Sunday, 6 November 2016

Belated Deathblog:
Ted V. Mikels
(1929 – 2016)

Last Friday night, my wife and I re-watched Ted V. Mikels’ ‘The Astro-Zombies’ (1968) in tribute to the great man, who passed away a few weeks ago. Back in 2010, I rated this my 20th favourite horror movie of all time, no less, and I’m happy to report that in 2016 it remains just as much of a jaw-dropping masterpiece of audaciously loopy un-cinema.

Though ‘Astro-Zombies’ was Ted’s first horror film, instigating the series of oddball exploitation features for which he was best known, it was most assuredly NOT his first film overall. Indeed, though I have not yet managed to watch them myself, I have read several sources which insist that the black & white thrillers Mikels directed in the early ‘60s (‘Strike Me Deadly’ (1963), ‘The Black Klansman’(1965)) are very impressive and professional pieces of work.

Taking this claim at face value, I can only assume that ‘The Astro-Zombies’ and the astonishing run of movies that followed it represent a kind of American equivalent of Jess Franco’s output in the early ‘70s – an example of a technically proficient filmmaker throwing away the rulebook and just letting it all hang out, doing whatever the hell he felt like from day to day and stapling together the results into a wild n’ wooly collage of garish, over-saturated comic book depravity that must have left drive-in double-bill patrons speechless and appalled, subsequently disappearing down a black hole until they were rediscovered by the SWV/bad-movie-fan crowd in the 90s – an audience who were presumably more able to process them than their forebears.

As far as Mikels’ other films are concerned, his surprisingly small output is… variable, to say the least. Though it has its fans, I didn’t really get much out of his H.G. Lewis-ish gore flick ‘The Corpse Grinders’ (1971) when I watched it a while back, but I do however have a massive soft spot for his next film, ‘Blood Orgy of the She Devils’ (1973) – a sprawling, near plotless mass of treacle-thick early ‘70s post-psychedelic occult freakout vibes, packed with more artlessly discordant electronic music, somnambulantly drawled faux-spiritual blather and near-stationary ritual happenings than the human mind can bear, guaranteed to enrage and repel about 98% of potential viewers, but pure manna from heaven to the likes of me.

I’ll also confess a fondness for the same year’s proto-Charlie’s Angels action/adventure flick ‘The Doll Squad’, and I even had fun with its threadbare pseudo-sequel ‘Mission: Killfast’ (1987). It seems that Mikels found a way to incorporate espionage, walkie-talkies, radio signals and disparate groups of peculiar people chasing each other around into just about every movie he made, so in a way the genre of these films seems a perfect fit for him, although sadly his lack of proficiency in pacing and staging an effective action film is evident throughout.

Such pedestrian drawbacks however are largely irrelevant to the rather different appeal of Mikels’ cinema; the aforementioned films (and indeed, all the films I have seen from Mikels’ shot-on-film era) have an eccentric charm, a beautiful, trash-saturated visual aesthetic and a gutsy dedication to the cause of entertainment that overcomes all of their miscellaneous technical failings. His movies pulse with energy, good humour, sincerity and a keen sense of fun, all laced with just enough flat-out madness to get us to the finish line smiling.

All of which seems, insofar as I can judge, to be a testament to the unique strength of personality possessed by Ted V. Mikels himself. I actually know surprisingly little about the man beyond what can be gleaned from his films, but perhaps by filling in the gaps between his early appearance as a shirtless bongo player in the incredible strip-tease club sequence in ‘The Astro-Zombies’ and the late period photograph of him you see above (waxed ‘tache, walrus tusk necklace, smile a mile wide), we can simply conclude that he was a force to be reckoned with.

An anonymous trivia entry on his IMDB page states that Mikels “started out as a magician, acrobat and fire eater before becoming a documentary film maker in the 1950s” (well I mean, of course he did), whilst pretty much every piece of writing I’ve ever read about him has repeated the fact that, at at least one point in his life, he lived in a castle in Las Vegas [CORRECTION: in California - see comments] with his own harem of female followers. I have never actually managed to ascertain the truth of this claim, or indeed to find much in the way of further details on the subject, but let’s just go with the “print the legend” option and regurgitate it again here for new readers to wonder over.

Looks like he went a bit ‘off-message’ to say the least after he made a Shot-On-Video comeback from the late ‘90s onwards, but hell, who didn’t? And, for better or worse, at least he kept churning ‘em out – practically tripling the length of his filmography - with his subject matter remaining admirably bizarre, even if only the very bravest of cult film explorers are liable to want to subject themselves to, say, 2015’s ‘Paranormal Extremes: Text-Messages from the Dead’, or 1997’s absolutely extraordinary sounding ‘Apartheid Slave-Women's Justice’ (check the reviews of the latter here).

Whatever you may think of the man and his films however, it is with great sadness that we must reflect that Ted V. Mikels was pretty much the ‘last man standing’ amongst his era’s roll-call of defiantly idiosyncratic, independant populist independent American filmmakers. Meyer, Lewis, Steckler, Wishman, Milligan, Wood, Adamson – all are gone, and now that Mikels has joined them, the line is severed for good, the unique world that all of these men (and women) created and occupied for so many years consigned to the past.

R.I.P. Ted, and once again - thanks for the Astro-Zombies.


Elliot James said...

I knew Ted. He lived in a castle in California with a bevy of girlfriends. In Vegas he lived in a regular house.

Ben said...

Thanks for the correction Elliot - much appreciated.

Elliot James said...

It was in Glendale, California.