A disc labeled as a "Public Enemy Double Feature" coming from established oddball company Something Weird Video might not sound like a surefire winner, but this is another quirky surprise well worth picking up. Public-domain favorite MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD (previously issued on a budget Alpha disc) and obscure 50s true-crime expose GANGBUSTERS, both directed by obvious crime buff Bill Karn, have been paired together for an action-packed twin bill. They don't make 'em like this anymore!
Character actress Lurene Tuttle (recognizable as the sheriff's wife in PSYCHO) stars as Katy "Ma" Barker, the cutthroat bloodthirsty matriarch in the First Family of Crime! Tired of living an impoverished existence in the Depression-era Midwest, she tutors her four sons in the art of robbery, helping them plan to steal money from carnivals and Chinese laundrymen! The happy family is driven out of town by the sheriff, despite the lack of evidence to arrest them, and the gang begins their nomad existence, traveling all over the nation robbing banks, armored cars, and murdering anyone who gets in their way. And it's not just the boys who shoot off their Tommy guns, Ma has no problem putting the pedal to the metal or pulling the trigger to eliminate any unfortunate witnesses!
In order to make an exploitation masterpiece, writer/director Bill Karn wisely threw all the real life facts of the Barker gang to the wind and concocted his own all-star criminal line-up. Not only are all the Barker boys and their ringleader mother here, but John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly join their group, too! Kelly shows up with his blonde floozy moll Lou, who has some awesome verbal battles with Ma Barker ("You're much older than I thought, can I call you Grandma?", "You say that again and I'll rattle your tonsils till that mink you're wearing turns into the rabbit it is!")! Nelson and Dillinger shows up at a party, where Fred and his girl sing a song about a cheatin' girlfriend who's killed by her gangster beau! The film's bad taste and vicious portrayals of its villains become over-the-top and campy in no time; when Ma's drunken failure of a husband squeals to the cops about his son's shenanigans, she forces him to play a game of Russian roulette without blinking an eye! With a library musical score made up of cues from ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER and BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, surprisingly grisly violence (including a gory vehicular murder and the aforementioned suggestive Russian roulette game), consistently fascinating dialogue scenes, exciting action sequences filled with Tommy guns, Fed chases, and double crosses, Don Grady ("My Three Sons") as the young Herbert Barker, Fred's cellmate Al Karpis throwing his switchblade through a mouse ("Everything squeals when it dies!"), and a rotten plastic surgeon set on fire and tossed over a cliff in a car! But the truly amazing recommendation of the film, in addition to these amazing elements, is Lurene Tuttle, who really runs the gamut of emotions here: from venomous bouts with her weak-kneed husband, to bawling from a broken heart after the demise of one her sons, to dishing out verbal barbs through her smiling pearly whites, Ms. Tuttle gave her all in this film, despite its obvious low budget. She would continue in supporting roles in major and minor productions through the 1980s, before her passing in 1986.
It's safe to say that you can dispose of any previous editions of MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD, because the fullscreen transfer is simply gorgeous! There are brief appearances of black lines and blemishes and a few print jumps eliminating minor dialogue, but the contrasts are tremendous, the image bright and clean (with slight grain during dark scenes), and blacks sharp. Unless you're a completist who wants those tiny missing syllables during the print jumps, ditch the Alpha disc pronto!
After the delirious adventures of Ma Barker's gang, GANGBUSTERS can't help but be a disappointment. This "Dragnet"-style true crime story is far too slow and despite some interesting twists and turns, is a strictly by-the-numbers police procedural. Slimy John Omar Pinson (Myron Healy), renowned thief and murderer, is arrested while disguised as a one-armed man; he breaks out of prison in a bag of dirt (!) and continues his one-armed shtick, unbelievably, and gets caught again! The film turns into a broken record when Pinson escapes again, but he dies in a shootout and is buried by his partner. But is he really dead? His young imprisoned protégé doesn't think so, and he plans on a crime spree to force the criminal-in-hiding to track him down and become his partner!
Oh, GANGBUSTERS isn't really that awful, it's just not the right picture to be double-featured with an incredible experience like MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD. It's worth a watch, to be sure, but is not a memorable 50s crime pic and is best viewed as an added attraction to the real star of the show. The dialogue is realistically gritty and the film does manage to throw a few curveballs our way, so don't be afraid to switch it on for a one-time viewing. The fullscreen transfer is very grainy and there are a few print jumps eliminating dialogue, but it's in pretty good shape throughout. The mono audio isn't very strong.
"The Hideout" is where all the extras are stashed. Pull out your pistols and mow down some coppas while watching the Crime Busting Trailers selection. First up is JACKTOWN, which has been released on DVD paired with LOST, LONELY AND VICIOUS; it stars the BAD SEED herself Patty MacCormack. MIAMI EXPOSE is introduced by Mayor Christmas of Miami, Florida (?!); it's another crime-doesn't-pay morality play with an exploding plane, a murdered police sergeant (Lee J. Cobb!), and a pool party disrupted by an assassination. It looks entertaining enough! SLAUGHTER ON 10TH AVENUE is a noir-esque thriller about a Mob war in New York City. Walter Matthau stars. PORTLAND EXPOSE is apparently based on a true-life scandal (which is never explained, and I'm not familiar with the real case) about B-girls, bribery, and great gangster dialogue. The lead was one of the 12 ANGRY MEN! JAIL BUSTERS seems an inappropriate inclusion here, a Bowery Boys comedy with the Boys (including Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey) getting thrown into the slammer. Ugh. BABY FACE NELSON stars Mickey Rooney, yes, Mickey Rooney, as the "baby-faced punk who became Public Killer #1". Lots of action, sure, but it looks kind of ridiculous to have a pint-sized Baby Face Nelson spitting in cops' faces and ordering his goons around.
The real highlight of the extras is the abridged version of the 1950 feature film GUN GIRLS, the companion piece to the much better GIRL GANG (released on DVD paired with THE VIOLENT YEARS). Just because it isn't as raunchy and fabulous as GIRL GANG doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile camp masterpiece. It's unfortunate the entire film couldn't have been included (it could have easily substituted GANGBUSTERS for a Gun-Totin' Gals Double Feature), but this featurette still captures the juiciest moments for camp-hungry thrillseekers to enjoy. Opening with a police line-up of beautiful chicks in tight-clad shirts with bullet bras, we learn how the girls became criminals ("They learn how to fight with their knees, their feet, their hands"). One of the girls was a J.D. in THE VIOLENT YEARS! A pair of vicious femmes rob a horny joe-schmoe in a backalley, apparently one of many they fleece to make ends meet. They also blackmail their female bank teller roommate with compromising photos of her in order to pull of a major bank heist for their "pimp" (the mustachioed Timothy Farrell, who made a living by playing either bad guys or doctors and psychiatrists). With jive dialogue, wooden performances, and a fine coat of grime, GUN GIRLS is still a hell of a lot of fun, and as entertaining as 50s roadshow flicks come! (Casey Scott)
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