Directed By: Yabo Yablonsky
Starring: Mickey Rooney, Luana Anders, Keenan Wynn
Trivia: This film was also released as B.J. Presents
Most DVD collectors are familiar with Mill Creek Entertainment, a company that regularly releases bargain-priced box sets featuring a variety of public domain films. I’ve purchased a few of these sets over the years, some with as many as 50 movies in them (like Nightmare Worlds and Pure Terror). Naturally, the picture quality isn’t the best (most look downright awful), but, hey, when you’re getting 50 movies for $10, you can't expect HD-level playback, right?
During this challenge of mine, I’ve dipped into one or two of these sets, and have to say that. so far, I liked what I've seen (Drums in the Deep South, an underrated picture about the U.S. Civil War, was part of Mill Creek’s Combat Classics). The Mill Creek collection I’ve returned to most often is their Drive-In Movie Classics, which features 50 different films, mostly horror and exploitation, from all around the world. Absolution is in this set, as is Day of the Panther and In Hot Pursuit, three movies I definitely enjoyed. Of course, that’s only three out of 50. How many of the remaining 47 are hidden gems, just waiting to be discovered?
I probably won’t get around to watching all 47 anytime soon, but over the course of the next five days, I’ll be checking out a quintet of films from this set, the first of which is an oddity from 1971 titled The Manipulator, starring Mickey Rooney as a former Hollywood make-up artist who has completely lost his mind.
For years now, B.J. Lang (Rooney ) has been living in a forgotten sound stage on a studio back lot, a place filled with costumes, props, and equipment left over from Hollywood’s heyday. But he’s not alone; he’s kidnapped a struggling actress he repeatedly refers to as “Carlotta” (Luana Anders), who he’s strapped to a wheelchair, forcing her to take part in the various “productions” he stages. In fact, Lang’s about to make his masterpiece, a movie adaptation of Cyrano De Bergerac, in which he himself will play the title role.
The Manipulator is a bizarre film that dives headfirst into some very strange territory. First off, the two main characters are clearly insane. Lang spends large chunks of time talking to himself, pretending that he’s chatting with old associates, and at one point interacts with a naked elderly couple (figments of his imagination), all the while droning on about his past accomplishments. I would never have pictured Mickey Rooney in a role like this, but he does a fantastic job, convincingly portraying a man whose psyche has been shattered.
Equally as good is Luana Anders as Carlotta, whose insanity is a by-product of her never-ending situation. She, too, has hallucinations (most of which involve her escaping) and continually calls to Lang, as if she’s afraid he’s left her alone to die. Both Rooney and Anders are strong in their respective roles, pulling off the amazing feat of carrying an entire motion picture by themselves.
At times, The Manipulator feels a little stage bound, and is dialogue heavy, yet Rooney and Anders keep things moving at a brisk pace. Their performances, coupled with director Yablonsky’s sharp camera angles and jarring cuts, transform The Manipulator into one very disturbing motion picture.