Wednesday 1 March 2017

Sadistic Guitars - the Wild, Wild Films of Arch Hall Jr

Arch Hall Jr
There can't be many young stars who can attribute their cinematic career to a father's mid life crisis. But Arch Hall Jr could easily make that claim. His dad, Arch Hall Snr, was a genuine old school South Dakota cowboy, who moved to Hollywood and got employment pulling horse riding stunts in 1930s westerns. Hall pere gave it all up for family reasons and subsequently drifted into various jobs and business start ups across the US, never really shaking off the movie bug. In the late 1950s, perhaps frustrated by the daily grind and with his head full of ideas for motion pictures, movie making became the itch he had to scratch; so Hall Sr decided to go for broke and make some films of his own, setting up the Fairway company. He looked around for a star and there in front of him was his own son, mop topped Arch Hall Jr. Hall fils hadn't really considered acting before - his eyes were more set on a rock 'n' roll career - but his parents' constant relocation across America saw him receive a fractured education and perhaps develop a certain restlessness. One thing led to another and Hall Jr got the opportunity to combine both music and acting. And over the course of the next six years father and son found each other at opposite ends of the camera, making a string of independent self produced movies that have been unfairly maligned over the years (as so often happens when independent movies are compared with the output of the big bucks majors) and are worthy of re-evaluation - well, most of them.
The Choppers (1959/1962)
Filmed in 1959, with Hall Sr as producer and his son as lead, the duo's first film is the story of a group of car strippers evading the law and living for kicks out in California. It was the last film directed by veteran Leigh Jason, who had started off making shorts as early as 1928. Ostensibly shot on the cheap (the interiors were filmed in the producer's offices), the film ended up costing over $150,000, most of which you can't see on screen because the sums were incurred due to Hall Sr's inexperience in producing motion pictures.

The then 15 year old Hall Jr plays Jack 'Cruiser' Bryan; the cruising is done in a classy Model T borrowed for the film. Bryan's the member of the gang who always seems to avoid the dirty work of stealing the stuff off the cars. The strippers' antics frustrate both the police and local insurance companies, and it can't be long before they're outwitted by the authorities. There's a strong moral streak to the movie, provided by ace reporter Jim Bradford (Hall Sr), whose voice over narration leaves the audience in no doubt that what these boys are doing is a bad scene - and a violent shoot out at the end confirms it. Hall Jr gets three toe tapping songs on the soundtrack, without on this occasion singing to camera; 'Monkey in My Hatband', 'Konga Joe' and 'Up the Creek.' It's a reasonably competent but not earth shattering addition to the 'juvenile delinquent' genre which had held sway in movie houses throughout the 1950s but had pretty much blown itself out by the time The Choppers was made (and certainly by the time it was actually exhibited three years later in 1962). Keeping it all afloat are some great character turns, particularly Roger Corman regular Bruno VeSota as Moose McGill, the truculent scrapyard owner who fences the boys' thefts and then turns on them.

Eegah (1962)
Eegah is probably the best known of the Halls' movies, largely thanks (or not) to the film being elevated to '50 worst movies of all time' status back in 1978 (along with Last Year in Marienbad, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Omen - pretty good company!) courtesy of cultural commentator turned Republican campaigner Michael Medved. Sure, Eegah has a lot of problems as a film. This is probably largely down to Arch Hall Sr who directed the movie (under the name Nicholas Merriwether, while also starring in it under another name, William Watters). If The Choppers was a Hall Sr vanity project, Eegah is even more so, but as director he clearly doesn't understand any of the basic rules about making a watchable movie. When the two films were double billed together in 1961 it may have been a commercial move for Hall Sr, but it was one that would invite audiences to compare the two films, only one of which was made by a competent director

Eegah is pretty much a rerun of the King Kong story - prehistoric creature (7' 2" Richard Kiel, although voiced by Hall Sr) 'Eegah' - so named because that's the sound he makes most often - is located in the desert by adventurer Robert Miller, his thirtysomething daughter Roxy and her teenage boyfriend Tom Nelson (Hall Jr). Eegah gets a crush on Roxy and follows her out of the desert and into downtown Palm Springs, California, where once again beauty, with the help of the local cops, kills the beast. Kiel's formidable height, resplendent in caveman outfit, is the highlight of the film. Everything else is downhill, including Hall Jr, who is insipid throughout, and his songs: two of them, 'Vicky' (which would also turn up in the pair's next film, Wild Guitar, but actually sung to a Vickie, unlike this movie where he bizarrely sings it to Roxy) and 'Valerie' were actually written by dad - like square! Later on in the movie we're treated to a poolside rendition of the vaguely horror themed rocker 'Brownville Road' where our Arch is backed by his then band, the Archers. Eegah is way too long, agonisingly slow, but we do at least have some scenes where Kiel strikes up a guttural conversation with his mummified relatives - he's the last caveman left alive, seemingly kept going by sulphur water and the quest for the love of a good woman.  

Wild Guitar (1962)
Perhaps learning the lessons of Eegah for his next movie Hall Sr retreated to producing and writing duties, handing over the directing reins for Wild Guitar to one Ray Dennis Steckler, soon to emerge as the man who gave the world the infamously titled The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies !!? a couple of years later. Steckler's trademark goofy style - quirky Three Stooges-esque characters, zany camera flourishes - are somewhat out of place in this pretty straightforward rags to riches story of wannabe rock 'n' roll star Bud Eagle (Hall Jr, natch) manipulated by record boss Mike McCauley (Hall Sr) who sees dollar signs in Eagle's eyes.

Steckler's wiry form - credited as Cash Flagg for the first time - pops up as McCauley's henchman Steak, and Milwaukee born former Olympic ice skater Nancy Czar (she gets to strut her rather amazing talents in the rink at one point) is Hall Jr's love interest Vickie, kickstarting Eagle's rise to fame when she gets him a gig on a TV show on which she's a dancer. Spotted by McCauley, the entrepreneur boosts Eagle to the top of the charts. But the manipulated singer, separated from his Vickie, remains unhappy if successful. This one's packed full of Hall Jr's brand of rock n' roll lite tunes like 'Twist Fever,' and the cynical story of artistic exploitation surely emanates from Hall Sr's experiences in the shark infested world of movie promotion.

The Sadist (1963)
Hall Jr's only decent acting credit thus far had been the mean if workshy Jack Bryan in The Choppers, so it's with some relief to see him throwing himself into a totally mean part as Charles A Tibbs in the James Landis directed The Sadist. This is one extraordinary film, a happy accident of a committed director, talented cinematographer (Vilmos Close Encounters of the Third Kind Zsigmond's first feature) and a well coaxed bananas performance from Hall Jr, who wisely leaves the gee-tar at home.

The Sadist's story is loosely based on real life 1950s boy/girl thrill killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate (a duo that would inspire films like Terence Malick's 1973 movie Badlands and Oliver Stone's 1994 Natural Born Killers). Tibbs and girlfriend Judy Bradshaw (Marilyn Manning in a child/woman performance foreshadowing Jill Banner as Virginia Merrye in Jack Hill's Spider Baby shot a year later) are young killers who happen to be at a car breakers yard at the same time as three people arrive looking for parts for their broken down car. The action doesn't movie from this one location and is all the tenser for it. Tibbs and Bradshaw toy with the three strangers, Ed, Carl and Doris, eventually shooting one of them; Charles and Judy are wanted for the deaths of a number innocent people, gleefully getting their kicks from torture and mayhem. Hall Jr's performance is truly unsettling, a leering keening youth making the most of his 6'2" frame, a killer without remorse or intellect, whose cat and mouse games with his victims extends to a Harry Callaghaneseque "How many bullets do you think I have in my gun?" routine. Although set in one location, the backdrop of the arid San Fernando valley, into which a barefoot Doris (the Ann-Marget like Helen Hovey, Hall Jr's cousin in real life) runs screaming towards the end of the film, provides a bleak landscape for the nihilistic action, made more expansive through Zsigmond's evocative black and white photography. A superb film, quite rightly celebrated by director Joe Dante as "one of the best low-budget pictures of the 1960s."

The Nasty Rabbit (1964)
Anyone wondering where The Sadist's director went next, and why his career never really took off, would do well to gaze upon, and then quickly move past The Nasty Rabbit, or to give it its original title 'Spies-a-Go-Go.' Hall Jr has said in interviews that he honestly thought The Sadist would have broken him into proper movie circles, so imagine his disgust at being cast as homely singer Britt Hunter. Actually you don't need to imagine - you can see it written all over Hall Jr's face as he sleepwalks his way through his very few lines, while Arch and his band cut a rug with such forgettable numbers as 'The Robot Waltz.'

The story, if you insist, revolves around a Russian secret agent who comes to the US posing as a cowboy, armed with a rabbit carrying a deadly poison which is set to annihilate the western world. Cue a whole bunch of secret agents dressed as stereotypes of their countries - Japanese dressed as a sniper, Mexican with sombrero, Nazi German etc - all out to thwart the Russian mission - including Hall Jr who is a rock 'n' rolling secret agent! Oh yes, and dad this time gets two roles - Russian head honcho Marshall Malout, and US military bigwig Malcolm McKinley.

The jumping off point for the action is those wacky TV shows and movies of the 1960s, with plenty of sped up footage, ker-azy slapstick, a smattering of 'rat fink' references (the in phrase of 1964 - in fact Landis would go on to make a film with that same title a year later), and a wise cracking bunny. It's about as dire as it sounds, with a couple of laughs along the way, and some uncredited appearances from Richard 'Eegah' Kiel and László Kovács (who wisely gave up acting after this and turned to a very successful career as cinematographer). But viewing the finished product the director and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond must have felt that The Sadist was a lifetime away.

Deadwood'76 (1965)

Landis made one final movie with Hall Sr (who also produced) and with Arch Hall Jr in front of the camera, before pretty much disappearing from sight. Deadwood '76 is a rather downbeat western, filmed in Hall Sr's home state of South Dakota and with participation from the local Sioux Indian Council.

Hall Jr plays Billy May, a cowboy whose mother was killed and father assumed missing in action during the Civil War. Hooking up with passing cat farmer (really!) Tennessee Thompson (western regular Jack Lester) the pair arrive in Deadwood, where Billy is mistaken for Billy the Kid. Rumours abound in town that Wild Bill Hickok (Richard Forbidden Planet Dix) is soon to pay a visit, and the more entrepreneurial members of Deadwood sense money to be made from a shootout - luckily May's a dab had with a six shooter. Add in a subplot involving May falling in love with a girl from the local Indian tribe, the re-appearance of May's dad (played of course by Hall Sr) hoping to start a second Civil War in partnership with the aggrieved Sioux, and a very downbeat ending which sees Hall Jr hanged for killing a child in self defence, and you have one rather depressing film. With its musings on the value of life, a recurring and mournful narrative song written by Hall Jr (but sung by Star Trek actor Rex Holman), and the mountainous South Dakota backdrop impressively photographed once again by Vilmos Zsigmond, this is a much classier swansong for Hall father and son than might have been believed from their previous outing, and a fitting end to Hall Sr's career, bringing him back to the western genre in which he had his first taste of moviemaking thirty years previously.

Arch Hall Sr
So what happened afterwards?

According to Hall Jr, Deadwood '76 nearly bankrupted his father - the Fairway dream was over.  Towards the end of filming Arch Jr got his first taste of flying via a family friend, and became hooked. No more rock 'n' roll dreams or fantasies of being a movie star, Hall Jr went on to realise his real dream - commercial pilot - which he made a decent living out of until his retirement. He returned to movie acting, after a gap of nearly fifty years, when he was cast in a 2014 horror short Lamb Feed, directed by newcomer Michael S. Rodriguez, who was obviously a fan.

For Hall Sr an interesting postscript is that, following Deadwood '76, he was offered a plum job by Warner Brothers, who saw in him the potential to turn out movies on the cheap, but he turned it down. The job would have seen an end to the family's financial woes, and his refusal was devastating for the family. Hall Sr divorced, became estranged from his son, and died suddenly of a heart attack in 1978. Arch Jr arranged for the body to be moved from California back to South Dakota, where he was buried alongside his mother and father and many prominent Sioux Indians from the State.

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