275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

“God gave him a calling in life, and that was to make pornography.”–George Kuchar on Curt McDowell

DIRECTED BY: Curt McDowell

FEATURING: Marion Eaton, Melinda McDowell, Moira Benson, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Rick Johnson, Maggie Pyle,

PLOT: On a dark and stormy night in the Nebraska hinterlands, several individuals on the road end up taking shelter at “Prairie Blossom”, an old dark house that is the dominion of alcoholic matron Gert Hammond (Eaton). Everyone present has secrets and obsessions that are brought to light, and pair off in various combinations for sexual liaisons. The group also finds itself trapped inside the house by a gorilla rampaging outside.

Still from Thundercrack! (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Producers John Thomas (who briefly appeared as country singer Simon Cassidy) and Charles Thomas were film students of Thundercrack! actor/writer George Kuchar, classmates of director Curt McDowell, and heirs to a fortune from the Burger Chef fast food chain, which they used to fund the movie. They also provided a rooms in their home for the shoot.
  • George Kuchar was a legend in the underground film industry, making hundred of short, campy avant-garde films together with his twin brother Mike. Noteworthy titles include Sins of the Fleshapoids and Hold Me While I’m Naked (both from 1966).
  • Actress Melinda McDowell was director Curt McDowell’s sister.
  • Kuchar and McDowell were rumored to be lovers.
  • The movie was shot for $9,000 and $40,000 in deferred costs.
  • Buck Henry used his clout as a judge to set up a (scandalous) screening at the 1976 Los Angeles Film Festival.
  • The original negatives disappeared and only five 16mm prints of the film were struck. One print was seized by Canadian authorities and three had been edited in an ineffectual attempt to make the film more marketable. The badly-damaged but uncut fifth print was primarily utilized for the transfer of the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release by Synapse Films.
  • El Rob Hubbard’s[1] Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Among the various obvious (and mainly pornographic) images to choose from, the one that sums up the spirit of Thundercrack! is the publicity photo of Gert and Bing in a melodramatic clinch—Bing in a wedding dress, Gert staring off into the horizon. It’s iconic, yet subversive, and pretty much encapsulates the film’s mood.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Versatile cucumbers; pickled husbands; amorous bipeds

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The collision of several elements: the lurid melodramatics along with the hardcore action, the visual stylization and the complex wordplay, all combine to make a film much more engaging and—dare I say it—innocent than one would expect from a mid 1970s hardcore sex parody film. Or, is it a parody film with porno elements? You decide…


Brief scene from Thundercrack!

COMMENTS: “What the heck is going on here—some sort of communal therapy group? Is that what this is?!!”—Bing

That’s probably a fair assessment of Thundercrack!, Curt McDowell’s legendary underground feature.  A collaboration with filmmaker George Kuchar (who wrote the screenplay based on a story by McDowell and composer Mark Ellinger, starred as “Bing,” and also did the lighting and make-up), Thundercrack! is a parody of “Old Dark House” horror films. It has a lot of descendants; The Rocky Horror Picture Show comes closest in tone. The visual style is on par with other black and white indies of the time (Eraserhead, Martin Brest’s Hot Tomorrows) and was carried forward into later films like Forbidden Zone and Singapore Sling. The main difference is that Thundercrack! incorporated hardcore sex, while its descendants did not quite go as far.

That would be enough to stigmatize the film. Most hardcore films are concerned with one thing only, and everything else gets short shrift. But Thundercrack! differs in that the sex is treated as an integral part of the film, and instead of everything coming to a halt while waiting for people to finish, they have conversations, and actual plot and character development happen during sex. This is not the standard for hardcore fare. Also, while almost every sex variation gets exhibited onscreen—masturbation, both male and female; man on woman; man on man; woman on woman; oral and anal sex; bestiality (simulated)—the film passes no judgment. There’s a celebratory aspect to the sex, which along with the melodramatic archness of everything else, lends a certain innocence to the film.

Sex here is a healing element. At the start of the film, everyone is introduced in proper disaster-film fashion, with their various neuroses and naked guilt on display. Due to their temporary forced layover at Prairie Blossom and their various couplings, they emerge as better people than when they arrived. Also notable is that there really isn’t a proper villain in the story: Roo and Toydy are amoral and selfish but not villainous, but even they get a happy ending (sort of) as well as a comeuppance at the end.

All of the actors do well with their “performances,” in both senses. Of note are the leads Marion Eaton as the drunken hostess Gerd, who presides over the events with mismatched eyebrows while channeling , , and Barbara Stanwyck simultaneously; and Kuchar,  who matches her in terms of intensity and commitment to the role.

G. Smalley adds: I’ll disagree with my colleague slightly on one point: although the attempt to mix plot with hardcore sex was a noble try, Thundercrack! is ultimately no more successful in the endeavor than any other experiment along these lines. The elements of plot and hardcore eroticism are just basically at war with each other: if you find the sex erotic, then you want to be absorbed in it and forget about following the plot, while if it’s bad sex, it’s just a distraction and gimmick. At three hours the movie is also too long—heck, how often do you see a porno film with an intermission?—and the first thing to be cut should have been a few of the sex scenes (particularly the sequential masturbation scenes early in the movie). I think to the extent that Thundercrack! is a success—and it is a worthwhile watch for those who understand what they’re getting themselves into—it’s because of Kuchar’s absurdly comic dialogue. To that end, here’s my top ten lines from Thundercrack!:

“Gorillas are different than little children. They have more hair.”

“Why did you bring what I was told was a lily-white butt out in this rain?”

“What have you got against beatniks?” “Well, for one thing, their bongo drums.”

“What do the widows of the world need with a washcloth?”

“Those doors have not felt human knuckles for a while.”

“Were the hippos dancing at the time?” “Yes, the Mexican hat dance.”

“The only way you and your girlfriend are going to get out of here is by flinging bananas at that gorilla.”

“Have you ever seen an ostrich run down by a wheelchair?”

“To be bit by a lovebug like me could be a very scratchy situation.”

“People come and go… but the cucumbers must stay!”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The cult classic of weirdo hardcore, an irresistibly infuriating bad taste whip of raunch and skewed melodrama, like a very horny Soap, that quite literally leaves you unsure of whether you’re coming or going.”–Time Out London

“One of the most unusual films you’ll ever see, I can’t imagine anything more weird if John Waters was abducted by aliens and then regurgitated all over someone making a psychotic horror spoof with political and psychological undertones. If you like cult films this is a jewel.”–Chris Docker, Eye for Film

“This slice of arthouse adult horror-cinema takes the idea of ‘bonkers’ to the extreme in its bizarre amalgamation of genres, blatant sexuality and its unrepentantly long running time of nearly three hours… a surreal viewing experience which is frankly, or maybe thankfully, one of a kind.”–George Pacheo, 10K Bullets (Blu-ray)

IMDB LINK: Thundercrack! (1975)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Restored Glory of THUNDERCRACK! – Fandor article about the release and restoration of the film for home video

Curt McDowell’s THUNDERCRACK!: The World’s first porno-horror-comedy – Greg Goodsell’s article on the film from “Cashiers du Cinemart” #18

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Film Out of Bounds: Essays and Interviews on Non-Mainstream Cinema Worldwide – Includes a chapter on Thundercrack! along with coverage of directors of interest to readers of this site (including , and )

DVD INFO: For most of its history Thundercrack! was rarely seen except in bootleg versions, derived from prints that were cut from its original running time of 158 minutes for commercial reasons, and none of those cuts were consistent. There was a European PAL boot sourced from one of those prints, but it wasn’t until Synapse Films undertook a lengthy restoration process on the one remaining full length print for a 40th Anniversary Release in 2015 on all-region DVD (buy) or 2-disc Blu-Ray with substantial extra features (buy), that Thundercrack! was finally available to the masses in the way it was originally meant to be seen.

The restoration is very good, probably the best the film has looked since its premiere screenings; same for the sound. Subtitles (English, Spanish, French, German) are included. An archival interview with McDowell from 1972 is included as a commentary track. The main extra feature on the Blu-Ray is the 2009 feature It Came from Kuchar!, Jennifer Kroot’s documenary about the Kuchar Bros. and their careers.

The second disc features the trailer; interviews with Kuchar, Eaton and Ellinger from 2004; outtakes, behind the scenes and audition footage. There are also five of McDowell’s short films: “Confessions,” “Naughty Words,” “Loads,” “Boggy Depot” and “Siamese Twin Pinheads.” Some are sexually explicit, but “Boggy Depot” can be seen as a precursor to Thundercrack! It features Kuchar, and is a musical!

Synapse has also bundled Thundercrack! in DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy) sets with Radley Metzger’s The Image. They also tried pairing it with Malabimba: The Malicious Whore, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, and Tinto Brass’ The Voyeur, although all of those sets are out-of-print and unavailable.

(This movie was nominated for review by “bartel.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

  1. Fun Fact: actress “Maggie Pyle” and her husband (one of the crew members) were my landlords for a short time in San Francisco in the early 90’s. []

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