Dagon (2001) straight up Lovecraft

There’s something to be said for a faithful adaptation, but sometimes the changes work out. This movie is pretty true to the original short story except for the setting, and that change of location makes the story even more satisfying. So let’s dive in.

Dagon (Movie Review) | Bloody Good Horror
Macarena Gómez as Uxía Cambarro

The film is an adaptation of the classic H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, wherein a small fishing community is taken over by a sinister cult. Director Stuart Gordon just loves Lovecraft, but as always has adapted the story to modern times and it is wonderful. They made the (probably financial) decision to shoot in Spain, but instead of pretending to be somewhere else like so many low-budget films do, they decided to embrace it, turning Innsmouth into Imboca.

After a boat crash with his friends Howard and Vicki (Brendan Price and Birgit Bofarull), the protagonist, Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his Spanish girlfriend Bárbara (Raquel Meroño), find themselves in the small town trying to find help for their friends. By setting the film there, the protagonist faces a language barrier that only adds to his sense of discomfort and helplessness. Even Bárbara is out of place as a Spanish-speaker in a town that speaks Catalán. At first I was like, “oh cool, representation for the minority Catalán community” but then my husband pointed out “they’re all evil fish people, though”.

Dagon (2001) Retrospective – THE MASTER CYLINDER
I like this little mermaid best.

So… fish people. Glorious, practical make-up effects. Some of them make dolphin noises. It’s great. But, alas, this is also tempered by some very dodgy CG effects at points, which are completely distracting. Honestly, those effects are the only thing keeping this from being a perfect movie for me. (Also, why do they collect skins, though?) The acting is all good for a low-budget foreign production. Ezequiel (Francisco Raban) is a great old-school wino character, and he even has the acting chops to pull off a huge expository scene. So there’s a good range of humour, drama, and horror.

This movie altogether lived up to my expectations for the creator of Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). It’s not perfect, but it is fun and makes the most of its status as an adaptation rather than being too cute with the source material. If you like Lovecraft, I would say this is essential viewing. It’s free on Tubi! But be forewarned, the subtitles don’t translate the dialogue in Catalán so if you don’t know that language and/or Spanish you will have a hard time.

The Lair of the White Worm (1988) horror comedy… mostly comedy adventure

Lair of the White Worm - Home | Facebook
Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh

Imagine, if you will, Doctor Who fighting a snake person with the power of bagpipes. This movie is not trying to be a horror film, it’s an old-school adventure story and if you take it on that level, it’s super fun. It’s based on an original Bram Stoker short story, and the film itself is an homage to swashbuckling serials from the 1930s, with larger than life characters, big accents, and beautiful women in danger. Pure camp. Elevating it, there are some great trippy dream sequences where you go “Oh yeah, he directed Altered States (1980)”. So, altogether, it’s massively entertaining.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because it’s very simple. There is an ancient town where a local lord once killed a great dragon, the white worm of the title. Now, in the 1980s, there is still one acolyte of the serpent, facing off with the lord’s descendant, James D’Ampton (a smarmy Hugh Grant), and a plucky archaeologist, Angus Flint (a very Scottish Peter Capaldi). Amanda Donohoe dominates as Lady Sylvia Marsh, chewing all the scenery while the other female characters, Eve and Mary Trent (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis), do a fine job but don’t contribute much (and that’s okay in this genre).

It’s currently on Tubi, but leaving soon, so catch it if you can.

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), Giallo to the max!

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972) - IMDb
Edwige Fenech as Jennifer and the longest title ever: “Why are those strange drops of blood on Jennifer’s body?”

Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) and her friend, Marilyn (Paola Quattrini), move into an apartment building where two other women were murdered, but you know… vacancies are low in Rome so they are delighted. The commissioner (Giampiero Albertini) is tracking down information about Mizar (Carla Brait), the second victim. Be prepared for some racism there. Andrea (George Hilton), the building’s architect, is the chief suspect and he strikes up a relationship with Jennifer. All that we see of the murderer is creepy, transparent, tight rubber gloves and a head to toe black outfit, even a black scarf over the face. Complicating things is Jennifer’s personal history. She was in a polyamorous sex cult run by her husband, Adam (Ben Carra), who is now stalking her, leaving behind the bloody irises from the English title. In typical Giallo style, the plot is convoluted beyond belief but it’s fun rather than exhausting to keep up with.

This movie is so stereotypically Giallo that it’s the platonic ideal. Right away, the soundtrack is fabulous. It’s exuberant, it’s intrusive, it’s so seventies it hurts. They filmed in Rome, and the city looks great, not even that different from now, with the boxy little cars zipping around. The fashions are to die for and all of the characters look flawless with those heavy fake lashes and big hair. Even the violence is stylish rather than gory. The inevitable huge cast of side characters is all more wonderful than expected, especially the photographer Arthur (Oreste Lionello). The person dubbing Arthur is just too good, he plays the worst gay stereotype you will ever hear and it is utterly compelling. The lesbian neighbour, Sheila (Annabella Incontrera), is beautiful and just slightly too intense but Marilyn doesn’t seem put off. There is even a running gag where the inspector, Renzi (Franco Agostini), always gets clocked as a cop in public: genuinely funny. And to cap it all off, the film ends with a random new character mirroring the first scene of the film about getting the apartment, making it all a commentary on the housing market in Rome or something? Thus, the vibe for the film is non-stop fun. A perfect treat that I can highly recommend, and not one I’d ever seen on a list of top Giallo films (it’s available on Shudder).

Vampire Circus (1972) a hidden gem

Everybody knows Hammer Horror, right? They were a mainstay of 70s British horror. The first thing you probably think of is Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing, it’s a classic combo! I especially adore Dracula A.D. 1972 for its crazy 70s twist on the character. And yet, I would argue Vampire Circus is more creative and fun to watch. Hear me out, okay? You can even watch it for free on Tubi.

Drive-In Dust Offs: VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972) - Daily Dead
No, it cannot be! Better than Christopher Lee?!? (Anthony Higgins as Emil)

Rather than your typical Dracula adaptation, this movie builds its own vampire family lore. It begins with Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), who lives in a castle outside of the town of Stetl in what can loosely be described as the 19th century. The town tires of him seducing women and eating children, so they decide to attack with torches and some pretty nice pyrotechnics. Piercing his heart with a stake, the Count’s last words are to swear vengeance against the town. His human lover, Anna (Domini Blythe), hides his body and flees. 15 years later, the townsfolk are suffering from an unknown plague and superstitiously blame it on the murder of the Count., while the local doctor seeks a rational explanation. The town has been placed under quarantine, so anyone who attempts to leave is shot and misery abounds.

Somehow, a circus makes its way into town, with its leader “Gypsy Woman” (Adrienne Corri) laughingly declaring that that they have “come to steal the coins from the eyes of the dead”. Their act is a delight to all, as the townspeople return every night even as some of their number start to disappear. Interestingly, the performers are not just vampires, they include humans like a little person barker, Michael (Skip Martin) and a mute strongman (David Prowse) as well as the mysterious Gypsy Woman. Rather than just bats, the vampires can transform into a variety of exotic animals. Emil (Mitterhaus’ brother), for example spends most of his time as a black panther when not seducing women in his sparkly collar and pink blouse. The circus performances are all beautifully shot. The plot is pretty thin, but nice visuals (especially a bit with a magic mirror) are enough to keep a viewer engaged. Of course, it helps that the main characters are all incredibly gorgeous. I was totally surprised by how fun this film was.

Vampire Circus (1972) Robin Sachs and Lala Ward | Hammer horror films, Vampire  circus, Robin sachs
Vampire twins Heinrich (Robin Sachs) -somehow selling a shag haircut- and Helga (Lalla Ward) -just naturally stunning

Basket Case (1982) puppet rating: 8.5/10

Do you like puppets? Gross puppets? Consider watching Basket Case (1982). It’s the madcap tale of a young man, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), and his parasitic twin, Belial (puppet in basket). Separated without consent, the two team up to take revenge on the doctors that tore them apart, Dr. Lifflander (Bill Freeman), Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace), and Dr. Kutter (Diana Browne)… who is now a veterinarian. Along the way he meets the sympathetic medical receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), who falls head over heels for him for no reason apparent to the viewer. All of this takes place in a sleazy, early 1980s New York which is always a good time (think Muppets take Manhattan but icky).

It Came From the '80s] Belial is a Total 'Basket Case' - Bloody Disgusting
Belial, or “BeLyle”, as Tubi subtitled it

There’s even a bit of a weird Canadian trivia for those keeping score: the first evil doctor who is killed, Dr. Lifflander, is played by a writer of Canadian historical fiction, Bill Freeman.

Now. The puppet. Sometimes he’s stop motion. Sometimes he’s a real person’s face in a prosthetic. Sometimes he’s rubber gloves, like it’s filmed from his perspective. But most of the time, he is a hand puppet in a basket. I would argue that the fact he is all of those things is what takes this movie from garbage to glory for most of its run time. The gore effects? Surprisingly competent.

But then… I started getting a bad feeling when he tries to feel up Duane’s raunchy neighbour, Casey (Beverly Bonner). And, finally, there’s no two ways about it, he kills and rapes and Sharon. It’s so very tragic because I really did love that puppet. The film ends when Belial strangles Duane before they both plummet to their deaths. And because the world is a terrible place there are sequels. Sequels which I don’t think I’ll watch.

Legacy of Satan (1974), hits that sweet spot

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Maya (Lisa Christian)

There are a lot of terrible films out there. Many are on Tubi, bless their hearts. The 70s were a heady time for film, with the technology becoming more accessible and an interest in experimental film. At the same time, this era became a nexus of schlock. Legacy of Satan (1974) is garbage, but it’s entertaining garbage.

In essence, Maya (Lisa Christian) is a sexually repressed housewife. Her husband, George (Paul Barry), loves her but is having a hard time dealing with her mood swings and lack of desire. Their friend, Arthur (James Procter), becomes involved in a sexy blood cult. Cult leader Dr. Muldavo (John Francis) becomes fixated on Maya. His cult worships Rakeesh (not Satan?), and they plan to lure Maya in with a costume party. Maya starts having strange visions; one is a pretty cool painting that’s bleeding from the eyes, but then she gets attacked by a guy in a crummy rubber mask, so… kind of unsatisfying.

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Got some schmutz there…

When the couple goes to the cult compound, they are drugged and separated. Maya seems fine with her fate; in fact, when George tries to rescue Maya with the help of a mute cultist, Aurelia (Anne Paul), and a magic sword, Maya turns on him. This twist was really unexpected and fun, but the film kind of fizzles out from there. Dr. Muldavo has been injured during the attempted escape, resulting in some kind of skin condition (with terrible makeup appliances) and Maya tries to nurse him back to health with increasing amounts of blood, but to no avail. The film ends with Maya crying out to Rakeesh for help as she too succumbs to whatever skin disease was afflicting Dr. Muldavo.

Even though this film is not by any means successful, it is a fun watch if you like bad movies. There is something very particular about bad films in this era, distinct from other decades, and boy does this film deliver.

1. Re-using footage. You know what you’re in for almost right away, as the same line shot from two angles is repeated in the same scene. Not a flashback, literally a minute after Maya says the line she says it again. She is reacting to Arthur quitting his job to follow the cult. “Now, George, don’t be so obstinate. He’s a grown man and I’m sure he’s got his reasons”. Astonishing.

2. That budget, though. Despite its limitations, the fashion and interior design are cutting edge, like the painting of two hot dogs on a cube, the monochromatic rooms, the diaphanous silk caftans… So good. The cultist all have sweet crescent moon necklaces which they use to scratch for blood (and look like they may have been made from pie tins). The film takes a really strange turn close to the end, which feels like they maybe ran out of money or time with their extras and sets, where they start using furniture and entire rooms from the couple’s house on what is ostensibly now the cult set, and all of a sudden there are only three people in the cult.

3. Morality restored. What is the objective of the story? Is it a condemnation of free love and the danger of syphilis? I kind of think so. That’s all I could come up with for the strange skin condition. But, in the end,, the real horror is their very, very mauve house.

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Maya and George, living that 70s decor dream.

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

I really liked this movie. While imperfect in that inimitable 1970s way, there are so many interesting details to keep you engaged. The title does not fit the story at all, but let’s dig in.

Mariclare Costello as Emily

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is fragile, she has just had some kind of unspecified mental breakdown. She and her musician husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), have bought an old farmhouse in a small town with their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Jessica stops on the way, in their converted hearse, to take etchings of gravestones, where she sees a young woman in white; her inner monologue tells us she is not sure whether the woman was really there. This is a great little scene as it sets up her fixation on death and her mistrust of her own senses. For the rest of the film you can never be sure how much is real or imagined.

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Zohra Lampert as Jessica

Having spent all their money sight unseen, intending to make money off the orchard there, they pull into town and the locals are immediately hostile to their new counter-culture neighbours. When they arrive at the house, they find a squatter, Emily (Mariclare Costello). She plays the lute and is evasive about her background. Being the hip cats that they are, they ask her to stay with them; Woody wants to sleep with her and Jessica is sure that Duncan does too.

On their first day together, they all go to the lake to bathe, and Jessica sees something in the water. She says it touched her and it felt “like some kind of shark or something” (it’s clearly a human body). The effect for the corpse is excellent, just hair floating in the waves and upraised arms. No one else sees it.

The locals’ hostility towards their group is compounded when they try to sell antiques from the house. The antiques dealer in town (not a local) tells them that the daughter of the previous owner, Abigail, drowned in the lake near the house and her unused wedding gown is in the attic. There is also an H.P. Lovecraft angle that all is not right with the locals, who all sport cuts, scars, and bandages. Jessica comes to believe that Emily is some kind of vampire or spirit. To be fair, there’s a sepia photograph in the house that is clearly just her.

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That’s not suspicious at all…

There are more strange little episodes and it becomes clear that Jessica is not well. It can’t help that Emily has sex with Duncan. The best sequence by far is when Emily comes out of the water in Abigail’s wedding dress, telling Jessica to join her. This may be the source of the title, implying that Emily is playing some kind of game, but it really does seem more like Jessica’s (lesbian) fantasy. The end of the film is really messy, and you can’t be sure what’s going on because of Jessica’s mental state, but she might have killed Duncan with a hook?

The great strength of the film is how weird and off-putting Jessica’s performance is. The inner monologue is a clunky device, but the filmmakers sometimes use echo and layer in other voices to create an eerie effect. Jessica performs her mental illness with darting eyes, physical shaking, and at times her voice gets low and strange; she cries seemingly without noticing. As I mentioned, there is an undercurrent of gay panic to the film, as Jessica fixates on Emily with a longing gaze but also rejects Emily’s looks and touch in response. The idea of Emily as a ghost in the lake, waiting to pull her in can be seen as Jessica’s anxiety around her own lesbian desires.

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Like I said, the film is not perfect, but still an interesting watch. I had to buy it on YouTube for 12$ Canadian, but I really don’t mind. I would watch it again. I saw it compared to David Lynch, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it was pretty experimental and engaging.

The Nightingale (2018), exploitation film?

I saw the trailer for this movie and was super excited right away, then I missed in in theatres and forgot all about it. Luckily Shudder recently got it and I enjoyed it a lot. In Covid times, there is a lot to be said for a story that takes you out of the present. Is it a horror film? Not really, but it speaks to the history of exploitation films in a really interesting way. I can recommend it on the whole, but not as a horror flick.

Director Jennifer Kent came to everyone’s attention with The Babadook (2014), so I feel like that saw to The Nightingale‘s packaging as another horror film. Really, it’s more of a period drama but a good one at that; it’s even based on a book. It tells with no glamour but great beauty the story of a penal colony in Tasmania in 1825 . Spoilers ahead.

In a strange way, this narrative is a staple of exploitation films: a rape-revenge story. But unlike its predecessors, the film isn’t shot in a way to titillate. During the rape, the camera focuses on her face, you see little of her body, and the scene is not protracted. The violence towards her attackers, on the other hand, is graphic; bringing it closer to the tropes of rape-revenge. The film narrowly side-steps being an exploitation film by filming the same story in a different way.

The protagonist, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), is an Irish convict. Recently married with a baby, she is trying to get a letter of recommendation to end her conviction. When we first see her, she is singing a Gaelic lullaby to her baby as she walks to hard labour at the prison. The lieutenant in charge of their prison, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), is obsessed with her beautiful singing voice and refuses to let her leave. We see his face transfixed as she sings for the officers. In sharp contrast, Clare is forced to suffer through repeated rape at his hands in the hope he will let her and her family go free; he even tries to buy her compliance with trinkets. He is equally fixated on getting a promotion to work in a larger town, but his hopes are dashed when an inspector finds his prison badly run. When Clare’s husband again asks for their freedom, Hawkins turns his rage and disappointment on them. The violence is terrible. He and his cronies kill her husband, Jago (Harry Greenwood) kills her baby, Hawkins rapes her again and tells one of his cronies, Ruse (Damon Herriman), to do the same. Clare is left for dead and Hawkins decides to set out for the city to seek his promotion.

Waking up to pure desolation, Clare sets out to follow him on her horse, Becky, her most cherished possession. To guide her through the jungle, a friend directs her to Billy Blackbird (Baykali Ganambarr). She tells Billy that she is following her husband and strikes up a bargain for his services, but treats him like a distrusted slave, calling him only “boy”. Over the course of the trip, she comes to depend on him and he comes to realise her mission is one of revenge when she murders (in brutal fashion) the man who killed her baby. In turn, Hawkins’ crony, Ruse, kills Billy’s Uncle Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown), giving Billy a stake in the revenge plot.

When they finally catch up, Clare is unable to kill Hawkins and makes peace with embarrassing him in front of his superiors, but Billy in not satisfied. Under cover of night, he returns to kill Hawkins and Ruse, where he is fatally wounded. The story ends with Clare and Billy on a beach at dawn awaiting a no-doubt terrible fate for their crime. There is no joy in this ending, no vindictive glee in our protagonists.

I found it really interesting the way that the movie draws parallels between violence against women, children, and people of colour. Hawkins is the personification of all crimes of colonisation, hypnotised by the beauty of her voice, the appearance of culture. We would like to think such times are over, and yet, even in 2018, an Italian critic shouted “whore” and “shame on you” when Kent’s name appeared in the credits at the Venice Film Festival, where she was also, notably, the only female director featured. What was his intent? Was he objecting to her depiction of violence? There is no small irony in that when you consider the history of Giallo exploitation films in Italy.

What Have you Done to Solange? (1972)

Resist the urge to make a Beyonce joke. This movie is really different than I was expecting, and worth watching. On the surface, you’ll see all of the trappings of a classic Giallo film: badly dubbed, lots of nudity, misogynistic violence, mystery killer, … etc. But then, there are other things to surprise you. The visual style is very naturalistic, no gels, no dramatic angles. Mild implication of psychic ability? The story is also surprisingly empathetic to its young female cast in some ways (okay, but also a few pervy shower scenes). Welcome to Massimo Dallamano’s What Have you Done to Solange? (1972). Spoilers ahead.

So our protagonist is a Catholic girl’s school teacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), having an affair with a student, Elisabeth (Cristina Galbo). Gross, right? But the film goes out of its way to explain that it’s totally fine through dialogue with another teacher basically giving him a thumbs up. Also, it turns out he didn’t take her virginity (despite much effort depicted in the film) so it doesn’t count… plus he said he would marry her…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When our film starts, Enrico and Elisabeth are having a romantic outing in a rowboat where he tries to coax her into sex. So, breasts 5 minutes into the film, good job. She stops him because she sees someone in the bushes. No polite way to put it, our killer stabs a girl in the vagina. Over the course of the film, this is repeated with several girls from the school. But why? Elisabeth gradually remembers important details from the killing, like he wore a priest’s habit. During the ensuing investigation, the affair is eventually exposed and Enrico loses his job. Fair, right? Bizarrely, he decides to go all Scooby Doo on the murders with the tacit blessing of the police. Sure, why not?

So, the affair. His “cold, German” wife, Herta (Karin Baal), forgives him immediately… You know, once Elisabeth is horribly murdered in the secret apartment her husband had for their affair. I have to say, that murder came as a surprise. It was even a different murder method. She seemed to be the female lead right up until that moment, now the wife emerges as part of his Scooby Doo murder mystery gang. I briefly wondered whether it would turn out that Herta murdered Elisabeth completely separate to the other crimes.

So… who is Solange? Did you forget about her? I did, I was totally hung up on sleazy Enrico. Somehow all the murdered girls link back to her, but no one will say anything more. It all comes down to looking for her.

The reveal at the end is actually kind of heartbreaking. It certainly explains the killer’s motive and method. Shall I tell you? Solange was the secret daughter of one of the teachers. The same one who approved of Enrico’s affair with a student, so there is possibly an implication there.

Solange was secretly a party girl along with her group of friends from the Catholic school. Since Catholics don’t believe in birth control, she instead wound up going to have an abortion on the kitchen table of her friend’s maid. Afterwards, she went catatonic and her father wanted to find out why. He started disguising himself as a priest and taking the confessions of her friends, then interrogating them before killing them, thus gradually piecing things together. Through convoluted events, Enrico draws the police to him and witnesses his suicide when the police find one of the girls in his attic. Then, as in all great Giallo films, freeze and abruptly roll credits with overwrought music. But it’s Ennio Morricone, so not as bad as you might expect.

I would love to see a modern re-make of this film, it could really develop the ethical issues absent in the 1970s context.

Black Christmas (1974) still stands up

There is a lot to love about about this movie (and it’s even on Shudder), let’s dig in.

Clare (Lynne Griffin) and Phyl (Andrea Martin) with the most 70s hair ever.

1. 70s Toronto is great. And, since it’s the 70s and it’s Toronto, Andrea Martin is in it. Women in slacks. Men with big hair and big fur coats. Real snow. What’s not to love?

2. The killer is scary. No, really. We don’t see him too much and it’s just so consistently upsetting to know he’s in the house at all times when the whole cast is oblivious. The slasher’s manic speech is especially creepy. You get a sense of the killer’s origins, but it’s never really resolved and that’s in the movie’s favour.

3. The funny parts are funny. There is some fantastic dialogue. Barb (Margot Kidder) is cracking wise just constantly and with real gusto. Competent Toronto cops are ragging on the incompetent cop. It’s fabulous. And the sad parts are also sad, it’s a whole range of emotions.

4. The movie looks and sounds great. Everything is competently lit, sound is good, effects are good. It might not sound like much, but it makes a difference. There are even some really stylish compositions throughout, like one shot through the crack in an open door that lights up the killer’s eye (used in poster images).

5. The women are like… actual people. (Except Mrs. Mac, ugh) Sure, the

Jess (Olivia Hussey) in not at all ominous lighting conditions.

y fit into some pretty basic categories like the “slut” Barb (Margot Kidder), and the nerd, Phyl (Andrea Martin). But they also have personalities beyond the labels with their own voices and quirks. The protagonist, Jess (Olivia Hussey), is harder to categorise. She seems like a typical “good girl”, but that’s compromised when (SPOILER) we find out she’s planning to have an abortion. This even figures into her interactions with the killer. This all means that there are real stakes, they’re not just a bunch of pretty “bimbos” lined up for the slaughter. There is enough to each character that you care what happens to them.

It’s crazy to see a movie at the heart of the slasher era that is still trying to be a real movie. Dialogue. Sets. Characters. It’s easy to forget that the origin of clichéd 80s slashers was creepy little films like this. Enjoy.

Barb (Margot Kidder) the wise-cracking bad girl