Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Halloween Havoc: HILLBILLY MONSTER (2003)

Not to sound like a bad movie elitist, but I hate running into fellow “movie buffs” who declare Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1958) to be the worst movie of all-time.  It usually tells me one very important thing: they haven’t truly seen a lot of movies.  To hold onto the banal belief that PLAN 9 is the nadir of cinema is like saying Jess Franco didn’t make a lot of movies or Nic Cage has nice hair.  It just ain’t true.  Moviedom is littered with thousands of films worse that Wood’s seminal work and if you dig deep enough you will find them.  Oddly enough, one of worst contributors to the cinematic gutter is Conrad Brooks, the only surviving cast member of Wood’s magnum opus.

A native of Maryland, Brooks headed to the West Coast in the late 1940s with his two brothers to make it big on the silver screen. Instead, they met up with Edward D. Wood, Jr. and starred in a short for him.  Legend has it they actually paid Wood to be in the film. Whatever the truth, Wood ended up casting Conrad in small roles in a total of 5 of his feature length presentations.  Following a period of nearly 25 years off the big screen, Brooks returned to the industry in the mid-80s with a vengeance.  He parlayed his minuscule claim to fame into roles in more no budget films and convention appearances. In the mid-90s Brooks figured it was time to cash in even harder by directing his own video features.  One such title is HILLBILLY MONSTER.

The “film” opens with burly freakshow owner Jake (Joe McCabe) and his walking stick/friend with a turtle mounted on it (he calls him Mr. Turtle) wandering around some fairgrounds (including a drive in with a marquee offering PLAN 9 starring Conrad Brooks and Bela Lugosi).  Apparently his star attraction (we are never shown the inside of the freakshow) is the Hillbilly Monster (Michael T. Burns), a half-man, half-ape offered to the show by its adoptive father Zeke (Bruce Lindsay, who is Redskin Hogette Porkchop in "real" life).  Around the 11 minute mark (which feels like years), the beast – who looks like a hunched over goth singer – escapes and heads into the woods.  This sends Jake into action as he gets Dirty Harry (Conrad Brooks) on the job and we get 15 minutes of him running all over the carnival, asking everyone if he has seen the monster as the same stolen carnival music loops over and over (listen for some Alice in Chains in the background too).

While in the woods, the monster gets his leg caught in a bear trap.  Luckily for him, the sanitarium of Dr. Love (George Romley) is nearby.  Yes, you read that right.  Dr. Love.  The good doc and his assistant Jennifer (Jennifer Wells) take care of mental patients who think they are Civil War generals or Mae West.  So a man-ape will fit right in.  They take the freak in, fix his leg in surgery (off screen) and decide to keep him.  Hillbilly forms some kind of bond with the gardener while working as the monster looks on and the same acoustic guitar drones endlessly.  But the bromance is short lived as the cops “got a tip” the monster might be here so the administrators release him back into the wild (with a plastic bag of bananas).  Zeke, who has been trying to defend the monster in the press, shows up at the sanitarium and is told his boy is gone.  “You did the right thing, doc” he says. The film then ends with Jake still searching for his prized possession in the woods.

Cow: No one will see this, right?
You know the only thing worse than guys in their 20s running around with a video camera and thinking they are film directors?  It is guys who do it in their 70s.  Words can’t describe how terrible this film is.  There is nothing of value on display here.  No deaths, no gore, no nudity, no nothing!  Technically the film is a total disaster.  I’m not kidding – I’ve seen amateur porn with better production values.  The videography (with the Beast actor himself credited as cameraman) is full of awkward pans, focus problems and strained framing. Audio wise, you get the standard wind blowing hard into the mic and sounds of people fiddling off camera.  At one point I think I even heard someone breathing heavy behind the camera.  The best, however, are the everyday folks at the carnival who always stare into the camera.  Brooks’ idea of permits was probably buying his crew tickets to the carnival (and probably haggling for his senior citizen discount).  Everyone glances into the camera as they walk by. Hell, in one scene some freakin’ cows stop grazing to stare into the camera!

Yes, you are really in a Conrad Brooks film
Equaling the shoddy production values is everything else in the film.  Filmed in the wilds of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the filmmakers apparently sent out a casting call for the worst actors ever and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. I don't know what it is about the power of a video camera, but you get folks giving the most stilted dialog you can ever imagine.  I'm talking deer frozen in headlights, slowly pronouncing each syllable type madness on display.  You know something is wrong when your best actor is Conrad Brooks. How bad are these guys?  This bad (are they even speaking proper English?):

You also have to love the brain-dead gaffes like their sanitarium filled with mental patients (really a suburban house) with swords on the walls. Or the bit where Jake calls the sheriff and you can clearly see his phone is unplugged. The end with Jake wandering the woods sees him comment on the frozen river, only to have subsequent shots of the river flowing behind him. I’d love to declare that Brooks is some sort of film deconstructionist genius who is challenging the conventions of film. He’s not. He is just a really bad filmmaker. Sadly, he seems to crap on his benefactor as Brooks hides behind the pretext of his films being “in the >tradition of Ed Wood.” Believe it or not, this is actually the third part in a series of films Brooks made about a crazed caveman named Jan-Gel, who apparently had sex with an ape to produce the title monster. I definitely won’t be seeking out the first two as one IMDb user suggests this is an improvement upon the earlier ones. One can only imagine. The HILLBILLY MONSTER DVD actually has a “bonus” for Brooks “fans” as you also get his 30-minute short GRANDPARENTS FROM OUTER SPACE (aka OUT OF THIS WORLD). Conrad and Ruth Brooks star as two aliens who crash land on earth while looking for their runaway grand kids. They are welcomed into the home of a tiny horse jockey (!) but Conrad does a serious faux paus when he sucks all of the town's electricity through a wall socket (it is his source of food you see). Thankfully, the cops are on the job (!) and arrest the duo. While walking to the jail, the grandparents see their grand kids with a young hippie couple. When the cop decides to grab a soda, they split and track down the hippies (the dad was wearing a t-shirt advertising the apartment complex he lives in!). The family is reunited and the hippies drive them to the woods where they fly away in their ship. YAY! The film's biggest highlight is a cameo by Don Dohler staple George Stover.  The rest is so awful that you'll feel like kicking your dog afterwards. SEE Earth as an out of focus globe! SEE Brooks have a discussion with a horse! SEE Ruth Brooks eat a napkin! SEE yourself begin to question your sanity.  SEE your eyeballs melt at the sight of Conrad Brooks in a tight silver space suit!

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