reel to the running time. They aren’t terrible, but neither are they anything special. The guitar-driven, pre-surf rock music recorded for other scenes works rather well.

Both Halls liked fancy cars, and the films show off Archie’s ’58 Austin Healy and ’61 Corvette. Tom’s dune buggy isn’t one of those later Volkswagen jobs with a fiberglass body and a roll bar, but an older junker that barely held together. Arch Jr. says in the disc extras that he shortened the frame with his own (poor) welding job, and that he was almost killed when it buckled under him. Archie also rented a helicopter, to add some excitement.

Tom and Roxy are boy and girlfriend, although Arch Jr. says that model Marilyn Manning was ten years his senior. It’s no problem, as the film’s pervading non-reality keeps the mismatch from being a problem. Ms. Manning would return in The Sadist, so she can’t have been too disappointed. Producer (and uncredited director and co-writer) Archie acts as well. His Mr. Miller isn’t comic relief, as none is needed. But he sure dresses like a clown — in white shorts & shirt and a pith helmet. Again, the inanity of this doesn’t harm a storyline that’s already a bad joke.

Archie Sr.’s moviemaking adventure saw him rubbing shoulders with ambitious and talented people — Ray Dennis Steckler, James Landis, Vilmos Zsigmond, Joseph V. Mascelli, Laszlo Kovacs– some of whom would later enter the Hollywood big time. Zsigmond and Kovacs gained experience filming for Ray Dennis Steckler, but the cinematography of Vilis Lapenieks for Eegah can only be called unremarkable. Night for night shots have a sun-gun appearance, and day-for-night scenes just look dull. Archie chose acceptable settings, with the rough desert roads outside Palm Springs being the main background. In 1961 anybody could roam most anywhere in the Southern California desert — there were few fences to stop them. The only problem was finding a stretch of road not cluttered with beer cans and litterbug trash.

Eegah’s actual cave entrance is at Bronson Caverns. I think they used cave entrance #3, which was once bigger than it is at present, because of the climb-able incline to its left. → The film’s one constructed set, the cave interior, is a washout. The stretched canvas rock surface never looks like anything but what it is, and even cameraman Vilis Lapenieks’ lighting efforts are for naught.

Archie’s camera direction must have been learned by taking family photos in his back yard. For masters, he finds one position for a scene and sticks to it. The awareness of a camera is always with us, whether we’re stuck in Eegah’s cave or watching the cave man from the other side of a swimming pool. There’s little sense of cutting, although we must say that he at least knows how to cut back and fort between Richard Kiel & Marilyn Manning’s simple performances. It’s proof that viewers WANT to relate to characters, no matter how thin they may be. Of the Eegah-Roxy pairing, we think, ‘aw, he’s not such a bad guy,’ and ‘aw, she’s getting stuck on him.’

The dialogue is either functional exposition, which is often not bad; or attempts at cleverness and humor, which are dismal. We stick around mainly because we want to find out what happens to Kiel the caveman. At ninety minutes, the show is too long. But that meant little at drive-ins that functioned as necking arenas and tailgate parties with a snack bar only a hundred feet away. Losing the flat musical scenes would trim the show by least ten minutes; chop out ten more and our interest might be better sustained. When reprised for MST3K, the show was partly edited.

It’s easy to poke fun at the petty crudities on view. We smile at the homemade main title, but the other main credits slip in and out of focus so roughly that they look like mistakes. Pointing out continuity goofs is fairly pointless because we expect those. The most famous odd goof is a wild line dubbed into a desert scene, that’s a ridiculous aural mismatch for the dialogue around it — Mr. Miller says “Watch out for snakes” at a moment where he’s clearly not speaking. It almost sounds like God just broke in with a bit of advice, from off-stage.

In today’s democratized movie world, thousands of technically proficient independent productions are made every year, that never get near the possibility of a wide release — the theatrical distribution system has become constricted even for the majors. But in 1962 the number of local movie theaters was much, much greater. Probably because Archie was such a good salesman, Eegah made the rounds, often accompanied by ballyhoo appearances by its stars.

Is there a category of filmmaking called ‘suburban primitive?’ Shows like this one have a genuine place in Cinema Americana — like the cheapo monster movies of Joseph H. Robertson, that were deemed unwatchable yet enjoyed long, profitable lives in drive-ins and on TV. Eegah may be backyard-production junk, but in its own modest way, it was commercially successful. It’s still worth seeing to enjoy Richard Kiel and his earnest co-players. And it’s pleasant to see it so handsomely restored.


The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of Eegah attracted my interest when I found out that the original negative had been scanned at 4K and restored. The brightly colored image looks fine, and when the lighting cameraman Lapenieks has a chance, even fairly attractive. This may be amateur hour, but the participants obviously cared. Lapenieks makes sure that Ms. Manning’s good looks are protected, and she definitely seems to have some helpers off-camera to keep her hair straight, etc.. Arch Hall Jr. comes off less effectively, but he’s the one with the dumbest lines. There was not much hope of Jr’s music numbers igniting a Presley-like teen sensation, but I’ve certainly seen and heard worse.

The disc notes that the original 35mm camera negative was the transfer source, and that the Cinema Preservation Alliance did the restoration. It looks very good, with a clean audio track and a very smooth picture. The widescreen aspect ratio helps as well. Repeat Note: the terrible color in these frame-grab images does not represent the excellent color on the Blu-ray.

The Film Detective is the disc company of record, but Shout! Factory, Something Weird and MST3K are also credited, along with an entity called ‘byNWR.com,’ which is said to control the film’s negative. The main extra is the entire Mystery Science Theater 3000 presentation of the show, from 1993. The wisecracking robots have it easy, when fed terrific dialogue lines like Roxy’s, “This is whizzing?” Mystery Science co-creator Joel Hodgson appears in a featurette talking about his experience with the movie, noting its enthusiastic following in a live show they toured with in 2017.

The much-loved Richard Kiel passed away in 2014, and Marilyn Manning is nowhere to be found. That leaves Arch Hall Jr. to appear in a video featurette. He comes across as a nice guy with pleasant stories to tell about his moviemaking experience. He even brings his white electric guitar with him to the video session. The ‘Last Time I Saw Archie’ connection isn’t mentioned, but Arch Jr. is candid and open about the father-son moviemaking project, the locations, the badly-welded dune buggy, and the inadequate cave interior set. The Halls, Manning and Kiel seem to have had fun barnstorming with the movie for ‘special engagements.’ The most illuminating thing Arch Jr. says is that Eegah got made because their previous movie The Choppers couldn’t get bookings on its own — they needed to offer a one-contract double bill. I guess if theater owners got enough bodies in the auditoriums to keep the candy counter humming, everyone was happy.

Eegah is definitely a niche audience attraction, but Film Detective’s disc is quality goods. Fans that dote on marginal exotica will not be disappointed, as the quality is tops.   (Glenn whispers:) It occasionally looks like a real movie.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Eegah
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Poor, but never was a judgment less relevant
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: entire Mystery Science Theater 3000 presentation (also subtitled in English), interviews with Arch Hall Jr. and Joel Hodgson.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 6, 2019
(6124eega)


 

EEGAH Gallery compiled by Gary Teetzel

Boxoffice, July 16, 1962:

 

Boxoffice remembered this stunt and gave it one of several ‘Showmandiser’ citations in July:

 

Review from August 20, alongside another memorable cheapie: (Open in a new window to make larger)

 

September 17:

 

From “The Exhibitor Has His Say” column:

 

January 28, 1963:

 

From “The Exhibitor Has His Say”, April 1, 1963:

 

Ad from August 13, 1962:

 

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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.