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Paranormal Follies

Titles Reviewed: Dance Hall Racket (1953), One Shocking Moment (1965), Smoke And Flesh (1968)

    In the mid-1970s, when the greatest fascinations of the day were sharks and UFOs, there was an interesting phenomenon which exploited people's attraction to the unknown. What exactly started this fascination with alien beings, Bigfoot, or conspiracies, who can say? What would be known as the paranormal documentary perhaps grew from the temperature of the decade in which people questioned everything, and thusly, had an open mind to everything. In an age when the government was bald-faced lying to the public (more than usual, I mean), it sort of made sense that people would question whether everything they were told about the life, the universe and everything was true. Books like Chariots of the Gods?, which offered the theory that the Great Pyramids were built by alien life forms instead of enslaved Egyptians, sold like hotcakes.
    Therefore, it only seemed natural that the cinema world would also be graced with movies that explored the same subjects. The studio that capitalized on this trend of cheaply-made documentaries trying to make sense of the unexplained, was of course Schick-Sunn. Arguably, this was the most profitable studio of the decade. You may counter that the bigger studios made more money with blockbusters like JAWS or STAR WARS, however in those examples, you also have to figure in the money they lost with big-budget films that tanked. Thusly, in pure percentage alone, Schick-Sunn made a killing with these inexpensive paranormal films, which circulated for years at rural theatres. (Their family films like ADVENTURES OF THE WILDERNESS FAMILY also made a pile of money because they appealed to such a wide demographic.)
     Even television capitalized on people's interest in the unknown with series like "Project UFO" or "In Search Of…". Today, these pictures may not seem like such a big deal, when such a perplexing topic as Roswell gets made into a weekly TV series. But for anyone interested in cinema documentary, these films are gold. No other body of work in film history (except perhaps the "Mondo" craze back in the 1960's) made one question the esthetics of documentary filmmaking- that is, whether what we are seeing is real or faked. This is not a new argument by any means- from NANOOK OF THE NORTH to WARRENDALE, or even the Reality TV trend like "The Osbournes", the art of documentary filmmaking is always taken to task for the legitimacy of the images onscreen (as the camera changes everything). But in this case, this question of authenticity in documentary filmmaking is taken to the degree of circus sideshow. The main reason everybody paid to see these paranormal films was for their little moments of alleged authenticity, like the blurry footage of Bigfoot in SASQUATCH. Their approach to these undoubtedly fascinating topics is less scientific than on the level of a carnival barker urging people to buy a ticket to see the three-headed man.

CHARIOTS OF THE GODS (1970: Harald Reinl)
     This is the granddaddy of all of the paranormal docs of the 1970s. Based on Erich von Daniken's best-selling book (which he followed with books of very similar subjects), CHARIOTS OF THE GODS explores the theory that our ancient wonders were actually built by extra-terrestrials. It is rather unsurprising that one of the earliest of the genres still holds up the best, simply because it relies less on highly suspect, poorly shot footage of the fantastic, and instead offers a stirring travelogue of some truly stunning remnants of previous civilizations. While the narrator discusses the possibility of these awesome landmarks being constructed by aliens with anti-gravity guns, we begin to see beyond the incredible architecture and agree that perhaps no primitive human being could have made them. Since nearly all of the images are these world wonders, (and importantly, the races that built them are eerily absent), they are filmed with dramatic angles and framing to accentuate their mystery. Whatever one thinks of the "ancient astronauts" theory, this nonetheless makes great use of its subjects—these ancient remains carry forth a mystical allure.

THE OUTER SPACE CONNECTION (1975; Fred Warshovsky)
    Chronologically speaking, the paranormal documentary cycle was already getting repetitious. This is true even when you see just the best-known films of this genre! Although THE OUTER SPACE CONNECTION extrapolates on the same theories of "ancient astronauts" of CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, it raises the bar a bit further by suggesting that humankind is a disciple of alien beings. In addition to mysterious hieroglyphics then, we also get curious footage of people photographing "auras" of others, thus proving that we mortals, and less-advanced beings, possess (forgive the bad pun) more otherworldly powers than we could possibly imagine… or understand. This late-night favourite is helped immeasurably by the narrator from beyond, Mr. Rod Serling (his dry, hugely metaphorical prose turns this into a "Twilight Zone" affair), and a memorably "spacey" electronic score by Roger Wagner.

IN SEARCH OF NOAH'S ARK (1976; James L. Conway)
    I actually saw this in a theatre in 1976, with a packed housed of rowdy viewers. This Schick-Sunn classic explores the authenticity of the Noah's Ark and the great flood, based on alleged sightings of the vessel as late as the twentieth century. And because this is a Schick-Sunn movie, we shouldn't expect to be witness to any authentic footage of the great flood, or even of people's discovery of the ark in recent times. Thusly, all we get are cheap re-enactments, such as when a Turkish peasant and his son encounter the big boat on top of a mountain. Also, because this is a Schick-Sunn movie, one shouldn't assume that when the filmmakers depict the flood -Noah closes the ark door instead of God- they aren't attempting to blaspheme holy scripture, it's just that they couldn't afford to have a cosmic special effect to illustrate what really happened in The Good Book. Still, this decoupage of re-enactments and stock footage made a mint because of its subject matter, thus giving credence to Sunn's savvy in drawing milk from a stone.

    This paranormal doc is one of the several offerings that hired a once-great movie star to narrate the proceedings in a bid for some box office (Jack Palance and Cameron Mitchell would earn a quick buck in this genre for their services). JOURNEY INTO THE BEYOND is distinguished by presenting the booming voice of John Carradine, in a fashion so cosmic that I am reminded of his shaggy dog role as THE WIZARD OF MARS. It is also distinguished by having an alarm to warn the squeamish viewer when gory footage is about to appear onscreen in case one feels the need to look away. A buzzer announces that bloodshed is about to appear, and a chime alerts the viewer that it is safe to look back at the screen. Otherwise, this inclusion into the Paranormal Sweepstakes is run of the mill. It uses some of the exact footage also found in MYSTERIES FROM BEYOND EARTH (below) to support its thesis that during the space age, some of life's mysteries can be found right here on Earth. Therefore, we get some gritty and grisly footage depicting such phenomena as a Russian with telekinesis, a Filipino doctor who can perform surgery with his hands without the need of incisions, and an exorcism in England. This documentary is presented by Rolf Olsen, who was a minor exploitation genius (he also did the classic atrocity documentary SHOCKING ASIA), which may explain why this film above all the others in this article, has more of a "Mondo" feel. Its grainy, obscure footage of bizarre occurrences succeeds in providing a strangely exotic feel for the drive-in, much the same as Giacopetti and the boys did for the grindhouses way back in the early 1960's.

    Or, "Paranormal's Greatest Hits". All of the paranormal documentaries collect a bunch of diverse footage (however authentic or recreated), and then attempt to tie it together with a feeble thesis. None, however, are as preposterous as this. It is one thing to give a cross section of virtually every unexplained phenomenon that you can think of, from The Loch Ness monster to Atlantis, from the Bermuda Triangle to the great pyramids (curiously, The Abominable Snowman was either forgotten, or left on the cutting room floor). But then, the bizarre narrative attempts to show how these strange things are all related! Even then, it is delivered in the manner of a cliffhanger serial. "IS the Loch Ness Monster a descendant of Atlantis? DID Bigfoot cause those mysterious plane crashes in Bermuda?" In a similar form of cinematic patchwork, the filmmakers unconvincingly try to integrate host Lawrence Dobkin (a familiar character player) into the previously shot footage (he nods offscreen to a talking head that is obviously not filmed in the same room). The filmmakers continuously lessen the effect of their lurid subject matter. Having (real or fabricated) footage of devil worshippers in a ritual for effect is one thing. But then they cut to Dobkin looking offscreen in horror, and then running in the opposite direction! Perhaps more than any other paranormal picture, this one begs the question: "Where did they get this guy"? To be certain, the interviewees in these films are always some socially maladjusted fop whose surnames are followed by doctorate letters for a study of the most obscure kind. Case in point, someone has what looks like an old fax machine hooked up to a potted philodendron in order to study the plant's emotions! Yes, this was filmed during the age of leisure, but here is someone with too much time on his hands.

Beyond And Back
(USA, 1978) DIR: James L. Conway. NARR: Brad Crandall.
    BEYOND AND BACK is a well-remembered title from the Schick-Sunn catalogue, and not just because of its short life on videocassette. In the late 1970s, this film played EVERYWHERE, as theaters or drive-ins would book the low-cost movie with little fear of lost investment, and it became a late-night staple a few years later. This pseudo-documentary offers re-enactments of people's near-death experiences, thus indicating that there is a life after this one. These half-dozen or so tales offer little variety in their depictions of the hereafter, as everyone seems to see a warm light beckoning from the end of this long tunnel. This is a familiar aspect of such tales (remember the 1990 movie FLATLINERS?), but for all we know, perhaps this is the movie that may have made everyone's knowledge of near-death experiences synonymous with that chasm of white light.
    Perhaps more than any other of the paranormal documentaries in this article, Beyond And Back makes the viewer question just how and why these low-budget movies proliferated so much in the latter half of the 1970s. Did Schick-Sunn suddenly get phonecalls from people who had had a sighting of Bigfoot? Did scientists who were experts on auras offer their services for films that delved into their obscure practices? Did Schick-Sunn run an ad in a newspaper: "WANTED, people with near-death experiences for upcoming film of same"? Or are these tales so familiar because they all came from a screenwriter who had little creativity?
    However, even after the 20 years since I've seen this, BEYOND AND BACK has remained in my memory, not only because of its fascinating subject matter, but because visually it is more interesting than most other films in this series. In one scene, we see an elderly man at the end of his life, who had allegedly allowed his death to be filmed for research purposes (and if this is real footage, I've got an e-mail from Jimmy Hoffa that I'm about to share with the world). After his last sigh, we suddenly see an ectoplasmic blob leave his body. This is to represent the strange drop of weight in a person's body at the moment of death- thus many believe this due to the soul leaving the expired physical part of the person. (Compare this to the recent film, 21 GRAMS). Also, there is a quasi-hallucinatory moment, done with the proper amount of cheesecloth on the lens to give it the soft dreamy look, in which a woman awakens in a daze after a car crash, and on the hill by the road, she sees her late husband (who perished in the crash) in his funeral clothes talking to Jesus! To offer a counterpoint to the familiar experiences previously, the film ends with a segment in which a girl commits suicide by killing herself in an automobile, and then she finds herself in hell, depicted by a bunch of slithery people in rubber masks. She luckily "comes back", awakens at the site of the accident, and the viewer breathes a sigh of relief. Lesson learned: "Be good."

THE FORCE BEYOND (1978; William Sachs)
    No doubt the title was coined to cash in on people's psyche, remembering "The Force" from some recent, obscure movie called STAR WARS. Of all the movies covered in this article, perhaps this is the best made, as it comes from a filmmaker of feature-length fictional movies (thereby care is taken to shoot things a certain way for dramatic impact), and it is not so reliant on suspect previously-shot footage. Having said that, this film does flout some never-before-seen footage of Bigfoot, and the payoff is even less than the famous Patterson 16mm film shot in the 1960s. Instead we get an unbelievably shaky image of the furry one in silhouette, so close to the frame that it would be out of focus anyway! Other than that, all of the interview footage is quite well done. Even though this investigation into extraterrestrials is seemingly old hat in this stage in the paranormal sweepstakes, this is nonetheless interesting and professionally made, even if no rabbit ever does come out of the hat. But in this subgenre, does it ever?

MYSTERIES OF THE GODS (1979; Harald Reinl)
    Some day, someone must do a thorough investigation into the film work of William Shatner- specifically, his work "between Kirks", that is, the decade-long gulf between the "Star Trek" TV series and the movies. Perhaps no other body of work represents a supposedly mainstream actor with any less shame. In this spate of time, this guy would prostitiute himself for any low-budget film prospect that came along- Bill Shatner was even more "anything for a buck" than he is now! I suppose it is morbidly fitting that Shatner would be asked to host a paranormal documentary, as not only were a lot of name actors beyond the point of respectability hired for similar projects, but undoubtedly, Bill's inclusion into the Paranormal Sweepstakes was because of his new-found fame thanks to a phenomenon of 40-year old basement dwellers named "Trekkies".
    This film is good for a few unintentional giggles, as Bill's toupee changes from scene to scene, and that he really "boldly goes where no man has gone before", to explore unexplained phenomenon, including, Kitchener Ontario! Yes, in that segment, Shatner interviews a woman who has this glass skull that possesses supernatural qualities. Interestingly enough, Bill's former co-star Leonard Nimoy was investigating similar things on TV in the series "In Search Of…"
    It is probably no coincidence that this title sounds a lot like CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, which was after all by the same director. By this stage in the game, for the most part, the paranormal cycle had little new to offer. In fact, it wasn't long before even Schick-Sunn retired from this realm of filmmaking. After the last gasp of IN SEARCH OF HISTORIC JESUS, they did a couple of fictional films (HANGAR 18, BEYOND DEATH'S DOOR) before calling it a day.