Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Amazing Mr. No Legs (1975) review


Ron Slinker (Andy), Richard Jaeckel (Chuck), Lloyd Bochner (D'Angelo), Ted Vollrath (No Legs), Rance Howard (Lou), Luke Halpin (Ken Wilson), John Agar (Captain Hathaway), Suhaila (Gwyn), Joan Murphy (Tina), Beverly Shade (Bessie), Helen Edwards (Serena), Joie Chitwood (Mower)

Directed by Ricou Browning

The Short Version: Florida has long held a reputation for craziness and this obscure, must-see cult item filmed there is indicative of that uniquely carnivalesque, Floridian local flavor. There's great potential here for MR. NO LEGS (a nearly lost exploitation treasure) to be the greatest movie of its kind ever made, but it comes up a little short. There's still abundant Drive-in nirvana with poorly choreographed Karate fights; barroom brawls; a co-main villain with no legs cruising around in a wheelchair hiding double-barrel shotguns in the armrests; midgets; transvestites; pimps; bad acting; Richard Jaeckel looking confused; and a near 20 minute car chase finale. Unfortunately, the stuff in between drags the pacing; keeping MR. NO LEGS from being totally AMAZING.

A young lady is accidentally killed by her drug-pusher boyfriend who works for D'Angelo, a local mobster selling drugs hidden inside of cigars. Her brother Andy, a cop, takes the job of finding those responsible for her death. Chuck, an older officer, is assigned to partner with Andy on the case. Both men discover D'Angelo's operations extend to their own department. Meanwhile, the mafioso's legless enforcer intends to take over his organization.

One of the things that makes low budget exploitation movies special are the outrageous plots used to lure an audience from the more standard, big-ticket Hollywood fare. Another is the talent involved in making them; whether a future superstar just starting out, or old hands in front or behind the camera appearing in something not typically associated with them.

You wouldn't necessarily attribute a movie about a Florida cop trying to solve his sister's death tied to a legless mobster in a heavily-armed wheelchair to the co-creator of FLIPPER and the Gill Man suit actor from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). Underwater expert and stuntman Ricou Browning didn't direct many motion pictures, but this is easily one of the wildest ever conceived. If only it had been paced better we'd have a contender for the greatest exploitation movie of all time. Nonetheless, there's a little something to both astonish and offend everyone in MR. NO LEGS.

The late Jack Cowden, co-creator and writer of FLIPPER with his brother-in-law, director Browning, wrote the script for MR. NO LEGS. It's not a particularly good script, outrageous though it is. There are a few funny lines (like Jaeckel, after being assaulted in a morgue says, "This is the liveliest morgue I've ever been in!") and a lot of potential in its many wacky elements that go untapped to a degree. For example, the picture could've used more than one Karate fight with its star attraction. It would've also done wonders for the film's exploitation value for No Legs to have an apparatus that allowed him to participate in the lengthy car chase at the end. That is if the production could've afforded it--considering people in front of and behind the camera either never got paid, or were late in payment. Such is the nature of low budget cinema.

Filmed in the summer of 1975 as KILLERS DIE HARD, the picture arguably has the most release dates attributed to it of any film in existence (with various sources listing it anywhere between 1977-1981). It's widely known as MR. NO LEGS; or, THE AMAZING MR. NO LEGS to put Ted Vollrath at the forefront--while the promotional materials insinuate he's the hero of the picture. He being the major selling point, it was common practice back then for distributors to deceive audiences with promises the pictures couldn't wholly deliver on. Nowadays, studios deceive their audiences with trailers that are oftentimes three minutes worth of broken promises. Under the NO LEGS title, it's understandable why most reviews note that the antagonistic amputee isn't the focus of the film. The KILLERS promotion doesn't even mention him at all; which is likely why it was modified to feature the NO LEGS title to make it more attractive for potential theater patrons looking for something out of the ordinary.

That many of the cast members look like they'd been picked off the street and immediately put in front of a camera only adds to the sideshow ambiance the movie gracefully wallows in. Some of the unusual cast had remarkably colorful lives that were as wild, if not more so, than this particular movie they appeared in; and, in some ways, found themselves involved--whether willingly or unwittingly--in deceptive, and even criminal practices.

Browning packs his picture full of friends and FLIPPER alums, local celebrities and a thick atmosphere of 1970s Florida flavor. Everything from local diners and bars; to bell-bottoms and curiously surreal in-home decor. Speaking of set decoration, Gwyn, the girlfriend to our man Andy, has a home that looks like a modern day seraglio with its walls of curtains, a giant mirror, and floors covered in thick, fur blankets. Browning even makes screen-time for an on-stage performance by a former chart-topping local band called Mercy.

Mercy had a #2 hit spanning two of Billboards Top 100 charts back in 1969 with the undeniably infectious, soothing sound of 'Love (Can Make You Happy)'. They can be seen singing the song in a movie few ever saw, 1969s FIREBALL JUNGLE. That same year the song quickly sold a million copies while the band's singer Jack Sigler, Jr was in the navy and the other members had broken up. Gil Cabot of Sundi Records owned the song and wanted an album; so he decided to form a bootleg band and call them The Mercy. Brazenly enough, this LP contained Mercy's hit song and covers by this mystery group. When Sigler returned from service that same year he naturally filed a lawsuit and got the band back together. Signing with Warner Brothers Records, Sigler re-recorded the song for an album. Both the Sundi and WB LPs were released and buyers knew the real deal when they heard it. The fake Sundi album was ultimately pulled from the market. You can read more about it HERE.

For MR. NO LEGS, Mercy sang the theme song, 'Killers Die Hard'; and are seen on-stage performing a song called 'I Still Remember Love', a song with a similar melody to their hit tune from '69.

Watching double-amputee Ted Vollrath--in his only feature film role--stump kick a man to death and Karate chop a bunch of out of shape thugs is hilarious; it's not something you see everyday. However, Vollrath was a real-life bad ass, and a fascinating man who had mastered the phrase 'Strength Through Adversity'.

In the early 1970s, he was referred to in magazines as "The Amazing Mr. Vollrath"; and "the world's most unusual Karateka". Born in 1936, Vollrath enlisted in the marines after graduating high school and fought in the Korean War (1950-1953). Tragedy struck when a mortar shell went off near him resulting in his losing both legs and a lung after a reported 83 operations failed to literally keep him together. Artificial limbs were deemed an impossibility. Vollrath refused to let this setback ruin his life.

He found new confidence in working with kids as a Cub Scout leader and baseball coach. Vollrath's determination grew when he decided to tackle the obstacles in becoming a martial artist. In the beginning, he encountered instructors that had no interest in putting in the work to train him to overcome his disability. Nearly giving up, Vollrath found two MA teachers who took him on as a student. After five years of arduous training, Vollrath attained 2nd Degree Black Belts in Isshin-Ryu and Shorinji-Ryu; as well as training in Kung Fu.

Vollrath had big plans to travel the country to assist others with similar handicaps and interests in the martial arts. He'd also intended to shoot a movie with Glenn R. Premru (a once well known Karateka and Forms champion in the 1960s to the early 1970s) titled 'Mahjong Conspiracy'. That motion picture never materialized but he did star in a Florida-shot short film titled LET ME LIVE IN YOUR WORLD (1975) for the short-lived Premru Productions. The 22 minute short subject was Ted demonstrating how he defeated his handicap to become a Karate master.

Crazily enough, and worthy of the wackiness of MR. NO LEGS, Premru turned out to be a criminal and conman. In 1975, he allegedly ripped off funds from the Okinawan Karate Federation; was later involved in other crimes including embezzlement and impersonating an investigator. Premru tried mounting another film production company in 1984, but this fell through. In 2002, he was arrested on charges of mail fraud for selling hundreds of worthless certificates to students purporting them to be far more advanced in MA than they actually were. He was on the run as of 2013 but reportedly has been recaptured.

Despite his handicap, Ted Vollrath literally did everything; he hunted, fished, ran three martial arts dojos in PA, and was a husband and father of four. He was also the first man to receive a Black Belt while confined to a wheelchair. He was not one of the three founding members of the MAHF (Martial Arts Handicapped Federation), but took over founder Preston Carter's executive position when he could no longer continue in his duties. At the time, Carter (also in a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury in 1971 after reportedly being shot by two men he threw out of a bar) was the first black man to acquire a 10th Dan in Karate. Prior to adding acting to his list of accomplishments, Ted said in a 1974 interview, "I don't want sympathy. I make my own way; I just want to be accepted for what I am right now, and for what I can do right now."

Vollrath's sole acting role is surprisingly good in delivery. He has the right amount of intensity and, while he isn't the real main villain, you wish he had been. That there's a movie with a double-amputee bad guy in a weapons-laden wheelchair is jaw-dropping all by itself. He promoted the movie at various speaking events after filming wrapped, utilizing his weaponized wheelchair seen in the film. Ted certainly gave everything in everything he did. He died in November of 2001.

The tall and stout Ron Slinker is the lead protagonist in his one and only starring role. He doesn't leave much of an impression as an actor but, fascinatingly enough, his off-screen life was far more interesting from multiple angles. One is in how this movie reflected aspects of his life before and after starring in it. He plays a Karate-fighting cop that, in real life, had been a Tampa police officer for ten years and received Black Belts in Judo and Yoshukai Karate. He reportedly competed in 29 full-contact Karate tournaments, winning all but two of them and was an instructor and owned a few MA schools.

Unfortunately, he had problems like anyone else; suffering from an alcohol addiction that led to arrests for theft and battery. In 1982 he would be arrested for conspiracy to transport drugs. In MR. NO LEGS, Slinker's character is trying to find his sister's killer, the victim of mobsters transporting drugs hidden inside of cigars.

On-screen, Slinker didn't look like a martial artist at all. But then, the real fighters sometimes looked clumsy instead of imposing on film. No fight coordinator is credited, but most likely he choreographed the action; it is fun to watch in an unconvincing, DOLEMITE (1975) sort of way. There's at least an attempt to keep them lively such as guys being thrown through doors and windows; and, at one point, a thug attacks Slinker in his corvette with an Arthurian style sword!

Slinker would incorporate his MA skills into a near 15 year professional wrestling career between the years of 1977 to 1991. He did some co-main events, but was mostly an undercard wrestler. At one point he was a masked wrestler named Mr. Orient. Wrestling throughout the Southern United States territories, he was especially active in the CWF (Championship Wrestling from Florida; Florida Championship Wrestling), he worked with many of the major players like Wahoo McDaniel, Blackjack Mulligan, Dusty Rhodes, and the Brisco Brothers. He also played a role in helping Rob Van Dam and The Rock early in their careers by giving the former his ring name and being a trainer to the latter. Ron Slinker would pass away in March of 2008 from liver failure.

As for the rest of the cast, Richard Jaeckel was a famous character actor who appeared in dozens of movies--particularly John Wayne westerns, action and horror pictures. He was a fantastic actor who often brought a lot of energy to lazy productions; but in Browning's movie, he's a little less lively than usual. Jaeckel plays Slinker's partner and seems indifferent to the material; as if he found it difficult to ascertain whether it should be taken seriously or not. Even so, the picture is more entertaining by his participation. Some of his other genre works include PART 2: WALKING TALL (1975), GRIZZLY (1976), and THE DARK (1979).

Lloyd Bochner is the real main villain, playing the mobster D'Angelo. No Legs is his enforcer. Bochner sees No Legs as problematic due to his old-school, violent ways and plans to get rid of him. No Legs on the other hand, plots to eliminate his employer. This is one of the areas the script doesn't allow to cook long enough, unfortunately. Bochner had a distinctive voice that's unmistakable. You may not recognize his face, but you'll know you've seen him somewhere before. And most likely, it was in the season two episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, 'To Serve Man', one of the most famous segments in television history.

John Agar has the important supporting role as Hathaway, a former race car driver turned police captain. Among 50s monster movie fans, Agar was as well known as this films director, Ricou Browning. Like some of the other cast members, Agar found fame alongside John Wayne in several movies before and after low budget SciFi flicks became his calling card. When you say the name John Agar most cult film fans immediately think of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957); or others like TARANTULA (1955), THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956), DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL (1957), or INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959).

Then there's Rance Howard, the father to Ron and Clint Howard (Opie Taylor and Leon on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW). The greasiest bad guy in the flick, he's the main subordinate to No Legs. It's one of, if not the biggest role of Howard's lengthy career; made up mostly of background characters an walk-on appearances.

Luke Halpin (above at left), child star in three seasons of FLIPPER (1964-1967) and lead actor in 1976s SHOCK WAVES (the best Nazi zombie movie ever made), has a minor role here as the ill-fated boyfriend to the equally unlucky Tina (played by Joan Murphy).

Heavily advertised as part of the show, Joie Chitwood (insert at left) and his Danger Angels assume the driver's seat during the finale; encompassing a near 20 minute car chase with crashes aplenty. The Chitwoods were famous stuntmen that performed traveling Thrill Shows as "Hell Drivers" executing various car stunts. Inspired by the first auto stunt driver Lucky Teter (whose luck ran out when he was killed in a 170 foot ramp to ramp jump in 1942), Joie Chitwood, Sr. (and later, his sons) went from racing cars in the 1930s to smashing into them, driving on two wheels, or other death-defying stunts like crashing and jumping through walls and hoops set on fire. Their country-wide car crash events caught the attention of Hollywood where they added a few dozen film and TV credits to their resume. The Chitwoods were affiliated with Chevrolet, which would explain why there are several Camaro's and Corvettes seen in the movie. Joie has a small part in the picture as Mower, the lumbering thug that, along with Lou (Rance Howard), tries and fails to steal a corpse from a morgue.

Massacre Video is one of a handful of niche video labels putting out obscure genre pictures and more recent curios. There's a disclaimer before the film explaining the problems encountered to give this rarity as close to a proper blu-ray release as was possible. The original 16mm film elements were reportedly destroyed; while numerous 35mm prints were too severely damaged from weather or poor storage to be used. A rare, cut, French 35mm print is the source of the blu-ray using inserts from an uncut video master that brings NO LEGS completely together for the first time. It's far from even a good looking print, but it's the best this film has ever looked; and likely ever will. The on-screen title is GUN FIGHTER. The screencap as MR. NO LEGS as seen at the top of the review is taken from the original trailer included on this blu-ray release.

Director Browning is well known for being a director of below the surface sequences, and has been immortalized as the man inside the Gill Man suit for the underwater shots in the 1950s trilogy. His brief sojourn into exploitation movie-making will never attain the same heights of respectability; although it being a highlight of lowbrow cinema is what makes it special. For a film that doesn't feature a carnival anywhere in sight, MR. NO LEGS looks like it belongs in one. It's a one-of-a-kind, extraordinary movie made during a time you simply can't replicate today; well, Florida is still as weird and bizarre as it ever was.

This review is representative of the Massacre Video blu-ray. Specs and Extras: Brand new 2K restoration using a rare 35mm print from France; Limited edition 500 units with KILLERS DIE HARD slipcover and standard edition without slipcover; reversible cover; US theatrical trailer as MR. NO LEGS; other trailers; Poster and stills gallery; Mr. No Legs music video; English, French, German audio options; English captions; Running time: uncut composite from 35mm print and uncut video master: 01:28:37; French-sourced 35mm print: 01:21:32.
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