Monsters and Girls
An Introduction to House on Bare Mountain, and the films of Cresse and Frost
By Mike Pinnington
Reading time 15 Minutes
The camera pans slowly to the right
The camera pans slowly to the right, across what appear to be prison bars, to reveal a harmless-looking old “lady.” Calling herself Granny Good (played in drag by film producer Bob Cresse), she proceeds to tell us, in flashback, just how she came to be in such a predicament.
So begins House on Bare Mountain, whose knowing opening shots see Good addressing the camera, setting the scene for some of what’s to come. I say some of what’s to come as, alongside these self-aware nods in the audience’s general direction, the film also sets its stall out early in other, flesh-hewn terms, showing what, in 1962, must have been considered copious amounts of the stuff.
House on Bare Mountain, it is safe to say, would not have been considered a legitimate cinema release. It doesn’t quite fit into the category of the so-called “nudie-cuties” (a genre foreshadowing the sexploitation cinema to come), in which abundant scenes and shots of girls in varying states of undress are woven into a loose narrative, with the aim primarily – presumably – to titillate. But it is certainly related. Think UK productions such as The Benny Hill Show (1955–91) or the Carry On series of films (1958–92) sans their thin veneer of comic respectability, with a dash – somewhat bizarrely – of Scooby Doo, and you’ll be getting close.
In the case of House on Bare Mountain, this capering narrative thread happens to be that Granny Good’s School for Good Girls is a somewhat elaborate cover for the Good’s illicit hooch-brewing business in the school’s basement. “Prudence,” a new student whom we witness being enrolled in the school by her parents near the beginning of the film, is in fact later revealed to be an undercover cop working as part of a sting operation to uncover reported strange goings-on at GGSfGG.
This escapade plays out against an unapologetic backdrop of the school’s students exercising, showering, and getting dressed and undressed for bed, and for their prom, with the camera taking long, lingering looks at an abundance of breasts and bottoms.
There is also a quite strange and outlandish (if diverting) sub-plot involving a character named Krakow, a seemingly non-unionised – pay attention folks, spoiler alert! – and underpaid henchman-cum-handyman, who also happens to be a werewolf. So, you can throw in comedy-horror for good measure here, too. While the film undoubtedly exists primarily for the objectification of women for a straight, predominantly male audience, amid the frequent nudity (all of which, although gratuitous, looks fairly innocent viewed from this side of those times), it also aims for laughs. Although often falling a little short (this is not always sophisticated stuff – vaudevillian-style visual humour and slapstick for the most part), there are occasions where House on Bare Mountain raises enough of a smile to keep the groans company.
Also in its favour is that it delivers what it promises on the tin; one of the movie’s taglines reads “You've never seen more! Let us prove it to you when the monsters meet the girls!” If it sounds simplistic that’s because it is, but nobody can deny that it certainly delivers on the promise of monsters and girls.
The film, though, must be – can only be – considered a product of the culture in which it was produced; and, from the perspective of 2018, it is perhaps best understood on those terms. It is when viewing the film on these grounds that it becomes of interest – as a recently rediscovered artefact from another time. It is fascinating, for instance, to consider how the film might be received by digital natives; I’m thinking those born after 1980, here, and certainly millennials. With today’s ease of access to multiple video-on-demand streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like), and to video sharing sites such as YouTube – not to mention porn in its many forms – House on Bare Mountain will look initially like a hard to decipher relic. They are most likely to be left with an overriding sense of bemusement, followed quickly by the question “who is – or, more aptly, was – this for?”
It must be viewed, then, as a curio – a time capsule providing insight into the period and cultural context in which it was made; it is, therefore, useful to consider that context. John F. Kennedy was in the White House, West Side Story won the Oscar for Best Picture (with Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins sharing the plaudits for Best Director), while the likes of Elvis, Ray Charles, The Shirelles and Dee Dee Sharp enjoyed heavy rotation on the airwaves.
The idea of the teenager, meanwhile, had been around since at least the early ‘40s, but had become increasingly well-defined. Alongside which, true youth culture – articulated along (and in tandem with) consumerist lines – was a nascent, yet burgeoning thing. Certainly, by 1962, the year of House on Bare Mountain’s release, a popular culture explosion had occurred, the aftershocks of which had yet to be fully understood, and everything had changed. Rock and roll, a distinct popular entity for around a decade, was, perhaps, its driving force.
By extension, the ‘60s is considered almost universally to have been a golden era in terms of popular culture, and – prior to the assassination of JFK – a reasonably sheltered one into the bargain. These were significantly different times than those experienced by the previous couple of generations – as well as those to follow.
Crucially, one area in which this “innocence” is certainly relevant is in the realm of sexual politics. While attitudes to sex were indeed changing – for the better in relative terms – things hadn’t yet transformed so much as to positively affect the content of films such as those being produced by the likes of Bob Cresse. Any progress meant that these were confusing times and, going back to the era’s pop stars briefly, they were times in which the mere whiff of the presence of male sexuality could be considered dangerous, subversive even. Elvis’s 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, for instance, was censored by CBS so that the star could only be seen from the waist up; presumably lest his gyrating hips drive the nation’s women to distraction long enough to spoil their husbands’ dinners that night.
In the context of today
In the context of today it is, then, right to read the film with more than a sense of curiosity, and, taken on that basis, perhaps rather than ask “who is this for?” it is important – so as to gain an understanding of the motivating factors and forces that brought it to screens, however limited the numbers – to take a closer look at who made it, and why.
The second part of that question – the why – is answered relatively simply. Although notable for its nudity, House on Bare Mountain would not have fallen into the category of what might be termed “under the counter” pornography. This was thanks in no small part to Russ Meyer who three years earlier had made money on depicting female nudity with no pretext of naturism (a ploy to evade the censors) in The Immoral Mr. Teas, widely considered to be the first commercially viable American “skin flick.” Beginning with that film, Meyer (best known today for sexploitation epics such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and Beyond the Valley of The Dolls), helped give rise to the popularity of the nudie-cutie.
To put it another way, Meyer, quoted as saying “Nothing is obscene providing it is done in bad taste…,” had found a way to make these pictures pay (Mr. Teas’ modest budget of $24,000 ultimately returned more than $1.5 million). In this era, don’t forget, nakedness on screen remained a huge deal; in addition, many a famed director now started out in the arena of soft-core movies that would pave the way for a slew of related subgenres, such as so-called “roughies”, and the aforementioned sexploitation pictures. Unsurprisingly, other directors at the fringes of the business, or just starting out, followed in Meyer’s wake. Some as a means to pay the bills – future Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola’s first two directorial efforts, coincidentally also from 1962, were very much in a similar vein to House on Bare Mountain – while others remained to blaze a trail (if that’s the right term), perhaps feeling they’d found their true calling or arrived at their final destination.
Which brings us back to Bob Cresse and House on Bare Mountain’s director, Lee Frost. At least as interesting as the film itself are the pair responsible for its production, not to mention (not, at least, just yet) their onward trajectories. As discussed above, star Bob Cresse also served as producer of the film, while director Lee Frost, who made his directorial debut with another 1962 film Surftide 77, would work with Cresse again and again. Indeed, many of the films Frost made that decade were done for Cresse. All of them low budget, they worked their way through genres ranging from Westerns – with 1968’s Hot Spur – to the following year’s Nazisploitation film Love Camp 7 (whereby the Nazis’ establishment of brothels in concentration camps is questionably exploited).
Their professional relationship led them, in 1966, to the equally murky world of Mondo, a genre whose stock in trade was to achieve the utmost titillation from the sensational and obscene. Using documentary footage (again, as a means of avoiding the censor), the content of these films was, first and foremost, intended to shock, and ranged from scenes of surgery to tribal initiation rites.
Incidentally, the roots and success of the Mondo genre (literally translating from the Italian as “world”) can be traced to 1962’s Mondo Cane. A film purporting to be a travelogue, it featured a panoply of global cultural practices that, for western audiences of the time, would have been something of a guilty, “exotic” pleasure, framed as a window to another world.
Shortly after the film’s screening at Cannes that year, however, one viewer in the audience who apparently didn’t appreciate the rouse was the French artist Yves Klein, who suffered a heart attack. Klein, grasping neither the true nature of the film nor the intentions of its director, had agreed to the inclusion of footage for one of his Anthropometries, an artwork in which Klein directs naked female models to “paint” with their bodies. Although he recovered from his shock at Cannes, Klein suffered a further heart attack and was dead within a month.
Whether or not Cresse and Frost were aware of the artist’s demise is unclear, but they had been impressed rather than put off by the genre’s outrageous potential. Four years later they briefly moved away from the cinema they had been prodigiously knocking out by capitalising on Mondo’s vogue moment, making Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo. Incredibly, Frost worked on another two productions that year, and it’s worth noting his approach to the business of making movies: “I wasn't interested in what people thought of the films, I was just looking for another project – ‘Let's get another script, let's shoot again.’”
Frost was active until 1995 (his last picture was the straight-to-video erotic thriller Watch Me). As he saw it, “[it wasn’t] the same industry it used to be. We were making little movies,” he continued, “grinding them out, and putting them on the screen.” Had he been younger (Frost died in 2007, aged 71), you could argue he’d still have been working with small budgets, but rather than spending the majority of his money on physical film, today, he would likely have been shooting on an iPhone.
If the final years of Frost’s career are tinged with a sense of what might have been, his partner Cresse’s ended under fittingly curious circumstances. Reportedly, while out walking his dog on Hollywood Boulevard, Cresse was witness to an altercation in which two men were attacking a woman. Pulling a gun and warning the men to stop, Cresse himself was shot by one of the men, who said that he was a police officer. Cresse survived (which is more than can be said for his dog, who was shot and killed), but having spent a small fortune on his treatment for a gunshot wound to the stomach and in medical insurance, his career as a producer was over, and he died in 1998, aged 61.
Their end of activity in the business, coming just before the new millennium, also marked the end of an era. As Frost remarked, “[there was] no reason to make little movies anymore. Where are you going to play them? I could've made porno movies, but I didn't want to do that. So I just stopped – as did most of us.”
Mike Pinnington is a writer and editor based in the UK. He is the editor and co-founder of the arts criticism and cultural commentary magazine The Double Negative. He has also worked at Tate as content editor. His writing has appeared in Art Monthly, a-n, The Art Newspaper, Garageland Magazine, MUBI and The Guardian.