Miami's B-Movie Mogul

K. Gordon Murray may have invented the weekend kiddie matinee, but don't forget his scowling bikers, howling werewolves, lumbering mummies, brain-sucking monsters, and scheming decapitated heads

No doubt Ken Murray, only 57 years old, was plotting another cinematic resurrection -- perhaps via cable TV, which was then about to explode -- when his Wonder World wound down. On December 30, 1979, during a visit to his sister-in-law in St. Petersburg, Murray suffered an embolism, triggering a fatal heart attack, while watching the Pittsburgh Steelers trounce the Miami Dolphins on TV in an NFL playoff game.

If Stinky the Skunk, Shanty Tramp, the Brainiac, Puss N' Boots, Dr. Valeri, the Aztec Mummy, Santa Claus, the Crying Woman, and Santo did not attend the funeral in Ottawa, Illinois, they were, at the very least, present in spirit. The embodiments of K. Gordon Murray's peculiar pop-culture legacy, they constantly unspool today on VHS and DVD.

Rob Craig has seen -- and owns -- all available KGM titles. He ticks off a minimontage of memorable Murray movie mayhem: "There are these little wonderful moments of excess. Shanty Tramp about to be raped by her father -- one of the purest, lurid, most beautiful moments in all of exploitation cinema. There's Little Red Riding Hood being attacked by a robot and being trapped under a human skeleton and having to be rescued by Stinky the Skunk. Abel Salazar as the Brainiac excusing himself from his dinner party and going in the back to eat from a bowl of human brains.

Jonathan Postal
K. Gordon "Ken" Murray (above) was unknown to the 
general public, but an icon to the psychotronic 
cognoscenti who treasure radioactive mutants, female 
prison inmates, vampires, and bikers
K. Gordon "Ken" Murray (above) was unknown to the general public, but an icon to the psychotronic cognoscenti who treasure radioactive mutants, female prison inmates, vampires, and bikers

"In addition, there are the glorious dubbing scripts," Craig continues. "Someone from Texas wrote to me, 'You know what's great about the K. Gordon Murray films? It's like watching a great silent movie that's being annotated with a great radio drama.' They're so crisp and well written, and so enthusiastically portrayed that you can not look at the TV set. I've done this: sat in the chair and listened to the soundtrack as a radio show. They're magnificent. And that, again, raises these very interesting films to a wholly different level. And that influence can be solely attributed to Murray. Certainly he could have bought films predubbed by the studio, or he could have hired a couple of people to just run through the lines, or he could have translated the script verbatim and not changed anything, but the talent he assembled -- and what he did with them -- made some very distinctive audio tracks. So between these moments of visual excess and adding this great, overwrought, melodramatic reading, it raises everything to a fever pitch.

"There really is no other indie producer of the period quite like Murray. The eclectic nature of his output will surely unnerve you -- everything from striptease shows to biker dramas to monster movies to lovely fairy tales. His films have left a singular mark on our popular culture."

When Santa Met Santo

A brief traipse through the psychotronic film universe of K. Gordon Murray

(Dates for the following films indicate Murray's U.S. release.)

Wasted Lives/The Birth of Twins (1960). Italian sudser set in Roman maternity hospital operates on two levels: the personal melodrama of hunky doctor (Marcello Mastroianni) and babelike nurse (Giovanna Ralli) coping with the usual young-lovers' dilemmas, and the more abstract clash between progressive Lamaze method of "painless childbirth" versus old guard's biblical notion that a woman must suffer during labor. Murray brazenly sutures into the proceedings two segments completely unrelated to the movie: a fifteen-minute infomercial for sexual hygiene booklets ("available at the refreshment stand for the next twelve minutes only"); and a graphic, blood-soaked, afterbirth-and-all, six-minute featurette showing "Normal Child Birth" and "Delivery of Twins by Caesarean Operation" narrated by Murray himself. Memorable line from main film: "It's the regulations that count here, and not the insistence of the mothers."

Santa Claus (1960). Part Pee-wee's Playhouse, part Dr. Seuss tale, and part didactic moral fable, this potently surreal Mexican comic fantasia pits the forces of Goodness (a constantly ho-ho-hoing Santa, dippy chief factotum Merlin the Magician, and a veritable Benetton global village of kids) against the forces of Evil (Lucifer's hapless fire-engine-red aide-de-camp Pitch, abetted by three mischievous scamps) in a battle for the hearts and minds of Earth's children at Christmastime. Effervescently narrated by "Ken Smith" (Murray). Memorable line: "Yes, I promise, oh priceless Prince of Hades, that by my many wiles I will finish off Santa forever, and see that the children commit terrible deeds, and make Santa Claus angry."

Samson vs. the Vampire Women (1963). A bevy of fetching female bloodsuckers -- plus a trio of fanged, buff henchmen -- awaken after two centuries of slumber to claim a preordained successor to their queen, whose "reign," as she notes, "is about to end" (as if she were Miss America). Their target's professor father calls in sports-car-driving, cape-wearing, always-masked, crime-fighting champion wrestler El Santo ("Samson," in Murray's warped Anglo universe) to put the kibosh on the vamps, and the games begin, with nonstop bat-transformation, teeth-sinking, and flying drop-kicks. Memorable line: "All men are addicted to corruption and obligated to self-destruction."

Little Red Riding Hood (1963). From a starter mix of the traditional fairy tale, add singing woodsmen, a village padre and patriarch, a punky kid named Freckles, a wisecracking granny, a mythical Mist Fairy, a spooky bad-guys' lair, Latinos attired in Bavarian garb, and wrestling (hey, this is a Mexican movie). The live-action Wolf comes off as a leering sexual predator, although he's more inept than dangerous; ditto the Skunk, his constantly berated second fiddle. Red Riding Hood has been recast as a preening tyke Virgin Queen with -- weirdly -- the soaring soprano of a 40-year-old; she descends into a metaphoric Hell to rescue Freckles and a posse of missing fauna. Scary, stupid, and singular. Memorable line: "The meat on his bones wouldn't make a decent dessert."

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