Falling Stars


I can't say that I know anything for certain about this movie's history. Actually, I don't think anybody can say they know very much about it, even the people involved in its creation... but from what I've been able to piece together, and from the internal evidence of the movie itself, I've been able to piece together this bizarre story:

In late 1973, director Curtis Hanson (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, 8 Mile) started work on a movie called God Bless Grandma and Grandpa. The project starred James Keach (Stacy's brother) and Robert Walker (Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe, Beware! The Blob), and it concerned two couples who become trapped in a town where the old folks devour the young ones. OK, maybe not "devour" in the literal sense; but they use the bodies of the young and strong to extend their own lives.

The film was clearly as much social satire as horror: like many good horror films, it took a genuine problem — in this case, the marginalization of the elderly, in a culture geared ever more toward youth — and looked at it just slightly awry. The result was a movie with a very sympathetic "monster"; that is, a group of old people who refused to go gentle into that good night, and who'd decided to use the bodies of the undeserving young to maintain their own lives. On the other hand, it was clear that the audience, regardless of their ability to sympathize with the elders, was going to side instinctively with the young people. Thus the movie had some amazingly, delightfully uncomfortable moments in it: friendly smiles over tea in the drawing room suddenly turning hungry and ominous... James Keach threatening to break a chair over the head of a little old lady... a mob of senior citizens overwhelming a car like a horde of mindless, ravenous zombies... good chilling stuff that worked on many different levels.

There's enough surviving footage of Hanson's film to suggest that God Bless Grandma and Grandpa could have been an interesting and timely take on the conflict between generations. For example, when one old woman breaks down in tears at the memory of her now-dead son, her husband consoles her be telling her he died to make a better world. Naturally, these words have a sinister undertone in the context of the movie. But an audience in 1974 would immediately have thought of the war in Viet Nam: similar words had been spoken over the coffins of countless young men by that time. The country's wise elders had sent a generation off to die for that "better world", with the result that that generation's survivors lost its faith in the elders' wisdom. The words rang just as hollow in real life as they do to Keach's character, who's already begun to realize that things in this town are not as they should be. But Hanson's surviving footage also reflects the anger of the older generation at essentially being abandoned by their culture — a problem that would only become worse in the decades that followed. There's enough substance to God Bless Grandma and Grandpa that it might have become one of the most fondly-remembered ABC TV Movies of the Week...

... if it had ever been finished.

But something happened in early 1974 that held up the production. I'm not sure what it was: the company, L-T Films (later known as Centaur, before six years' worth of fraud lawsuits drove it out of business), announced the movie's imminent release several times during the year. What seems to have happened is this: somehow L-T films secured the services of Academy Award-winning actor Dean Jagger (I'm guessing he lost a bet), so the whole movie needed to be re-adjusted to put Jagger in a starring role. The available members of the cast were re-assembled, and some new footage was shot featuring Jagger as Dr. Shagetz, the mastermind of the old folks' plan to use young people's corpses as their fountain of youth.

There were several problems with this idea. The most obvious is the use of the name "Shagetz". If you don't know what the word means, then it probably applies to you... it's the term of opprobrium used by some Jewish people for non-Jewish people. It's not very strong, as such terms go... I've been told it means something like "rascal" or "good-for-nothing", and that it's sometimes used for disobedient children. It's absolutely not as offensive as the kind of terms generally used by non-Jews for Jews (to put it mildly), but it's still meant to convey a certain disapproval (the feminine of "shagetz" is "shiksa"; you've probably heard of that). Imagine casting Louis Jourdain as Dr. Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkey, and you have something of the flavor.

But even aside from the tasteless name, there was an additional problem: there was already a doctor who figured in the plot, Doc Hooper (played by television's perennial Country Doctor, Regis Toomey). There had been no mention of any Dr. Shagetz in the film so far... how were they going to shoehorn this new medico into the action — especially in such a major role?

What they did was give Dean Jagger some unconvincing explanatory dialogue late in the film, after the young protagonist has been captured:

CHRIS: (James Keach) Where's Doc Hooper, huh...?!

DR. SHAGETZ: (Dean Jagger) ... Doc Hooper, he's out on a house call... he's over to Mrs. Phelps; she's not... she's not too well this morning. I don't think she's going to recover.

CHRIS: I don't care about Doc Hooper, OK?

And with this bewildering exchange, Doc Hooper exits the story.

But the continuity trouble doesn't stop there. It seems as though Jagger's involvement came long enough after principal photography had been completed that several of the cast members (in addition to the now-superfluous Toomey) were no longer available for the re-takes. Thus, Jagger interacts with some of the characters we've seen before, like Earl, the murderous service station attendant; but many of them (including Robert Walker's character, whom we're told has died off-screen) just disappear from the action. A handful of pointless new characters are introduced to give Jagger more to do and say, but it's extremely clear that Jagger's footage was shot at a different time from the body of the film. The look and feel of Jagger's scenes are different, too: the lighting, the blocking, everything. This might be explained by the fact that the rest of the film had been shot on location, while Jagger's scenes were confined to a set. But there's enough stylistic difference to make me wonder if Curtis Hanson was even involved at this point.

The resulting mess was retitled God Bless Dr. Shagetz, and posters and promotional materials were made to sell the film. Somewhere along the line, the word Bless was crossed out, and the word Damn was pasted above it on the posters that had already been designed. Eventually, as the movie's release date crept further and further into the future, the title was reduced to Dr. Shagetz. Then the production company fell apart, and the movie vanished without ever having been given a public screening.

A decade or so later (somewhere between Centaur's final dissolution in 1981 and the movie's video release in 1987), the raw footage of Dr. Shagetz came into the possession of Mardi Rustam's Mars Productions. Nobody may ever know for certain, but considering the many times Dr. Shagetz was announced for imminent release, there's a good chance that the version of the movie that Rustam bought was very close to being a finished film. Nevertheless, Rustam didn't simply clean it up and release it himself. After all, it looked too much like a movie of the previous decade... it felt too much like a movie of the previous decade... and most important, it didn't have any naked tits in it. So Rustam assembled yet another cast (including a bosomy former Playmate who was willing to take off her shirt), and shot new footage to insert into Dr. Shagetz, to (ahem) bring it up to date. He called his "new" film Evil Town.

Now, Rustam had been involved in film production even before God Bless Grandma and Grandpa had begun shooting, but he didn't get his first directorial credit until 1985. Curiously, his first film as director, Evils of the Night, has several major things in common with Evil Town. Both concern a plot to use the bodies of the young to extend life — in Evils of the Night, it's John Carradine rather than Dean Jagger who's the deadly mastermind, and he's a vampire from outer space rather than a mad doctor; but the basic idea's the same. Even the hospital used by the deadly mastermind is identical between movies. I'm not sure if Dr. Shagetz fell into Rustam's clutches before or after he made Evils of the Night — Rustam's final version of the older film wasn't released until 1987 — but it's very clear that one movie influenced the other: the new footage for Evil Town is extremely similar to the content of Evils of the Night.

If Rustam got his hands on Dr. Shagetz first, then a few things about Evils of the Night become clearer. Dr. Shagetz featured an extended cameo by an OscarTM-winning actor — yes, his was the title role, but it still amounts to an extended cameo — and this may account for Rustam's decision to cast as many out-of-place stars in his own film as he could afford. In addition to John Carradine, Evils of the Night featured all-time career-low appearances by Golden Globe winners Tina Louise ("Gilligan's Island") and Julie Newmar ("Batman"), as well as Golden Globe nominee Aldo Ray and BAFTA "Best Foreign Actor" nominee Neville Brand... to say nothing of industry award winning porn actors Jerry Butler and Amber Lynn1
1. Funny: at the same time several major figures in porn, including director Chuck Vincent and starlet Ginger Lynn were trying to establish themselves in the world of non-porn film-making, here was Mardi Rustam flaunting his connection to the X-rated world. A large chunk of Evils of the Night is softcore sex comedy, and the presence of several of the 80's most recognizable porn stars (also including Crystal Breeze, whose boyfriend is murdered in mid-climax during the opening sequence) does little to help us take the movie seriously.
. If Rustam saw Dr. Shagetz first, this might also explain why Evil Town seems like a low-low-low budget rip-off of Evils of the Night: the neophyte director may have seen Evil Town as a throwaway — a chance to test his ideas before moving on to a larger-scale production with a big-name cast. OK; with a relatively big-name cast. I lean toward this explanation: it's both practical and charitable.

On the other hand, if Evils of the Night came first, than clearly Rustam was stuck on auto-pilot. The new material for Evil Town falls into three categories: first, there are the scenes of innocent young people, mostly nubile young girls, wandering off into the woods in various states of undress; next, there are scenes featuring two dim-witted mechanics who prey on these young people before delivering them to the hospital for "processing"; and third, there are scenes featuring the deadly mastermind's female second-in-command, who deals with most of the practical details of the evil plot. These three types of scenes are all cribbed from Evils of the Night, though in Evil Town we're left without the commanding stage presence of Tina Louise... or even the raw talent of Jerry Butler.

God Bless Grandma and Grandpa was supposed to have begun with a harrowing scene: a vacationing schoolteacher, his wife, and their two very young children stop at a rural gas station on their way through Northern California. Earl, the grey-haired, slightly seedy-looking attendant, exchanges a few pleasantries with the teacher; the attendant's wife Norma, a curiously surly old woman, leads the mother and her children off to the rest room — though she seems a little reluctant to do it. Once the car is filled with gas, and the two men run out of small talk, the teacher begins to wonder what's taking his family so long. He fails to notice that the attendant is watching him very carefully.

Concerned, but not yet alarmed, the teacher goes to the door of the rest room and calls for his wife. There's no reply. Worried now, he forces the flimsy door... only to find his wife and children lying in bloody heaps (note the implication: the brutal attack on a woman and two little girls was done by Norma — a quiet, tidy-looking woman in her mid- to late 60's). Before he has time to react, old Earl has come up behind him and beaten him unconscious with a wrench.

Evil Town also begins with this scene, but Rustam has made a couple of significant changes.

First of all, though this opening has the feeling of a pre-credit sequence, Rustam puts the credits first. And he's seen fit to overdub the credits with... not with the puling 80's synth music you'd expect (though that makes its unwelcome appearance later in the film)... but with the kids' whiny "are we there yet?" exchanges with their parents. Nothing ratchets up the tension in a horror film like repeated requests to go to the bathroom!

Next, he's inserted a POV shot of the car arriving in "Evil Town" — we see through the car's windshield a sign identifying it as Smalltown (USA!), population 666. Maybe I should say a car's windshield: the teacher and his family arrive in a large blue station wagon, but the car that stops in front of the sign has the blunt white hood of a van... probably the van used later in the film by the two homicidal mechanics to transport their victims.

Thinking of the mechanics: Rustam also ruins the shock value of the opening scene by having the mechanics discuss their plans just before the teacher and his family arrive. Furthermore, the original footage so that it's the mechanics, not Norma, who attack the wife and children. On the plus side, Rustam does manage to splice in the new shots very well (this time, at least). It's just that the new additions bring very little to the story. We expect bad things from a pair of drooling psychos; but a little old lady who does her work reluctantly (and off-screen)? That's the stuff of nightmares.

And thinking of New Footage: immediately after Earl beats the teacher unconscious, we see him and Norma with Dr. Shagetz — excuse me, Schaeffer; Rustam's only real improvement to his source material is his re-dubbing of the dialog to remove the offensive name (even though the overdubbing is sloppy and obvious). Schaeffer (sic) congratulates the couple on their additions to the "donor pool". Even though the two children are a little younger than usual, he thinks that they're healthy and strong enough to be useful. Next, we see the four victims lying on hospital gurneys. The footage is mismatched: the shots with Schaeffer and Earl were obviously shot at a different time on a different location from the shot of the bodies. What's even more important is a change in the tone: Schaeffer states that he keeps his "donors" alive... but if you look closely at the four bodies on the beds, you'll see that only the husband is connected to IVs, and only the husband seems to be breathing. The woman and the children are pretty clearly dead — which is the impression we got from the original footage of the gas station attack.

(I should point out that Rustam actually does add some of his own footage, even here. He inserts reaction shots from Dr. Schaeffer's assistant Nurse Dorothy, looking into the 1974 footage from the mid-1980's, as Jagger looks back into the 1973 footage. It's like a hall of mirrors.)

After this introduction, the movie splits into three distinct subplots. The main thread is taken from the original God Bless Grandma and Grandpa: two young couples (James Keach and Michele Marsh [Fiddler on the Roof] on the one hand, and Robert Walker and Doria Cook [The Parallax View] on the other) are stranded in "Smalltown" (to use Rustam's name for it) when their van breaks down. Earl the mechanic and the all-too-friendly Phelps family find all sorts of excuses to keep the young people around longer than they'd anticipated staying. The young couples try camping out in the nearby forest, but are horrified when an unknown prowler stalks them. The young men overpower the stranger and knock him unconscious. They discover he has a hospital identification bracelet around his wrist; assuming he's some sort of mental patient, they bring him back to the Phelps's house. Naturally, he "prowler" is actually a would-be victim who's managed to escape, but he can't tell anybody what's happened to him, because he's in too poor a condition to speak. Thus the new victims unwittingly return the old victim to his tormentors.

The remaining plot threads are pretty nearly identical to the main action of Evils of the Night: one involves the efforts of the Mad Scientist's female assistant to keep control of the project, even as she has to contend with rebellious captives and escapees. One of these escapees is the man the couples from 1973 run into in the woods... though the original character has been completely replaced by the actor from 1987, who seems to be running from Evils of the Night as much as from Nurse Dorothy.

The other thread follows the adventures of the two sadistic mechanics, as they scour the woods for fresh subjects for the experiments. In Evils of the Night, the mechanics had been played by Aldo Ray and Neville Brand. In this film, they're played by familiar TV character actor Greg Finley and Hugh Hefner's little brother Keith. Ray and Brand may have had better acting chops, but Finley and Hefner are actually more disturbing: instead of being mere psychotics, the mechanics in Evil Town are a pair of dim-witted rapists. They decide it would be much more fun if they amuse themselves with the nubile young women they abducted — just for a little while... Surely nobody will notice; and if they do notice, they won't care. There's something about the two men's empty-headed leers that seems much worse than the power-tool-wielding rages of Ray and Brand.

Of course, Rustam isn't content to have us imagine what those two leering monsters would do in the back room of the garage. We're treated to several minutes of 1982 Playmate Lynda Wiesmeier running panic-stricken through the forest with her shirt undone — which looks very uncomfortable; the poor girl wasn't cast for her aerodynamic form — before they drag her back to the service station. Then they chain her up and grope her for a revoltingly long time. It's all strictly softcore, and less explicit than the sex scenes in Evils of the Night, but that doesn't make it any less repellent. At least the sex in Evils of the Night was consensual.

The abduction/rape/murder part of the story takes up about half of the movie's running time, but it never really catches up with the main thread. The maniacs choose the wrong girl to abduct — a young woman who can do things with her feet (don't ask) — and eventually the two men's victims manage to turn the tables on their captors. The whole thing has very little to do with the story proper; I have to wonder with regret how much of the original film had to be scrapped to make room for it.

Our young heroes from 1973 are eventually knocked out by drugged doughnuts... all except for Chris (Keach), who has figured out that there's evil afoot in the town. Chris manages to escape for a while, but is eventually overwhelmed and dragged kicking and screaming into 1974. There he meets Jagger's Dr. Shagetz/Schaeffer, who explains to him the whole terrible scheme.

I think a word is due here about Academy AwardTM-winning actor Dean Jagger and his performance. He's awful. If it weren't for the repellent rape scenes, he'd be the worst thing in Evil Town... and when you consider the sum of Mardi Rustam's efforts, that's saying a lot. Jagger seems utterly uninterested in the action; he spend most of his time standing still, stumbling through his lines as though he were trying to recall the general gist of a newspaper article he'd glanced at a week ago.

Jagger had a very distinctive way of speaking, which became even more pronounced as he grew older (he did, in fact, have a speech impediment, which he trained himself to overcome as long as the cameras were rolling). If you watch him in some of his other roles — for example playing prison warden Auerbach in The Glass House, made two years before he took on the role of Dr. Shagetz — you'll notice his clipped syllables and curiously flat accent make him seem tough and serious. But in his footage for Dr. Shagetz, Jagger seems to be emphasizing the eccentricity of his delivery. As Shagetz/Schaeffer, Jagger sounds at best like a man recovering from a serious stroke — and at his worst, he seems to be modeling his performance on the dim-witted hunting dog from the Bugs Bunny cartoon Foxy by Proxy ("I caught a train! All by myself, I caught a train, I did!").

The script calls for Jagger to refer frequently to the pituitary gland, and Jagger's inflection on the word "pituitary" is a thing to marvel at. When he describes his first experiment — in which he extracted the "X-factor chemical in the puh-TOO-ah-tairy" of a rapist/murderer whom nobody would miss — he can't manage to get the man's name straight. "Miccanini"? "Mickey Ninky"? Oh, well; in any case, he was a "totally despicable character" (says Jagger, slipping from one Looney Toons persona to another). In case you think I'm exaggerating, here's an audio extract of the speech. In case you're still not convinced, here's another speech (which comes later in the finished film, but was intended to come earlier). As you can hear, Jagger often loses his concentration; he speaks as though he were cold-reading cue cards he couldn't see clearly enough (which may have been the case).

Jagger's evil Dr. Shagetz/Schaeffer takes Chris on a tour of the hospital. First, he gives him a slide show, explaining the properties of the puh-TOO-ah-tairy gland, and how it affects the aging process. Then, he takes him to see both sides of the results of his experiments. On the positive side, there are his geriatric patients (including Earl) who are thriving well into their 100s. On the not-so-positive side, there are the "donors". Some, like Chris's friends, don't survive their abductions (this revelation brings up my very favorite moment from the film: the moment in which Jagger reveals to James Keach that Robert Walker and Doria Cook have been killed by doughnuts. It's not just the dialog... it's the delivery that makes it so funny). Others — the ones that make it through the surgical procedure to extract the "X-factor chemical consonant" (or possibly "constant"; whatever Jagger says, it makes no sense) — are reduced to mere mindless shells. The doctor keeps them piled on top of each other in a couple of rooms: those that can still shiver and moan are kept behind a chain-link fence, while those who have deteriorated further await euthanasia in a disused, red-lit bathroom (Jagger actually asks one of the semi-conscious, dying victims if she's recovered from her cold. I can't help but wonder if this wasn't Jagger himself talking to one of the extras, assuming they were only doing a walk-through).

We're all used to the Mad Scientist holding up the action at the end of a movie, as he explains to his last victim everything the script has been unable to explain for itself. But in this instance, Dr. Shagetz/Schaeffer has a reason for inviting Chris on his little tour: Chris is a med student, fresh off his residency. For some reason, the Doc thinks he can persuade the man whose friends he's just killed, and whose girlfriend is lying unconscious in the next room awaiting the extraction of her puh-TOO-ah-tairy gland, to help him in his great humanitarian effort.

This goes over about as well with Chris as you might expect. Chris brings the 1974 plot to an abrupt conclusion, and flees back into 1973. 1987 takes care of itself; and in the movie's final moments, what I imagine should have been a downbeat conclusion is replaced by footage of speeding police cars... hinting that the Authorities have been notified, and the order of things is about to be restored. The End.

Evil Town is listed in the IMDb as Dean Jagger's last film. It wasn't. It was the last released... but after he shot his scenesfor Dr. Shagetz in 1974, he went on to roles in a number of movies and television shows (including Lewis Teague's Alligator [1980]). In other words, you can't blame physical deterioration at the very end of his life for his horrible performance in Evil Town. Was he told he was doing a comedy — or did he jump to that conclusion from the awful title, Dr. Shagetz? Was he so out of sympathy with the project that he just didn't care? Did he realize the legal troubles L-T Films was facing, and figure the movie would never be finished? Like most things about the production of Evil Town, these are questions that may never be answered. Perhaps it's a good thing that virtually nobody's asking.

I did have an idea, though, for a sequel to Evil Town. It would continue the story of Christie Houser's character Terrie — the girl with the versatile feet, who manages to escape and ends up killing both the evil mechanics. In my sequel, she and her fellow escapees would return to Smalltown, to get revenge on everyone at the hospital for being abducted and molested. Since this new movie has a sort of I Spit on Your Grave flavor, I've decided to call it — wait for it — Ptooey! Terrie.

(Oy, such a shagetz I'm being...)

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