Saturday, December 3, 2011

Terror In the Jungle (1967)


I happened upon a movie recently that was so awful, but in the most wonderful ways, that it instantly became my new favorite bad movie. It's a film that exists in the fever-dream funhouse where sheer incompetence collides with accidental genius. It's 1967's Terror in the Jungle.

It starts by introducing a series of characters, all traveling by budget airline to Rio, Brazil, for various reasons. Little Henry Clayton Jr., traveling unaccompanied except for his trusty stuffed toy lion, is flying down to live with his mother after his parents' recent divorce.

Next up is recent widow Mrs. Sherman, who is at the center of a high-profile scandal, accused of cheating on and murdering her rich husband. Is she hoping to escape the attention of the tabloid press by starting a new life in Rio? And whatever happened to her husband's money?

"Marian" (probably a stage name) is an exotic dancer traveling to Rio to appear in a Spanish-language musical film. A photographer snaps a few cheesecake photos on the tarmac.

A trio of nuns approach the plane (one of them in a coffin!)

Finally a mop-topped rock group, waving goodbye to a herd of groupies.

So at this point it looks like we're in for one of those Airport or Irwin Allen style disaster films, where a cross-section of society is brought together, then thrown into a survival situation, across which their individual dramas will play out, right?

We're barely five minutes into the air when the melodrama starts. Marian sidles up alongside business tycoon A.F. Keys, and we detect the early signs of an emerging love story.

Meanwhile, a couple, who may as well be named Mr. and Mrs. Exposition, is having a perfectly normal conversation on an everyday topic: the mysterious Peruvian tribe called the Jivaros, cannibalistic descendants of the Incas who continue to live in an ancient jungle temple.

And a fan of the wanna-Beatles urges them to play their hit. You know, the one that goes, "Soft lips, you've got everything I want. Soft lips."

Marian seizes the opportunity to strut her stuff in a provocative dance that is enjoyed by all...

...and I really do mean ALL. Yes, this is an actual reaction shot of the nun enjoying the spectacle.

You no longer have to settle for my narrative description... video embedded below!

Just as the last strains of "Soft Lips" fade out unnaturally, as if from a recording, instead of performed live by The Bewigged Three, the captain notifies the passengers of an in-flight emergency. The plane is dangerously low on fuel and they need to jettison excess weight.

Of course he's talking about luggage and such, but in all the frenzy that follows, not only does the widow Sherman's stash of money get loosed into the cabin...

...but one of the nuns gets too close to the open hatch, and the cast suffers its first casualty. Nun overboard! Considering the lightweight tone of the film up to this point, this is actually an abrupt and shocking turn, and the first sign that we may be in for more that we bargained for on this trip!

Lightening the load by a whole nun isn't enough to compensate for the severe fuel problem, and the passengers don life-jackets as the plane is forced to make a water landing in a Peruvian river.

Half the cast is taken out on impact, and the bloody aftermath of the crash is fairly gruesome, with close up shots of a split forehead and an unfortunate woman who got a facefull of birdcage.

Now the survivors need to escape the flaming and rapidly sinking wreck.

But the river is crawling with crocodiles, and every single person that enters the water is torn apart in a feeding frenzy!

The coffin holding the corpse of the third nun (propped upright, naturally) is salvaged for use as a flotation device for little Henry, who is launched safely into the water just before the plane erupts in flame.

The next morning, Henry is still drifting along on the river in his floating coffin, the sole survivor of the plane crash. In just 20 minutes, the film has set up, then abandoned, every single character and plotline. What now?

Henry gets captured by Peruvian natives (which we know, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Exposition, are the cannibalistic Jivaros.)

Some of the natives want to sacrifice him to their god...

...until the King thinks he sees a supernatural sign: Henry's hair appears to be glowing like a halo, a comical effect created with some optical trickery.

Henry is spared and welcomed into the tribe, but not for long. The knife-wielding native, oblivious to his glowing locks and still intent on killing the child, chases him into the jungle.

Now... do you want to hazard a guess as to how little Henry gets out of this dangerous predicament? If you guessed that his toy stuffed lion would suddenly, magically, without any context or explanation, transform into a real animal and tear the native to bloody shreds...'d be right!

So far I've made Terror in the Jungle sound like a non-stop rollercoaster of awesome. But the film does have its drawbacks. It's padded with dull footage of Peruvian scenery, endless sequences of our pint-sized protaganist crying his eyes out, and stock shots of wildlife obviously photographed in another time, place, and film stock.

But there's a lot of other little things that make me like the film even more. Like the fact that Marian, the dancer, is played by Fawn Silver, who also appeared as Criswell's witchy sidekick in the Ed Wood-penned adults-only topless-dancing graveyard romp, Orgy of the Dead (1965).

Or that the film is scored by early progenitor of bachelor-pad exotica music, Les Baxter!

...the shrunken head and tiki statue that pop-up in the set dressing...

...the happy coincidence that the wind sound-effect heard during the airplane crash is the same one that appears on a favorite Halloween sound effect record, Sounds to Make You Shiver!

...the baffling decision to display this message, acknowledging the cooperation of the Peruvian government, not at the beginning or end of the film, but 10 minutes into it, right in the middle of the action!

...and finally, the unbelievable fact that it took THREE directors to make this turkey (one for each location)!

Upon first viewing, I naturally assumed this must be one of those films with a rabid cult fanbase, and that I was a late arrival to the Terror in the Jungle party. So imagine my surprise to find the film had merited only a dozen or so comments at IMDB, and only one review at Amazon, with very little coverage in the blog-o-sphere. In fact the film was only recently released to DVD, unceremoniously stashed among 50 other titles on a budget multi-disc box set titled Pure Terror.


Sam G said...

Wow. Where are Mike andthe bots when you need them?

Brian Barnes said...

I've posted a cross-link to this review in my comedic (I hope) review of Orgy of the Dead. Well, mega-review as I plan on going through each strip act and being snarky :)

Without this I would have known even less about Fawn Silver. Who would have thought starting out in an Ed Wood movie would mean your career was short?

Unknown said...

hi. I just sin this awesome movie on YouTube and then stumbled upon your enjoyable review .
one thing I noticed was the surprisingly changeable nature of little Henry's toy. on the plane it is seemingly a lion, then in the jungle it transmutes into a tiger, then finally a real live jaguar interspersed with a stuffed jaguar! wow, one hell of a toy!
also, the guy who directed the mind blowing plane segment was also responsible for the talking vagina flick chatterbox!
anyway, cheers, loved your post

Lawrence Lay said...

Yeah, i saw this movie as a kid in the 70s. The scene were the little boy's toy tiger suddenly turned into a live jaguar to save his life didn't make sense. One other character from this movie i remember is a guy who gets his glasses stolen from him buy a mischievous local. He later gets them back after killing this person. He later sees a jaguar on a riverbank.