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  • nickkarner

The Corpse Grinders (1971)


When we brought a new dog into the house (a huge galoot and even bigger moron to boot named Hank), our gorgeous Russian Blue cat Alice was not pleased. She practically said, “I’m gonna burn this motherfucker to the ground,” and “You brought this evil into my house!” The lackluster live-action Lion King adaptation proved that cats are not the most expressive of animals, but to their credit, a cat can certainly make it clear when they’re mad. As South Park’s Mr. Mackey once asked, “Mad enough to kill?!” In Ted V. Mikels’ 1971 exploitation, drive-in staple The Corpse Grinders, the writing is lousy, the acting is poor, the camera work is boring and grainy, and the effects are non-existent, yet the idea has potential.

Years later, when the film was submitted to the MPAA and received an ‘R’ rating, the director called up the dreaded and out-of-touch organization since he felt the it was a “funny, campy little film.” They informed him that “grinding cadavers into cat food is no joke,” proving there's a serious lack of funny bones at Jack Valenti's old haunt. Watching the film now, it’s clear how little money Mikels had at his disposal. Supposedly, he paid for short ends at a “nickel a foot,” a real bargain. The footage looks as though it was stomped on, although admittedly this was due to the film being viewed on Amazon Prime and not on one of the restoration blu-rays. After a while, the crappiness becomes a style. His other work, including Blood Orgy of the She-Devils and The Astro-Zombies, certainly contain wickedly funky ideas, but they lack the forward momentum Corpse Grinders gains as its story unfolds. This is a fortunate turn since the film was Mikels’ most successful effort and one which allowed him to continue directing all the way into the next century. Why was it a hit? Well, what else are you supposed to do in the early 70’s? You protest the Vietnam War by day, then you go to a drive-in at night. Simple.

The killer cat element is just one of the distinctive flavors presented in this gore-suggestive rather than gore-filled horror film. Mikels is a cult movie legend whose ridiculously-titled films had amazing poster art and less-than-amazing production value. No one can say he wasn’t a hard worker, though. He directed, produced, edited both the picture and sound, and edited the stock music, which is occasionally wildly inappropriate. He claims his budget was $1700, $17 of which he spent on the grinding machine, so he never knew whether crew members would show up for work. If they didn’t, he’d end up shooting the film himself. Most of his films aren’t particularly great, but he did executive produce Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, so it wasn’t all bad. Mikels remains deeply proud of Corpse Grinders as it opened number one at the Los Angeles box office on its first release.

The film holds an odd place in the filmography of the “legendary for all the wrong reasons” auteur Arch Hall Sr. It represented the final act of a bad movie maven whose cinematic oeuvre during the 60’s included the successful but ineptly-made Eegah! (1962, Watch out for snakes!) and Wild Guitar, a film with a surprisingly strong narrative that’s hampered by his spawn Arch Hall Jr.’s terrible performance. Ironically, the one film he had the least amount of involvement in featured Hall Jr.’s finest performance, The Sadist. He’s not great, but he’s not bad either. Hall Sr. presented the script to Mikels, who bought it on the spot, did some extensive rewrites, and the rest is history.

If the film weren’t so crudely-made, the characters within the piece could actually achieve some sort of freakshow fascination. The dastardly duo and co-owners of The Lotus Cat Food Company, Landau (Sanford Mitchell) and Maltby (J. Byron Foster), are using local wild-haired undertaker Caleb (Warren Ball) to supply them with fresh corpses that they grind up into delicious cat food. This, in turn, is turning cats homicidal and hungry for human flesh. This is exemplified by an extremely low-stakes opening in which a random woman is clawed and bitten by a house cat. Thanks to CGI, the nefarious acts of evil cats would be quite easy to achieve today, and even before, there’s been Greydon Clark’s insane Uninvited, the mean little kitteh in Pet Sematary, the horde of vengeful tuddies in The Uncanny, and of course “The Cat from Hell” in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. Here, the poor felines are simply rubbed up against their victim’s necks and in the process, said necks get a little red. The film’s grain is so thick and the footage so fuzzy at times, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a real cat or a phony one. It was probably cheaper to snag a real one, so I’m sure these kitties were super pissed. Maybe they really did slash a few of their victims.

The joy that comes from viewing The Corpse Grinders is due to its odd flourishes and poor dialogue. Caleb’s abused and clearly mental wife Cleo (writer/performer Ann Noble, Sins of Rachel), who inexplicably has an English accent, supplies her grumpy husband with jerky while caring for a doll as if it’s a real child. Caleb actually seems fine with this arrangement, although he’s always shitty to her about dinner and I’m surprised he doesn’t smack her for wasting soup on the doll. The women in this film are either sex pots or weirdos. Tessie (Drucilla Hoy), a deaf-mute, one-legged Lotus assistant, can apparently look two ways at once, because Landau speaks sign language but does it around his mid-section, yet she completely gets it despite never looking down. A secretary at the Food Adulteration Agency (whatever that is), needs to strip down to her skivvies before enjoying a beer and getting attacked by her cat. Then there’s nurse Angie (Monika Kelly), wife of doctor Howard Glass (Sean Kenney, Star Trek OS), whose impressive rack is only matched by the size of her hair. Seriously, this coiffure literally fills half the screen. She and Dr. Glass (sort of) uncover Landau and Maltby’s plot, even though they pretty much bungle it most of the time.

Landau is the alpha and de facto leader who continues to bilk Caleb out of the money he owes him. Maltby, meanwhile, appears to be a closet necrophiliac, or at least he wants to be. That’ll always be the dream, I suppose. The actual corpse grinding is fantastically lame. Somehow, this relatively small grinder can smoosh an entire human body lickety split; excreting a goopy red paste mixed with grain out of its exit hole. I think The Exterminator (1980) did it a tad better. Since Mikels couldn’t afford much raw meat, he mixed sawdust with hamburger to “beef it up.” The plot thickens as Landau decides to murder a dim-witted janitor who keeps pronouncing his name as “Lan-doo” and decides the best bet to keep up with supply-and-demand is to murder winos. Hopefully he doesn’t target Mel Funn, the “King of the Winos!”

I find it surprising that Dr. Glass and Nurse Angie achieve anything since they’re constantly getting hot and heavy in the back room of a hospital we never see. Even when they’re dissecting a cat which murdered some poor shut-in named Annie, you can tell they’re horny. Glass rightly suggests the police handle things, but Angie fancies herself a fucking Nancy Drew-type and insists they do something. After all, they’re in the medical profession! Their amateur sleuthing leads them to Mrs. Babcock, the widow of missing businessman Carlton Babcock, played with a campy, faux-British flourish by Zena Foster. Imagine a Monty Python sketch gained sentience, found a dress, and wandered onto the set of The Corpse Grinders. Carlton was the catalyst for Landau and Maltby’s idea since he was the first to be ground up into cat food. This is confirmed by a flashback, where Maltby strangles Babcock with a rope despite Landau stating quite clearly that “you hit him first.” Maybe Landau doesn’t know what hitting is?

Landau decides to take Caleb out of the equation. In a bizarrely hilarious sequence, Caleb threatens Landau with a pistol, then hands it over to Landau so he can count the money he’s given, then Landau takes out his own gun, which I suppose is the right call considering Caleb probably took it out of some Civil War veteran’s grave. No one in the film is a very solid actor, but Ball at least has an agreeably gruff quality which serves his character pretty well. Unfortunately, this development gives way to an awful moment in which he pleads for his life. His horribly flat delivery makes him sound like a petulant little boy. Landau chases Cleo around and plugs her. Oddly, he decides to bury her in a fresh grave rather than snatching her up and using her as kitty chow.

In a rather foolhardy move, Angie decides to go it alone and checks out the Lotus Cat Food Company’s back room, but she doesn’t find porn. Instead, she finds good ol’ perverted Maltby, who ties her up to the grinder and makes a simple request: “I just want to hold you and I want you to hold me.” Well, who can say no to that?

Unconvincing body parts lay strewn about the cellar as Landau hops down the stairs and shoots Maltby because he’s dead weight. Mitchell gets to indulge in some hammy acting with an epic monologue about how “No one’s gonna stop me! I’ll get it all! The money, everything, because you’re nothing!” Glass gets shot in the shoulder, a trope which has persisted to this day when you want to wound, but not kill, your protagonist; then a Burt Reynolds-looking motherfucker shows up and blows Landau away. He’s been on the periphery of the film’s action this whole time, and of course he’s a cop. I’d’ve been more surprised if he’d been some weirdo who ate cat food. Oh, and cats are still homicidal maniacs, but weren’t they always?

Stupendously crummy but with flashes of style, including red/green-lit sequences set in the grinder’s inner sanctum, Mikels’ occasionally entertaining double and triple-bill drive-in mainstay works as a ghoulish idea executed at a time when only the most controversial of filmmakers could’ve accurately brought this story to the screen. For now, it’s amusing, but just barely.