Miami's B-Movie Mogul
Two-thirds of the way into Il momento piu bello (The Most Wonderful Moment), a disconsolate Dr. Valeri (the baby-faced Marcello Mastroianni) bids arrivederci to the final two members of his Lamaze class, the latest setback to befall him in the talky, turgid 1957 Italian soaper that was dubbed into English, provocatively retitled Wasted Lives, and then rolled out in 1960 for consumption in American movie houses and drive-ins by Miami-based film broker K. Gordon Murray. The handsome, well-meaning doctor finds himself chin-deep in a star-crossed romance with Nurse Morelli, sparring good-naturedly with a colleague more obsessed with amassing lira than administering to the sick, and battling a hospital hierarchy less progressive than the Spanish Inquisition.
Cut to a lingering shot of the hospital's empty Lamaze classroom, once packed with beautiful pregnant women. Fade to black. What next for the beleaguered Dr. V? But before another sudsy crisis erupts, a trumpet fanfare startles the audience as the words "We Interrupt Our Picture to Present Mr. Carlton Howard" appear onscreen. Middle-age and bespectacled, his hair slicked back, Howard sits at a large desk, looking like a district attorney straight out of central casting. "Ladies and gentlemen," he begins, standing and briskly walking around the desk to address the audience, "I'm Carlton Howard. We are going to talk about the sexual side of marriage."
And off he goes, yammering at warp speed about "the eight erotic zones of passion ... placed about the woman's body by her Creator for the husband to find, to love, to fondle, caress, to properly arouse that woman so that she might enjoy the sexual act in the same manner her husband does." As Mastroianni and Wasted Lives recede from memory, Howard's rat-a-tat-tat jawboning persists, now effortlessly segueing into an infomercial for two booklets he holds up for the camera: "The Sexual Life of Woman" and "The Sexual Life of Man." Of the former, Howard notes: "There are two chapters for women who would like to improve an unhappy marriage. Read this information that tells about sex harmony in your marriage and making a success of married life." About the latter: "Here for the first time in any book is frank, intimate, step-by-step information for that all-important wedding night. Now, gentlemen, you owe it to your bride or bride-to-be to have the correct sex information."
By now fifteen minutes have passed, and Howard, barely pausing for breath, moves in for the kill: "We sell these books on a 100 percent, money-back guarantee. We couldn't possibly make an offer of this sort unless we were sure, unless we were positive, that you would find these books to be exactly as I have described them, and as hundreds of thousands of other people are finding them to be."
Turning up the hard-sell heat, he adds that the books are available, at one dollar each, from a "limited supply" at the refreshment stand "for the next twelve minutes only." And for the benefit of those watching Wasted Lives at drive-ins, he advises eager customers to "turn on the parking lights of your car right now. To speed the sale along, please have your money ready before the attendant reaches your car."
Finally relaxing his chokehold on viewers' wallets and purses, Howard sums up: "Every man should read the woman's book, and every woman should read the man's book. If you know your partner physically, you will know your partner sexually. You show me a happy sex life, and I will show you a happy marriage, which can only be obtained through the proper knowledge, and the proper knowledge can only be obtained through books like these. You have everything to gain, nothing to lose, by this very special offer. Thank you very much."
Abracadabra! The movie rematerializes, and the trials and tribs of Dr. Valeri and Nurse Morelli resume. But wait! As soon as another fifteen minutes pass, immediately after the successful delivery of a baby via the "painless" Lamaze method, moviegoers are whisked away on a second side trip.
Shifting gears, the screen changes from muted black-and-white to garish color, and viewers are greeted with a huge closeup of a woman's vagina. A six-minute "hygiene film" ensues, depicting first the "normal" birth of a single child, then twins by cesarean section, all of it narrated deliberately and analytically. Scalpels. Gloved hands. Bloody babies. Oozing afterbirth. Real squirm-in-your-seat stuff.
Then wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, back to the main feature for the dash to the Wasted Lives finish line, with Dr. V. and Nurse M. reconciled and facing the future together. Roll the credits.
The man responsible for snagging and retitling Il momento piu bello, for producing Howard's "sexual-side-of-marriage" featurette, and for procuring (and narrating) the eye-popping childbirth footage -- in effect, the Man Behind the Curtain: former Midwestern carnival owner/exploitation film maven/salesman el supremo K. Gordon Murray.
For nearly two decades, from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, K. Gordon Murray -- "Ken" to his family, friends, and colleagues -- established an outsized reputation as a one-man churning urn of burning entrepreneurial funk. At the apex of South Florida's early- to mid-1960s independent filmmaking hurly-burly, with the tag team of director Herschell Gordon Lewis/producer David Friedman cranking out gore-fests and Doris Wishman fashioning naughty nudies, Ken Murray, operating from a modest downtown office on Biscayne Boulevard, enjoyed a highly successful career as a motion-picture alchemist by inexpensively purchasing the U.S. rights to foreign films, meticulously dubbing them into English at a Coral Gables studio, and unleashing the finished products amid a blizzard of hype in American cinemas and on American TV.
"He was first and foremost a businessman," asserts attorney Royal Jonas, who represented Murray from 1960, when he plunged into the deep end of the movie business, until 1979, when he died at age 57 of a heart attack. "He smelled what the market needed, and that's what he bought or made."
Murray's unmistakable thumbprint can be found on nearly 70 films: from a clutch of endearingly kitschy Mexican horror flicks and children's fantasies to a peck of West German fairy tales, from a handful of previously released foreign and domestic potboilers that he retitled, repackaged, and regurgitated to finally, at the end of his career, a quartet of original exploitation pictures he shot in and around Florida. Taken together, these movies compose an onscreen universe that unabashedly embraces scowling bikers, howling werewolves, babelicious female wrestlers, lumbering mummies, hemoglobin-hankering vampires, come-hither B-girls, brain-sucking monsters, jolly live-action critters mincing hither and yon in ill-fitting costumes, scheming decapitated heads, and a donkey whose anterior cavity secretes diamonds.
In the process of presenting this pungent cinematic pot-au-feu, Murray transformed the film industry's business side, virtually inventing the weekend-only kiddie matinee, opening the U.S. floodgates for overseas product, and upping the ante in the already over-the-top world of film promotion and marketing.
And yet for all of these achievements, dubious and otherwise, you will not find K. Gordon Murray listed in Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia, the ne plus ultra cinema bible, although the effort will yield the homonymous Ken Murray, renowned for his treasure trove of home movies of Hollywood's glitterati. Good luck locating one of KGM's films in the exhaustive Halliwell's 2003 Film and Video Guide. Mention Murray's name to any current industry player, and the response will be, at best, a quizzical, head-scratching stare.
But whisper "K. Gordon Murray" to a member of the psychotronic cognoscenti -- a tight-knit community that genuflects at the altar of "anything featuring vampires, bikers, female prison inmates, radioactive mutants, giant apes, or John Carradine, as long as the execution is outrageous and the end result leaves the audience bewildered but titillated," according to the online "All Movie Guide" -- and you're likely to elicit an eye-rolling nod, a sly grin, and just maybe a glance that signifies shared conspiracy before that person launches into a spirited championing of Murray's criminally unheralded legacy.
"K. Gordon Murray is, to me and others anyway, an important -- and forgotten -- historical figure in 1960s cinema and independent filmmaking who, for reasons unknown, is kind of a void and who deserves further attention," notes Rob Craig, speaking over the phone from his home in New Haven, Connecticut. As keeper of the Murray flame at his relentlessly entertaining and highly informative Website, www.kgordonmurray.com, the 50-year-old Craig, a production assistant and board operator at a Connecticut classical music radio station, has assumed the mantle of the world's foremost KGM expert. "Imagine a small-time producer canny and powerful enough to give the great Walt Disney headaches for an entire decade," Craig adds. "And yet he is not mentioned, even as a footnote, in the three or four Disney histories I've read. Now that, to me, is suppressed history."
And according to David Wilt, a film historian who has written extensively about Mexican cinema, including the forthcoming Mexican Filmography: 1916 to 2001, Murray functioned as a pioneer of sorts. "He certainly wasn't the first person to take foreign films, dub them into English, and release them to the United States," acknowledges the 48-year-old Wilt, a librarian at the University of Maryland in College Park. "But in terms of Mexican films, for many years K. Gordon Murray was the only person who systematically purchased large quantities of Mexican movies -- the horror films and the fairy tales -- and dubbed them into English for release in the United States. Nobody did what he did, in terms of popularizing Mexican cinema here."
"He was the Barnum of film," contends Murray contemporary Marge Nagel, now 74, who once provided the dubbed voices, and occasional piercing screams, for many of the women's and children's roles in Murray's imports. "When you think about how he earned his money, it sounds like he was sleazy, but he wasn't the least bit sleazy. What he did was innovative and profitable, and it was done in a very gentlemanly way."
"Shocking beyond description! Fearless! Bold! Breaking records from coast to coast! Many will faint! Don't come alone! Gorgeous girls who didn't know they never had a chance! See it first ... then tell others what we can't! No one under 16 admitted (without parents)! THE PRICE OF SIN!"
The son of a funeral home director, this "Barnum of film," Kenneth Gordon Murray, was appropriately born in Bloomington, Illinois -- the winter base and training center for several traveling circuses -- on January 8, 1922. While still in high school, he earned knock-around money by driving a hearse for his father and spent his spare time hanging out with circus performers and support staff. Show biz infected him. A precocious Murray demonstrated the initiative he later would hone to a precise craft by cashing in on his circus contacts to recruit dwarves to appear as Munchkins in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz.
Not long after he graduated from high school, Murray married Irene Van De Warker. He also debuted as an entertainment entrepreneur, borrowing one of his dad's cemetery funeral tents to house a bingo parlor -- a "corn game" in sideshow parlance -- in nearby Normal, then running it as part of the roving West's World Wonder Shows, a Midwestern carnival. Gradually he added attractions -- a ride called "The Chair Plane," an ice cream concession -- before buying out West's and renaming it United Liberty Shows, declaring himself, at age 22, "The Youngest Owner in Show Business." Headquartered in Randolph, just south of Bloomington, United Liberty schlepped from town to town across the Midwest via fifteen decrepit flatbed railroad cars. When the carnival ceased operations during the winter, Murray, always wise to the main chance, used the downtime to establish a small slot-machine empire in Bloomington.
In the mid-1940s, he joined his father in a movie-theater construction venture. But eager for a larger canvas, he eventually abandoned the midways of the Midwest for the allure of Hollywood, where once again he put his circus knowledge to work, signing on for a gig as a promoter for 1952's epic (153 minutes), Oscar-winning (Best Motion Picture) The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by yet another Barnum of film, Cecil B. DeMille.
Lessons learned and apprenticeship served, Murray figured he was ready to solo as a movie impresario, and where better to set up shop than the wide-open, freewheeling, ground zero of 1950s American hucksterism -- South Florida? He and Irene plopped down in a building called the Parkleigh House in the 500 block of Biscayne Boulevard, renting its entire second floor as offices while living in the penthouse; together they entered the exploitation universe with K. Gordon Murray Productions. He kick-started the business by leasing and rereleasing low-budget "sex hygiene" melodramas, sometimes changing the film's title to give the impression that it was new.
"When the drive-ins were very popular, once or twice during the season they would play Naughty New York or Why Girls Leave Home," recalls long-time Miamian Leonard Simons, who knew Murray from the 1940s, when both worked as Midwestern carnies, and who eventually would do time as Murray's national advance man, promoting a slew of movies in the 1960s. "This wasn't porno. It was an excuse to sell books."
Now 83 and retired, Simons remembers that back in the 1950s drive-in owners would advertise that a "hygienist" would be on hand for a "lecture" as part of the screening of one of these overheated exploitation wonders. "They'd have an actor who was dressed up with the white coat and the stethoscope hung around his neck," Simons explains in his still-rich native New England accent (he says he settled in "My-am-a" after World War II). Halfway through the movie, he continues, the show would stop, and the "hygienist" would make a ten-minute presentation about, as Carlton Howard so gingerly put it during the break in Wasted Lives, "the sexual side of marriage," after which "the books" -- one for men, one for women -- were sold by peripatetic factotums.
According to Simons, Murray leased "exploitation films with catchy titles" -- in addition to Why Girls Leave Home and Naughty New York, he corralled the 1953 French soaper Les Enfants d'Amour, then released it as the straightforwardly translated Children of Love -- to draw an audience, bought the sex booklets in bulk, hired an actor hygienist, and toured the whole shebang on a national drive-in circuit. "Come spring," Simons remembers, "Ken would work his way north with the films" from his Miami base. Drive-in owners paid a royalty on each booklet sold, and Murray, in an effort to pack the house, trumpeted his productions with sensationalized promotion.
"Startling! Shocking!" shrieks a lobby card for Children of Love. "Rips the veil of secrecy from love's most shameful sin! An unwed mother dares to reveal her intimate true story!!"
Like Simons, Murray belonged to the Miami Showman's Club, a sort of fraternal organization for what Simons terms "circus people, carnival people, medicine-show people, amusement people," many of whom had relocated to South Florida. (Now based in Dania, the club continues to hold meetings.) At around six feet tall and nearly 200 pounds -- "tailor-made suits, good shoes, fingernails done, very natty," notes Simons -- Ken Murray stood out even in that brash and colorful crew. "He was a very warm person, sharp as a whistle."
Royal Jonas, who at 81 remains active as an attorney while splitting each year between Aventura and the western Massachusetts town of Dalton, concurs, characterizing Murray as "hail-fellow-well-met."
Sheldon Schermer, Murray's chief business associate from 1962 to 1972, recalls him being "a very religious man, went to church every Sunday, very active in his church. As a matter of fact, every year he rented a bus and took the kids from the church down to Key West. Gave them a day's treat there."
Never is heard a discouraging word. "He was extremely courtly, a very nice man," says Paul Nagel, Marge's husband, now age 78, who as "director" supervised the English-language dubbing of many of Murray's imports. "If a woman walked into the room, Ken was the first man on his feet, pulled out her chair, 'Yes, ma'am' -- a very polite man."
And when he wasn't kissing ladies' hands or playing Santa to church kids or fraternizing -- besides the Showman's Club, he belonged to the Knights of Columbus and a local Moose Lodge -- Murray imbibed football, often attending University of Miami Hurricanes games. Hard to imagine, then, this charming man being up to his discreet mustache in snake oil. Of course it was strictly business. In addition to scoring with the aforementioned mucho-mondo fare, Murray hit pay dirt in the mid-1950s by leasing and rereleasing The Prince of Peace, the 1949 film version of a Passion play staged annually by a huge church congregation in Lawton, Oklahoma; the movie originally was made as The Lawton Story by producer Howard "Kroger" Babb.
The esteemed effendi of exploitation, Kroger Babb amassed a fortune with grade-Z "sex hygiene" shakedowns, principally 1945's Mom and Dad, directed by William "One Shot" Beaudine and prominently featuring the birth of triplets. While Babb occasionally provided Murray with product -- before KGM boosted it as Why Girls Leave Home, Babb pushed it as Why Men Leave Home and Secrets of Beauty -- more important, he drew his acolyte a roadmap for how to milk these cheap pictures for maximum moolah.
An astute pupil with an innate knack for salesmanship, Murray made a comfortable living. While Irene attended to bookkeeping chores, he handled promotion. But in 1960 he struck the mother lode with the double bill of Wasted Lives and the bloody, up-close-and-personal footage -- obtained from Cuba -- he touted as The Birth of Twins. Murray's poster for the two pictures adroitly mixed hype with restraint: "Frank! Bold! Daring! Nothing Held Back! Nothing Concealed!" (Wasted Lives), and "Shown for the first time on any screen. Told with delicacy and in reverence" (The Birth of Twins).
Not delicate and reverent enough for everyone, apparently. As Jonas recalls, the Atlanta Film Board threw a fit about The Birth of Twins, refusing to sanction its screening until the lawyer finally persuaded that city's cinematic moral watchdogs to give their assent.
But across the U.S., the public jammed movie houses and drive-ins to witness the slimy cesarean section and bought countless copies of "The Sexual Life of Woman" and "The Sexual Life of Man" in the process. And in a brilliant cost-saving maneuver, Murray out-Babbed Babb by filming Howard's "hygienist" pitch in a studio, then inserting the segment into Wasted Lives, thereby eliminating the need to hire a live actor for each showing.
Yet despite the overwhelming success of Wasted Lives/The Birth of Twins, Murray, in one of a series of instinctively canny career moves, already was altering course. "Ken decided to get out of the somewhat illegitimate drive-in business," Simons avers, "and get into the real movie business."
"See straw spun into gold! See the mad little man of amazing magic! See the wedding of the king to the miller's daughter! From the magical world of the Brothers Grimm, K. Gordon Murray brings another wonderful fantasy, RUMPELSTILTSKIN!"
While Murray continued to ply adult filmgoers with recycled material -- Call Me Bad, The Turkish Cucumber, The Price of Sin -- through the mid-1960s, including cutting some scenes from Naughty New York, replacing them with more risqué material, and then rereleasing it as Eve or the Apple in 1962, he also began sniffing into two other movie markets: children and young adults. In 1959 he bought the English-language rights to eight Mexican fantasies and twenty-eight Mexican creepfests -- selecting them personally -- and initiated a decade-long enterprise that eventually would make Walt Disney quake, supply TV horror-program hosts with reams of product, and make him a ton of dough.
He struck first in 1960 with Santa Claus, a surreal, otherworldly, luminous Mexican fable that pits St. Nick and his rainbow coalition of child helpers against Pitch, Lucifer's Man in Mexico City, with the successful delivery of gifts to the world's good boys and girls hanging in the balance. Upon its initial release in October 1960, Santa Claus proved to be a box office bonanza, so much so that Murray reissued it in 1964, 1967, 1970, and 1974. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, he fed American kids a steady diet of similar Mexican fare: Little Angel (1961), Little Red Riding Hood (1963), Puss N' Boots (1963), Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters (1964), and Rumpelstiltskin (1965), among others, followed by fairy-tale films that he bought from West Germany: The Golden Goose (1966), The Shoemaker and the Elves (1968), Mother Holly (1968), and Hansel and Gretel (1970).
"Ninety-nine percent of those kids' shows were phenomenal [financially]," recalls Sheldon Schermer, Murray's top assistant.
The films' successes can be attributed primarily to Murray's genius for promotion and distribution. He devised a streamlined strategy and executed it with military precision: Book a film into one regional market at a time; stipulate to theater owners that the movie show on a Saturday and Sunday for one weekend only; blanket that market's airwaves in advance with TV spots, especially during afternoon kiddie shows, augmented by splashy newspaper ads; move on to the next market.
"Our policy was to play every Saturday and Sunday -- three shows on Saturday, two shows on Sunday," explains Schermer, now 68 and working in real estate in North Miami Beach. "We would pay 100 percent of all advertising for television, and the theater would co-op 50 percent for newspaper ads. We'd go into a market, like, say, Miami, and have as many as 30 or 40 theaters in Dade and Broward counties play a movie on Saturday and Sunday matinees."
Murray's contracts bound movie house exhibitors to his exact terms: "Notice! If you do not want to follow the campaign scheduled and outlined herein, do not book or play the picture." For their compliance, theater owners split the gross box office receipts with Murray 50-50.
Murray chronicler and devotee Rob Craig still marvels at the operation: "Murray was taking the seedy tradesman's tricks of getting in and out of town quickly, which recalls the circus and the carnival and the snake-oil guy, as well as the exploitation/sex filmmaker, and applying and upscaling them to films for small children -- the baby-boomer kids, a very important demographic at that moment. To me that's the genius stroke. And Murray was the one who realized that saturation TV advertising was the key for this demographic."
Ads such as this one for Santa Claus: "Whether you're in a cave, or behind a million mountains, Santa Claus sees you through his Master Eye, and invites you to his Magic Wonderland! See Santa Claus in his magic motion picture! Come past the doors of his towering castle into a fantastic crystal laboratory, filled with weird and wonderful secrets -- into his heavenly workshop, the most marvelous toy factory of all! Watch his battle with the mischievous demon who wants to get children into trouble! You'd better watch out! You're gonna shout about the picture that won the Golden Gate Family Film award! Everyone, everywhere is waiting for the K. Gordon Murray presentation, Santa Claus!"
Schermer oversaw the buying of all of the television advertising from the company's Biscayne Boulevard command bunker. "We'd start our TV promotion usually on a Wednesday on a [local] children's show, like Skipper Chuck on Channel 4," he explains. ("Skipper Chuck" would be Charles Zink, host of WTVJ's -- then Channel 4, now Channel 6 -- Skipper Chuck Show, Miami's top kiddie program back then.) "He'd pitch it as: 'The show that must be seen by all children age three and older!' We did very, very well."
Even before the TV campaign went into overdrive, Leonard Simons parachuted into a market as a kind of advance promo man, spending nearly half the year on the road in the Northeast and Midwest beating the bushes for publicity weeks prior to a movie's scheduled opening. He remembers that with both Little Red Riding Hood and Puss N' Boots, he squired an appropriately costumed dwarf -- a man in a cat suit for Puss N' Boots, a woman in a scarlet cloak for Little Red Riding Hood -- to appearances on various children's shows, as well as at newspaper offices and, unbelievably, at schools. "I'd introduce the character," he recounts, "pass out lollipops, and tell them all that on Saturday or Sunday to be sure to have Mom or Dad take them to the theater."
Until Murray initiated his weekend-only policy, studios such as Disney booked their children's films all days, all hours, often playing to paltry crowds. "Major film companies weren't too happy that their [weekend] matinees were being taken away," Schermer points out. "They tried to stop it." But exhibitors loved the arrangement: Murray's saturation TV advertising and heavy-duty promotion consistently filled their theaters on Saturdays and Sundays with candy-chomping, soda-slurping kids. According to Schermer: "Business at the food concession was far more than they would do when they would play a regular movie on a regular run." And as anyone who has worked in the movie exhibition biz will happily tell you, theaters live and die by the refreshment stand.
Additionally, unlike Disney, Murray didn't have to take the considerable time and spend the considerable cash to make his films. So what if his dubbed Little Red Riding Hood and Her Friends lacked the production values of Disney's considerably slicker Sleeping Beauty or Old Yeller? "He took what might be considered poverty-row product or second-string product or B-movie product," Craig notes, "and by applying a very interesting combination of circus ballyhoo techniques -- in and out of town on a weekend -- and some pretty clever marketing techniques, he gave superior competitors -- and I don't mean 'superior' from an aesthetic point of view, but as far as the size of the organization, the size of the resources -- a run for their money, and created a very popular little product for a period of time."
Remarkably, K. Gordon Murray Productions threatened the Disney studio's hegemony. "As scrappy as Murray's product was, he terrified Disney," Craig says. "Between [Disney's] Babes in Toyland  and Mary Poppins , Disney was watching his back."
Frequently several Murray films ping-ponged around the nation simultaneously. "At one time," Schermer recalls, "I was moving close to 1000 prints every weekend from one city to another city."
Occasionally there would be too many theaters and not enough prints for a particular film, resulting in a practice that Schermer terms "bicycling." If two different theaters, blocks apart, were each showing Santa Claus or Puss N' Boots, then one would begin its screening at 1:00 p.m., the other at 2:00 p.m. When the first reel finished at Theater A, it would be ferried -- "bicycled" -- to Theater B.
As for the movies' intrinsic qualities, Rob Craig, for one, offers no excuses. He first saw a Murray picture when Santa Claus was reissued in 1964. "It has special effects that rival any Disney film of the period," he contends. "Obviously many of these films were low-budget, so maybe they looked crummy next to the squeaky-clean sterility of the Disney product. They look grittier, more down-to-earth, and there's a charm to that."
Murray's kiddie movies possessed what Craig considers "almost a quality of something exotic, foreign, and dangerous. They had the essence of the traveling carnival: dubbed foreign fantasies with musical numbers -- really bizarre stuff that back then you didn't see on TV and everywhere else. And they were only in town for one weekend: You either went that weekend, or you didn't go. Disney films could last for months in a theater. Mary Poppins probably stayed in town for an entire season. But with Rumpelstiltskin, you went that weekend, and that was it -- it was gone."
"See horrible and insane killings as the Count turns into a monster and seeks his revenge. See the Count feast from human brains. Don't miss the most horror-filled film of the century, THE BRAINIAC!"
After ripping through the exploitation and children's markets, Murray turned his attention and his energy to his crypt full of Mexican horror pictures, a graveyard demimonde packed with vampires, witches, and most curiously, crime-solving professional wrestlers, notably the silver-masked Santo. Murray's timing, as always, was impeccable. Following the profusion of science-fiction movies in the 1950s, the 1960s witnessed a renaissance in horror fare. From England came a passel of sexually charged and gothic dramas made by Hammer Films, led by the vampire pictures starring Christopher Lee. From Hollywood came a hodgepodge of horror made by American International Pictures, led by director Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories starring Vincent Price. Teens devoured this stuff.
Murray tapped into the prevailing Zeitgeist. "The [Mexican] horror films were in many cases inspired by Hollywood horror films," suggests film historian David Wilt, "in terms of the settings and the way that the films looked. So they were certainly exportable and weren't necessarily recognized as Mexican films."
At first Murray foisted his horror horde on movie houses and drive-ins, creating a new distribution division, Young America Productions, for that express purpose in 1962. Not surprisingly he unveiled the pictures with his usual screaming-meemies vigor. An ad for a twin bill of The Vampire's Coffin and The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy shrieks, "All New! Double Horrorama Show. It Will Shock Your Senses and Chill Your Brain. Presented in Hypnoscope. Thru the Power of Hypnosis It Will Heighten the Horror."
Meanwhile he dispatched Leonard Simons to scare up pre-premiere publicity. Simons chuckles as he relates, "Through Ken's connections in the funeral business, we bought a hearse, got a casket, and we had a guy, an actor -- in vaudeville we called them 'the Mechanical Man' -- who walked slow. We'd put one of these Mechanical Men in the casket and announce that at a certain hour the hearse was going to arrive at a theater. We'd pull up, get the ushers to take the casket out, and the Mechanical Man would step out, walk around, chew up about ten or fifteen minutes -- his pace was very slow. He'd be in a tuxedo and a top hat. It sounds hokey, but it made bucks."
But Murray soon realized that television, with its burgeoning number of Friday- and Saturday-night Monster Chiller Horror Theater programs nationwide, offered a significantly better opportunity than traditional venues. Each major U.S. city boasted at least one such show -- a Nightmare Theatre and Creature Feature aired in Miami -- and even tiny TV markets fielded their own horror host. Desperate for product, they'd show anything, even dubbed Mexican creepouts, and Murray stepped in to meet the urgent needs of Dr. Cadaverino, Ghoulardi, and Gorgon the Gruesome.
"We would send out a package of horror shows to the stations," Sheldon Schermer explains, "with the dubbed movies plus trailers."
Murray himself narrated these 60-second trailers, invoking his carny showmanship to generate enthusiasm. "He loved to do exploitation ads," says Schermer, "loved to write copy: 'See it now!'" Like this doozy from The Curse of the Crying Woman, in which Murray describes events not even remotely related to the actual onscreen action: "She spread terror because she thirsted for power in THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN. See nightmare after nightmare in the most terrifying picture ever to be shown. See the horror of her evil curses come to reality in THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN. See a fight to the death with a vampire. See terrifying werewolves in their search for blood. For the most terrifying experience of your life, see THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN."
Not so terrifyingly, each time Murray spoke the movie's title, the recording engineer would flip the echo switch for maximum ooky-spookiness.
As was the case with the foreign exploitation and kiddie movies, each horror film print Murray received was accompanied by a literal translation of the script, which he turned over to a "director" to supervise its conversion from Spanish -- or German -- into English. According to Paul Nagel, at first a voice actor, then a director on both the fairy tales and the horror pictures, the translated script "was not prepared in a way that would make it sync in any way with what you were seeing [on the screen]."
The dubbing was done at Soundlab, a Coral Gables studio owned by Cuban exile Eduardo Moré, who transplanted the whole operation -- lock, stock, and flesh-and-blood technicians -- from the island after Castro seized power. By day Soundlab busied itself dubbing American films and TV shows (I Love Lucy, for instance) into Spanish for markets in Latin America; by night it was leased by various producers, notably Murray, for creating English-language versions of foreign movies.
Riding herd on the dubbing procedure were several different directors, who literally dissected the film's print, cutting it into hundreds of pieces called "loops," each consisting of a line of dialogue. He would then gather together each character's loops, hire a voice actor to speak the dialogue, and decamp to Soundlab to record. "You would come in and do all your lines," recalls Nagel, who along with his wife, Marge, was recruited to supply voices by Ivan Kivitt, a mainstay of the Miami theater scene, and Manny San Fernando, Murray's first dubbing director. "There'd be no other actors there." Often, Nagel adds, a voice actor, many of them like the Nagels with experience in radio dramas and local stage productions, didn't even know the name of the film.
Each loop was prefaced by a stretch of blank film containing three successive punched holes, the third hole indicating the exact spot where a voice actor was supposed to begin speaking his/her line. At Soundlab a loop was projected for the actor, who, with script in hand, watched the "dots" -- the holes -- fly by on a screen: one, two, speak on three. Practice a few times until confident, then record. Repeat until the director was satisfied with the delivery and the way it synced with the onscreen actor's moving lips. Each finished loop was numbered and stored; later these were matched with their corresponding snatches of imagery, and the film, tiny piece by tiny piece by tiny piece, was reassembled.
Paul and Marge Nagel supplemented their incomes in this fashion, earning 50 cents per loop. At the time he was teaching film studies at the University of Miami while she worked as a paste-up artist at an ad agency. "You'd get 50 cents if you only said 'Hello' or if you recited the Gettysburg Address," chuckles Paul. "The longer the loop was, the less expensive it was for the producer." (Ultimately Paul headed the film program at UM's School of Communications, and Marge owned and operated her own ad agency before both retired to live in Aventura.)
"You had to dub every sound that came out of an actor's mouth," Paul recalls, "which always struck me as funny. I remember one scene we did: a fight between a vampire, a wolfman, and a kind of retarded monster [that would be from The World of the Vampires]. Nobody said anything. It was just a lot of growling and hissing and knocking around. But you couldn't use the original track, because the original track was destroyed in the dubbing process."
Amusing at times, certainly, but also tedious. "We'd try to fit the translation we were given," Marge explains, "and sometimes it wouldn't. So Paul would say, 'Why don't you say this instead?' And then that would fit." Such resourcefulness resulted in San Fernando hiring Nagel to direct some of Murray's movies, a task requiring him to weigh accurate lip-syncing against rational dialogue.
"Ken was really more interested in sync than meaning," Paul notes. "Early on I think there were people [theater exhibitors] who bought these films who didn't even know they were dubbed."
(Not all of the dubbing occurred at Soundlab. A handful of the films, attorney Royal Jonas recalls, were readied for U.S. release at Churubusco-Azteca, the sprawling production complex just outside Mexico City. He and his children participated in the English-language transformation of Little Angel there.)
"The fact that they were pretty literally translated makes the dialogue in English seem a little bit florid," says Mexican film expert David Wilt, "but that's an occupational hazard of translating from one language to another -- it's not going to sound exactly right in the new language." For example, this nutty nugget, plucked from 1965's Doctor of Doom: "Don't say such things, my small hero. We'll be there like white lightning."
Where most cineastes disdain dubbed films, preferring instead the originals augmented with subtitles, Wilt expresses admiration for the way Murray respected the integrity of the Mexican movies. "They were treated with care," he says. "He didn't fool around with the films. For the most part, he took the movies, and the scripts were translated pretty faithfully. I think that anybody involved with the films in Mexico wouldn't have any problems with Murray's treatment of the originals."
For each production he oversaw, Paul Nagel directed as many as two dozen voice actors, hiring specific ones for specific roles. For example, Matt King, the announcer at Miami Seaquarium at the time, always played vampires. "He was tall and skinny and bony and looked like John Carradine," Marge laughs. A contingent of Nagel's UM students also joined in.
Nagel usually saved the choicest roles (read: the ones that resulted in the biggest payday) for himself, meaning that he voiced many of the characters played by Abel Salazar, superstar of Mexican monster movies. "Abel Salazar was the Vincent Price of Mexico," Nagel points out. "Whenever I had an opportunity, I would cast myself as Abel Salazar because I knew that he had more lines than anybody else. And I would cast my wife as the heroine [for the same reason]."
In the Murray universe, the suave, darkly handsome, and splendidly attired Salazar is best remembered as the urbane, cerebellum-snacking Count in the mind-blowing The Brainiac. "Yes," Marge recalls drolly, "Paul ate brains out of a dish."
Each film required four or five evenings of dubbing. Murray gave the director a deadline, handing over a script one month beforehand. "He never read a script in advance to see if he liked it," Nagel notes. "Once he picked you, he went with you," never interfering with the dubbing operation. "He would give me a fee for directing, a fee for writing -- about $250 for each -- plus the voice acting. I'd pick up $600 or $700, and Marge would pick up a couple hundred dollars. And that was a lot of money."
While Murray's movie merry-go-round certainly provides the Nagels with some fond memories, they hold no illusions about the virtues of the resulting product. The Invasion of the Vampires. The Man and the Monster. 100 Cries of Terror. All bear Paul Nagel's stamp as English-language director.
Paul: "Aren't they awful? I can honestly say that neither Marge nor I have ever sat down and watched one of them all the way through."
Marge: "They're dreadful! But they meant 50 cents a loop to us." And Murray, she hastens to add, was always a wonderful boss. "Very fair with us. He paid every penny that he offered, and there was never any quibbling about it."
"Cool it dad! Stay out of their way if you can! Their motors are flaming! ... Their mamas are on fire! ... They're dogs! ... On the loose! Chicks! Choppers! 'n' Cheats! Making quick getaways, and getting away with everything! Makes Hell's Angels look like Boy Scouts. A teen-age story for mature adults. An innocent girl the prize in a dirty game. SAVAGES FROM HELL."
Having squeezed the juice from other filmmakers' work, Murray decided to give it a whirl himself, although at first he did not completely forsake the foreign fare that had served him so well. He began modestly. In 1964 he corralled a crew headed by Soundlab dubbing director San Fernando, ordered costumes made for Stinky the Skunk and Ferocious Wolf (characters from the Little Red Riding Hood movies) and Puss N' Boots, then repaired to a trio of Santa's Village wonderlands -- 1950s roadside tourist meccas replete with gingerbread chateaux, toy workshops, resident Santa, and local-girl pixies -- to shoot footage for three featurettes. One Santa's Village was located just west of Chicago, the other two in California.
Shamelessly, the first short film, the 38-minute Santa Claus and His Helpers (1964), sutures in scenes from the Mexican Santa Claus. This farrago of nonsense -- the custom-made costumes appear to have been tailored by toddlers -- screened just prior to Christmas in conjunction with Murray's full-length Mexican import The Queen's Swordsman, thus creating the impression of a double feature; with typical audacity, Murray gave his film top billing in newspaper ads.
Two years later he released the similarly demented Santa's Magic Kingdom and Santa's Enchanted Village (both clock in at thirteen minutes) as opening acts, of sorts, for one of his kiddie features, although with this pair he resisted the urge to steal from existing films.
Amid this vortex of Murray-related activity -- children's matinees, TV horror hullabaloo, cheesy shorts -- in 1965 NBC dangled the possibility of Murray ascending to marquee status with his own network TV program, The Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray. This would have put him on an equal par with the exalted Disney, whose minions prepared Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, hosted by Uncle Walt himself, for broadcast on NBC every Sunday evening. But the deal never materialized. In a way, this failure marked Murray's apogee as an entertainment avatar, with a glacial, almost imperceptible decline soon setting in.
Murray's matinees, now banking on the German movies, performed less well than his Mexican fables, their audience diluted as copycat competitors -- notably the New York City-based independent Childhood Productions, but also some major Hollywood studios -- muscled into the market. And the big players, weary of missing out on weekend revenues, had begun to strong-arm exhibitors to sever their exclusive agreements with Murray. "When the major film companies put pressure on the theaters," Schermer explains, "we had to back off."
After experiencing success with only the first (Rumpelstiltskin) of four German fairy tales, Murray licensed the final four for broadcast on television. By the end of the decade, he had virtually abandoned kiddie movies entirely. "Then, like clockwork," sighs Craig, "Paramount and MGM launched two highly successful TV matinee programs [for kids], using mostly reissues of their older films well into the late Seventies and, in some cases, the early Eighties. So they saw [the market] and they took it."
Meanwhile Murray again dramatically changed tack: After his trial runs with the Santa shorts, he began production of full-length pictures, returning to his roots with exploitation movies. "He felt there was a need for product for drive-in theaters," notes Schermer. So Murray scotched his eponymous company, grandly renaming it Trans-International Films; powwowed with a coterie of stalwarts headed by Schermer and dubbing director Reuben Guberman; hired a Cuban exile, José Prieto, with a limited résumé (the 1964 horror short Love Goddesses of Blood Island) to direct, plus a crew principally composed of nonunion Cuban Americans; leased a studio in Dania; and, based on his own story idea, made one of the most tawdry, fulsome, salacious pictures in the annals of exploitationana: 1967's innately cynical, X-rated Shanty Tramp.
John Harrison, editor of the zesty Australian zine Reel Wild Cinema!, characterizes the movie thusly: "Reminiscent at times of Russ Meyer during his black-and-white drive-in period, crossed with a smattering of vintage Herschell Gordon Lewis-styled histrionics, Shanty Tramp is one of those films which makes it such a joy to be a fan of Sixties exploitation sleaze. Indeed the film remains a virtual primer of exploitation requirements, and has retained its power to fascinate, repel, and excite."
The X-rated picture was the beneficiary of some unanticipated publicity in the summer of 1967, when itchy members of the State Attorney's Office in Dade County noticed that several local theaters were neglecting to stop minors at the door. A tiny tempest ensued, with three movie houses pulling Shanty Tramp and another enforcing an adults-only policy. Additionally the State Attorney's Office in Broward County fretted that four officers from the Davie Police Department, plus one of its patrol cars, showed up in the movie, although the cops had departed the force by the time Shanty Tramp opened in South Florida. Murray couldn't have invented better promotion.
Sufficiently encouraged, the producer returned the following year with the biker epic Savages From Hell, based on a story idea he conceived with Guberman; they shot the picture in Naples and Monroe Station, out in the central Everglades. With Murray, as always, you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing: At the time, American International Pictures and its West Coast imitators were raking in boatloads of receipts with a series of cheaply produced motorcycle-gang sagas (Hell's This, Angels That). Murray rode the genre's coattails to similar success.
When the Savages From Hell title quickly wore out its welcome, Murray rechristened it Big Enough 'N Old Enough, and sent it right back out into circulation. "He always said, 'People don't know what's in a movie, they just go by titles,'" recalls Schermer. "'If we can't make it with one, we'll try another.'"
Mining a second recycling vein, in 1970 Murray reanimated the corpses of several of his moldering Mexican horror shows, leased them to Doug Hobart, a special-effects man who also served as production manager on Savages From Hell, and sent the latter marching through Southern drive-ins with a twelve-movie package called "The Fifth Dimension." Imbued with Murray's rock-'em/sock-'em sensibility, Hobart concocted a histrionic ad and poster campaign for double features such as The Curse of the Doll People/The Vampire, enticing unwary motorists with claims that "The Undead Awaken After 200 Years" and venture "From Beyond the Grave and into the Audience" to serve "Blood Cocktails from the Vampire's Blood Bank." Translated: Hobart, clad as a cloaked, fanged fiend, skulked from vehicle to vehicle proffering -- in the absence of sex manuals -- tomato juice laced with food coloring.
Also in 1970, just before Murray scraped the bottom of the kiddie-fare barrel by trotting out an abomination called Mother Goose's Birthday Party -- shards of stitched-together footage from a handful of his previously released Mexican fables -- representatives of fast-food monolith McDonald's approached him about the possibility of a promotional partnership. For reasons unknown -- maybe the Ray Kroc brain trust glimpsed the threadbare Mother Goose and reconsidered -- McDonald's, like NBC, did not close a deal with Murray.
Other clouds gathered. The blossoming Trans-International soon came to grief because of Murray's use of nonunion personnel, with various locals pestering the producer, despite Florida's status as a right-to-work state. Exasperated, Murray abruptly packed in his moviemaking ambitions, then dusted off his contractor's license from 25 years earlier, when he'd erected theaters in Illinois with his father. He became a builder and, according to attorney Jonas, oversaw the construction of a 100-space storage facility near Miami International Airport. Of course he did not completely exit the entertainment business. His Mexican horror movies continued to circulate on TV, producing steady revenue, and he pocketed a piece of Hobart's drive-in action.
In fact Murray was probably playing possum because in 1972 he rose from the grave to produce The Daredevil, a speedway saga shot in Tampa that sputtered to a stop soon after its release, despite the presence of two bona fide, if long-in-the-tooth, stars -- George Montgomery, a veteran of a herd of horse operas, and Terry Moore, the creature's object of desire in the 1949 big ape picture Mighty Joe Young. Murray, characteristically uncredited, can be heard as the announcer at the track, the same role he filled in Savages From Hell.
Two years later he invoked the psychotronic touchstone of women inmates, while adding menacing mafiosos, for Thunder County; it also tanked spectacularly, even though it boasted Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch the butler on TV's The Addams Family, and a last-gasp Mickey Rooney. When it stiffed, Murray repeatedly repackaged/retitled it as the more titillating Cell Block Girls, Convict Women, Women's Prison Escape, and, for video, Swamp Fever -- all to no avail.
Also in 1974, he attempted to rally with the kid pic Treasure Island, an eviscerated (84 minutes) version of a nearly six-hour French-German TV miniseries, but it fizzled too. With drive-ins literally vanishing, and with the matinee extinct, Murray quietly retired from active participation in filmmaking/brokering, content to collect commissions from the TV horror movies and the children's fables, which resurfaced on television on weekend afternoons as part of local stations' Fairy Tale Theaters in various markets. Hardly inactive, he continued work as a general contractor while also dabbling in record production, releasing in 1977 six kids' albums (The Wizard of Oz, Tom Thumb, Jack and the Beanstalk, et cetera) made by a troupe assembled by Ivan Kivitt, his old colleague from Miami theater. Issued on the KGM Festival label, they bear the familiar branding device "K. Gordon Murray Presents."
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.
"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."
The Curse of the Crying Woman (1964). Tightly wound Mexican gothic creepout includes all of the genre's essentials: misty moors, man-eating dogs, secluded castle with de rigueur bell tower, bats, rats, shuffling servant, cruel mistress, rotting corpses, centuries-old family curse, and ooky-spooky organ and theremin music. Feminist-studies majors will go gaga over the subtext, with nearly all of the male characters depicted as being either hapless or subjugated. A negativeland flashback and a genuinely effective climax make the copious chatter -- notably the frequent use of the word malediction -- worth the wait. Memorable line: "There's something strange about her, she's really quite a mystery -- all alone in this big house with no domestic help."
The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1965). Screwy Mexican hybrid gives viewers two-two-two movies in one. First three-quarters of film devoted to comic-book thriller, wherein the good guys, led by beauteous Amazonian wrestlers Loreta Venus and Golden Rubí (Las Luchadoras) and their cop boyfriends, square off against ersatz Fu Manchu villain the Black Dragon, his judo-chopping sisters, and a gnarly mob of dark-suited thugs in effort to secure various segments of "codex" that detail whereabouts of fabulous Aztec treasure. After brief flashback scene to ancient Aztec days -- sorcerer, ritual sacrifice, premature burial -- the final 25 percent of the picture features a shape-shifting Aztec mummy (a bat! a tarantula! wait, a mummy again!) terrorizing heroines and heroes. Memorable line: "She's under my hypnotic power, but I'll release her in a normal state, so don't worry."
The Golden Goose (1966). Crazy-quilt West German adaptation of Brothers Grimm fable meditates on the perils of greed. Three brothers -- Karl (a goldbrick), Franz (a kvetch), Klaus (kindly, industrious Frankie Avalon look-alike) -- in turn meet a crone in the woods seeking sustenance. Karl and Franz rebuff her, but Klaus gives her the royal Boy Scout treatment. His reward: a golden goose. Nuttiness ensues when goose casts a spell that welds people to one another, resulting in a human daisy chain consisting of Klaus and goose, two sisters, their father, three minstrels, a donkey, and the king's captain of the guard. They set off to cheer a "sad" (a.k.a.: bored and depressed) princess, then Klaus saves the day when upstart prince and his rowdies attack king's castle. Sappy songs! Memorable line: "My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my."
Shanty Tramp (1967). Murray's best -- and best-known -- original production features cast of unknowns invoking all the verities of the Southern exploitation picture: dissolute dame, rape, incest, nudity, miscegenation, patricide, bikers, fiery car explosion, moonshiner, gangsters, false prophet, lynch mob, and go-go dancing. Vampiric-looking small-town slut tempts slimy revival preacher, fends off welshing biker leader named Savage, willingly submits to -- then betrays -- young, confused black man, and winds up facing off carnally against drunken Daddy Dearest. Tennessee Williams on a shoestring. Memorable line: "Crazy like, man. Like me and my chick want to find a dark corner somewhere anyway, Daddy-o."
Savages From Hell (1968). Murray dived into the deep end of the late-1960s biker genre with this original production that proffers the usual escalating confrontation between an untamed group of cavorting motorcycle losers (leader named High Test) and a handful of solid citizens, in this case a migrant Latino family ready to quit their perambulations and settle down. Notable for its early portrayal of Hispanics in a fictional U.S. film, as well as for a rare screen appearance by Cyril Poitier, older brother of Sidney. Includes: actual footage of Florida swamp-buggy races, with voice-over narration by Murray; airboats; cat fight; food fight; hippie body-painting on the beach. Memorable line: "I'll get you for this, bean-picker -- you and your black friend."
The Brainiac (1969). Bizarre Mexican shocker opens in 1661, with sacrilegious baron sentenced to burn by hooded members of the Inquisition of New Spain on the night when a Casper the Ghost-like comet mysteriously appears. Using his X-ray vision, the baron discerns their identities, swearing to return upon comet's reappearance in 300 years to murder their descendants. He shows up on schedule in 1961, materializing from the comet as a shaggy-headed, lizard-faced monster with crablike claws and a two-pronged, Gene Simmons-style tongue that he uses to pierce his victims' skulls and suck out their brains. Ultra-high yuck factor: When in human form as the baron, he snacks from huge goblet packed with brains, his "medicine." Memorable line: "My hate is so much stronger than my love, like a master no one can control."
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