Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Monster and the Stripper (1968)

AKA The Exotic Ones
Directed by Ron Ormand
Starring Georgette Dante, Ron Ormand, Sleepy Labeef

"Once they hosed him down, he wasn't so bad."

Ron Ormand (RIP) was a remarkable showman and filmmaker who, in his 71 years on this Earth, amassed a head-spinning resume full of adventure, exploitation, and bullshit. He began his career in the mid 1930's, appearing with his wife June on the vaudeville circuit as a magician and master of ceremonies. In the 40's, he started a film production company with cowboy star Lash Larue, and spent the next ten years writing, producing, and directing westerns. When that genre dried up, he began producing low-budget drive-in shlock like Mesa of Lost Women, Teenage Bride, and White Lightning Road. Around this time he also produced roller derby for television.

Apparently film and television were not enough to keep Ron busy, because he also wrote a series of books on various occult/mystic subjects, including Into the Strange Unknown, about the Asian practice of "Psychic surgery", The Master Method of Hypnosis, and The Magical Pendulum of the Orient. It is unclear whether Ormand actually believed in any of the subjects that he wrote about, or whether it was all easy-buck hucksterism, but his late-in-life conversion to evangelical Christianity - sparked from his seemingly impossible survival in 1968 plane crash - would suggest he was at least open to oddball notions. The Exotic Ones - AKA The Monster and the Stripper - was his last secular film, completed just months before the crash. His post-crash work movies were all heavy-handed Christian propaganda like the fire and brimstone gospel of The Burning Hell (1971) and 39 Stripes (1979), the "uplifting" story of a hard-nosed convict turned preacher.

While his films were mostly successful, Ormand was never considered more than a low-budget hack while he was still alive. But in the decades since his death, his exploitation-era movies have since earned him an Ed Wood-esque cult following from vintage badfilm enthusiasts. Although The Monster and the Stripper remains more obscure than many of his 50's efforts, it is perhaps the ultimate distillation of Ormand's pre-religious aesthetic: pure sideshow hokum with big greasy dollops of sex and violence to keep things moving.

The Monster and the Stripper opens with a New Orleans travelogue, complete with stock Mardi Gras footage and a belligerent offscreen narrator who drones on about the history of the "Crescent city" with finger-jabbing intensity. Hilariously, all that blather is for nothing, because, as he tells us, our story does not being in New Orleans at all, but in the swamps of Louisiana. Well, alright then.

Apparently a swamp monster is on the loose. It eats a fisherman off-screen. You can't really tell what happened, really, but then they show a "Swamp monster on the loose, eats another victim" newspaper headline, so that helps.

Meanwhile, at Nemo's, a burlesque house on Bourbon Street, Queen-bee stripper Tatiana (Georgette Dante) tries out a new routine where lights her tassles on fire and then wrestles a chair. Afterwards a bunch of fledgling performers audition for a gig at the club including a very wobbly hippy go-go dancer (Diane Marshall), a French beatnik painter (Harris Martin) who specializes in psychedelic body painting, and a "high class" stripper (Lynne Fontaine, who does actually seem sorta classy).

While all of this is amuses Nemo (Ron Ormand, wearing a ridiculous toupee and mustache) and his wife Bunny (June Ormand), he doesn't think any of them will bring in the big numbers he needs to make a profit. Gordon, one of Nemo's goons, suggests they capture the swamp monster, bring him back to the club, and have him on stage in a cage while Tatiana dances. A beauty and the beast sorta deal. Nemo loves it. So does Tatiana. And so, the adventure begins.

So it turns out that Nemo's not only a club owner, he's also some sort of high-level mobster. Down in the basement, he grills Marty, a low-rent bag-boy,  about $60,000 that recently went missing. Marty won't cop to it, so Nemo has his thugs work him over. First, though, they make Marty slurp down the contents of a spittoon. And then they beat him senseless. Awesome!

Meanwhile, Bunny has just hired Mary Jane, a Dusty Springfield-esque singer, and sends her upstairs to Nemo's pad to try on something "sexy". She warns her not to take anything out of jealous Tatiana's closet, though. So naturally, that's exactly what she does.

Then Nemo puts the moves on Mary Jane, offering her a pile of dough to buy some stage clothes and hinting that she could pay him back in trade, but she won't bite. Or will she? Life is cheap at Nemo's, man.

Perhaps you're wondering, at this point, when The Monster and the Stripper is going to actually get to the monster. Well, we're definitely getting closer. Some kid wanders around a clump of trees and discovers a butchered, decapitated cow. A real one, by the way. Yuck. And then he hauls ass out of there. But wait, what's that hiding behind some bushes?

Shortly after, a ragtag gang of goons and idiots - led by the kid - go on the hunt for the swamp-thing (6 foot 7 rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef) . It doesn't go very well. One guy gets his belly torn out, and then the monster throws paper mache boulders at them.  Another guy sensibly tries to run away, but the monster catches him, and in an alarming/awesome scene, he tears the guy's arm off and beats him with it.

Luckily, quick thinking Gordon shoots the monster (just a big, hairy guy, really) with a tranquilizer dart, ending his brief reign of terror.

Fast-forward to some time later. The monster's been hosed down, domesticated and caged, and now Mary Jane performs nightly at Nemo's with the savage beast.

For a grand finale, in classic carnival geek show tradition, the monster bites the head off a live chicken and then eat it raw. Sleepy appears to actually do exactly that. Method acting!

And then Tatiana does her fire-dance. Part of the routine involves setting the bars of swamp thing's cage ablaze. Swamp thing does not approve.

You can see where this is all going, right? Tatiana and Mary Jane get into a pretty sweet catfight after Tatiana insinuates that Mary Jane's been boning the beast.

In the ensuing confusion, the monster gets loose and runs amuck.

First he rips Tatiana's boob right off, and then he sets his sights on that rat bastard Nemo. Can Nemo and his measly pea-shooter of a gun fend off the rampaging man-monster before he destroys the whole club and everything in it?

No. No, he cannot.

Like some swamp-soaked cross between an HG Lewis gore epic and a Russ Meyer boobstravaganza, The Monster and the Stripper is Z-movie bliss, a tawdry, trashy film that somehow manages to entertain and enthrall with the cheapest tricks possible. While it is essentially nothing more than a 50's style monster movie wrapped around endless series of lame burlesque and vaudeville acts, there is a cumulative effect to all of the various components - the sleazy stripper jazz, the dimestore splatter, the gratuitous flesh-baring, Ron Ormand's insane get-up, the chicken-geeking scene - eventually it all adds up to the sort of drive-in delirium hardcore junkfilm fans dream about, but rarely actually witness.

The very definition of Bad Fun, the Monster and the Stripper delivers on both in cheese-filled fistfuls, and is very much worth the effort to seek out. The insane X-rated cartoon world of Nemo's and his hippy go-go girls, loincloth-sporting man-beasts, and warring strippers is long gone, but thankfully we've got loony films like this to remember it all by. Grab a tumbler of something on the rocks, light up a cigar, strap on your favorite fez, and take a trip back to the days when men were sleazy bullies, women were strippers, and the swamps were full of chicken-chomping rockabilly singers. They don't get much loopier than this.

- Ken McIntyre

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