Tag Archives: Camp

307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

“There are a lot of strange men practicing medicine these days.”–The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT: Dr. Phibes is an underground aristocrat who has sworn a campaign of revenge against the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In his downtime, he listens to his automaton orchestra in his bizarre Art Deco lair and stages dance numbers with his beautiful mute assistant. A series of gruesome and bizarre murders, themed after Egyptian biblical plagues, attracts the attention of Scotland Yard, who strive to put together the puzzle and stop Phibes.

still from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • The ten Biblical plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus 7-12 were (in order) blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn. Phibes replaces gnats and flies with bats and rats.
  • Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein (not to be confused with the more famous William Goldman) has just three screenwriting credits on his IMDB page: this movie, this movie’s misbegotten sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), about a team of dogs trained to thwart an armored car heist. His short, yet quirky, career also includes a series of self-published sequels to Phibes.
  • The initial movie poster was a collage of bad judgments. It spoils Dr. Phibes’ disfigured face, which was supposed to be a surprise near the ending; it implies a romance between Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia that never happens; and the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re ugly,” a parody of 1970‘s Love Story, set up audiences to expect a romantic comedy—to their doubtless bewilderment.
  • Phibes fits the description of the rarely appreciated genre known as Diesel Punk. It’s set in the early decades of the 20th century and features a highly speculative series of plot devices involving technology that would at least have been cutting edge for the time. It’s also a museum of Art Deco styles.
  • In this pre-CGI year of 1971, some of the scenes involving animals don’t come off too well. The bats scene was done with harmless fruit bats, who adorably cuddle up on the victim’s bed while they’re supposed to be menacing. The later rats in the cockpit were equally unconvincing as a threat.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We give the obligatory disclaimer that we have a multitude of scenes to choose from. Of all the elaborate deaths, the amphibian death mask stands tall as the signature moment. One of Dr. Phibes’ victims attends a costume party with a frog’s head mask supplied by Phibes himself. The mask is designed to slowly crush the victim’s head. As Dr. Hargraves falls downstairs and the mask squeezes the last drops of blood from his head, the party music plays on and a crowd of animal-headed guests look down. The scene strikes the perfect note between the grotesque and the campy, and upon that note the theme of this movie plays.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Animatronic swing band; unicorn impalement; Brussels sprout locust bait.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dr. Phibes is the character Vincent Price was born to play. What more need we say? Ten times larger than life, Dr. Phibes is a dish of ham and cheese, a pulp villain sprung whole from the pages of vintage horror comics. The elaborate murder plots of his bent imagination fit perfectly into this film’s campy Art Deco/diesel-punk universe like a rare sapphire on a Faberge egg.

Original trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes

COMMENTS: The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with our title character (Vincent Price) rising from the floor on a mobile pipe organ, Continue reading 307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

“Casual viewers are going to find it weird, poorly acted, nonsensical, sexist, weird, not scary, confusing and did I mention weird?”–Amazon review of The Love Witch

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford

PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
  • For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink tea room; jimsonweed rainbow sex; tampon/urine brew

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”


Brief scene from The Love Witch

COMMENTS: The Love Witch is thematically dense and symbolically Continue reading 306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

CAPSULE: MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

FEATURING: Ann Magnuson, Richmond Arquette, John Waters, , A. J. Benza

PLOT: The final years of the life of perhaps the “Bomb”-est of the Blonde[1] Bombshells is explored through talking heads, archival footage, animation, and a smattering of interpretive dance.

Key art from Mansfield 66/67

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The day may come that someone makes a biographical documentary that is as much of a hyperactive whirlwind of strangeness as was the life of Jayne Mansfield, but today is not that day. Directors Ebersole and Hughes provide instead a rather informative and rather typical movie, albeit one with some eccentric interludes.

COMMENTS: I found it impossible to walk away from a chance to see a movie about the wild final days of Jayne Mansfield, the mega-starlet who was nearly decapitated in a car accident. Her involvement with a local Satanic cult puts her in a category in which few other distinguished Hollywood personages can be found. Opening with an odd choral scene of four singing Mansfield impersonators (of both genders), P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 makes a promise of weird delivery for this weird story. Aside from the singing and dancing scattered throughout the movie, though, the documentary fails on the “weird” side of things.

In the late ’50s through the early ’60s, Mansfield had a string of successes that highlighted her knowingly kitsch persona. With measurements of 44-23-37, it’s somewhat obvious why producers felt at ease putting her on screen: her presence guaranteed, at least, a particular kind of audience. That she was a good actress was all the better, costarring at one point with Hollywood’s primo charmer, Cary Grant. However, she had a problem with saying “yes” too often. She shuffled through husbands and lovers with considerable speed, needing constant attention. This predilection eventually led her into the orbit of the notorious California eccentric, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. However, it wasn’t his theatrical occultism that broke her down, but her affair with her slimy lawyer, Sam Brody, that did the trick. As her film career collapsed, things got worse and worse, until the ill-fated car ride that killed her.

In its attempt to capture the madcap tragedy that ensued from 1966 through 1967, Mansfield 66/67 approaches the documentary genre from left field. Scattered among the talking heads (John Waters being a particular highlight) are performances by a dance troupe enacting, among other events, a damaging romance and her veer toward Satanism. The movie undercuts claims almost as soon as it makes them. Normally, this would be problematic, but it seems that most of Mansfield’s life— both on record and from anecdote—was a bulletin of conflicting information. The rapid pace of her life catches up with her, culminating in the film’s stylistic choice to use cartoons to enact a couple important events. What better way to show how her son got mauled by a lion, or how the mystic Anton LaVey convened with the elements atop a mountain to cast a spell to save the boy?

Shackled to the norms of documentary more than it might care to admit, Mansfield 66/67 isn’t so much weird as endearing. It succeeds famously in its telling of the mad life of Mansfield, but it is anchored far too much in the realism of friend’s reminiscences, academic interpretation, and archival footage. Having to deal with all its factual (if ambiguous) situations, there is little license for flights of fantasy. The oddest thing about Mansfield 66/67 isn’t its intentional delivery, but how it’s so caught up in the whirlwind of its subject’s life that at times it derails itself with narrative detours. Though it does tie in the “66/67” motif of the title, at one point the movie seems to want to be about Anton LaVey. In a way, his story would be a more uplifting one.

Mansfield 66/67 makes its Los Angeles debut this week (on October 25), with scattered screenings to follow. Check their Facebook page for more dates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an oddball hybrid that’s part documentary, part stylistic mish-mash, but wholly celebratory of Mansfield’s often derided ‘blonde bombshell’ image.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival screening)

  1. Despite being a natural brunette. []

LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Abbott, , David Gale, Robert Sampson

PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.Still from Re-Animator (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.

COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that ‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films[1] to come from the golden ’80s.

With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.

Stuart Gordon was a director of an avant-garde theater troupe, and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

  1. Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand. []

1955 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER AND PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES

Coming Attractions:

“The Picture that unmasks society’s secrets. Jail Bait: the story of boy-crazy girl and gun-crazy guy. The most feared of our modern underworld—men who hate the law and abuse even those they love. See the siren-screaming, gun-blazing thriller, Jail Bait.”

The Violent Years. See what happens behind locked doors of a pajama party! Teenage killers fearing no law! Thrill Girls of the highway! Girl gang terrorists! Untamed girls of the pack-gang! Adolescent gangsters taking their thrills unashamed! Terrifying realism clawing at your unbelieving mind! See The Violent Years.”

It’s Showtime!

Bride of the Monster was ‘s most financially successful work, which of course isn’t saying much. It’s success may lie in its attempts to meet mainstream genre expectations, and the fact that it’s Wood’s only film to actually feature a star performance from. (In Glen or Glenda, Lugosi was a bizarre narrator. Plan 9 from Outer Space infamously used a few seconds of Lugosi footage, shot mere days before his death, making it a brief, posthumous non-performance which many Lugosi filmographies don’t even list). Rather than pursuing his own twisted muse, Wood, a Lugosi fanboy, attempts to fulfill what he imagines 1955 audiences want from a film starring Bela Lugosi, and therefore Bride of the Monster doesn’t reach the levels of inspired lunacy of the pair’s other collaborations. However, Ed Wood can only be Ed Wood and, in his defense, he’s deprived of good taste—which numerous artists have rightly observed is the enemy of great art. Wood made some of the greatest naïve art of all time. Thankfully, Bride of the Monster was produced before booze, poverty, and obsessive kinkiness grabbed poor Eddie by the throat and took him down, which means it’s charming as hell. Adding to its goofy grace is Lugosi’s last starring performance (he had what amounted to a mute cameo in Reginald Le Borg’s The Black Sleep in 1956), which features a beautifully mangled speech that serves as an almost perfect swan song for the horror star.

Still from Bride of the Monster (1955)Lugosi fans (and they are legion, or at least once were) are hardly apt to admit it, but their object of adulation was one of the genre’s worst actors, due in no small part to his clear disdain for the English language and astoundingly poor career choices. With damned few exceptions (notably, Ygor in Son of Frankenstein), he was a one-note performer. Even had more range (although according to peers and biographers, both actors were a tad slow on the uptake Continue reading 1955 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER AND PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES

1944 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: THE CORPSE VANISHES AND VOODOO MAN

This is the introductory entry in a new series covering movies that originally played in drive-in-cinema double bills across the country.

One of the first drive-in theaters premiered in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. The venue’s popularity reached its zenith from the 1950s to the early 1980s.  Still, the 1940s was also a robust decade for the drive-in, which specialized in low budget B-films, especially horror and science fiction. The setting was also unique in that drive-ins continued to screen films from the 30 and 40s all the way until the late 70s. For a more extended discussion, see my article Cinema Under The Stars.

Coming Attraction! Black Dragons!

“Suicide or murder in the shadow of a nation’s capitol? The screen’s master of horror, has the answer to this mysterious death. Lugosi as the madman on a mission of vengeance, vengeance  against 6 men who plot the destruction of a nation at war.”

Coming Attraction…

“Ominous footsteps in the night foreshadow terrifying death. By Day… A Man Of Honor. By Night… A Beast Of Horror. Bela Lugosi. The Invisible Ghost.

It’s Showtime!

Brides are dying at the altar, and somebody’s responsible. Before being forever robbed of the opportunity to lose her virginity, each bride was given an mysterious orchid—with a scent. Whoever heard of an orchid with a scent? Maybe it’s a clue. Another clue might be that the same undertaker shows up at every crime scene—and he looks just like Dracula. Odd, too, that all of the brides’ corpses vanish! Luana Walters steals the entire film as the spunky reporter giving Lois Lane a run for her money.

Promotional still for The Corpse Vanishes (1942)Bela’s got a bitch of a wife, too (Elizabeth Russell, from Cat People). She hates aging but, somehow, the blood of virgin brides acts like botox for her. Bela, being a mad doctor, injects it. He’s got a pair of henchman, too: Frank Moran (who’s kind of a precursor to ‘s hulking brute in Bride of the Monster) and dwarf (from Freaks).

The movie has an imbecilic charm, but it never quite reaches the sap level of PRC’s The Devil Bat (1940) or Lugosi’s work with .

“Show starts in 10 minutes! We will now have an intermission time before starting our next show!”

“Get the item that adds to your personal comfort. Cigarettes? Here they are! Get the kind you prefer and enjoy them thoroughly; all the most popular brands.”

“Ice cream bars! It’s the handy way to enjoy smooth, rich, creamy ice cream. Get some!”

“Crisp, flavorful fish sandwiches. Gold and brown and crunchy outside and tender and juicy inside for a snack or a meal. ”

“It’s Showtime!”

Still from Voodoo Man (1944)1944 babes are disappearing along Laurel Road after stopping at Nicholas’ gas station. Nicholas (George Zucco) is in cahoots with the henchmen Toby () and Grego (Pat McKee) who in turn work for crazy doc Marlow (Bela). Doc has a wife who has been a zombie for twenty plus years and he believes, if he gets the right girl, that a voodoo ceremony will unzombify his beloved. Toby and Grego are, ahem, a tad feebleminded, which makes Doc’s job harder. There’s a also a pesky fiancee and some really cool voodoo robes. There isn’t scare one, but it’s a tacky variation of The Corpse Vanishes and has the good sense to be even more senseless.

Although The Corpse Vanishes ( directed by Wallace Fox) was made in 1942, it was double billed two years later for the drive-in-circuit with Voodoo Man (directed by ). Both movies are part of Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine.” For the unenlightened, this was a poverty row horror series produced by Sam Katzmann, starring the already faded Dracula actor in some of the most inept movies made. Voodoo Man is the last of the infamous Monogram Nine.

“Please remember to replace the speaker on the mast when you leave the theater. Thanks for being with us this evening. We hope that in some small way we have been able to add to your comfort, pleasure, and relaxation.”

Both films are available on a Legends double feature DVD with vintage drive-in ads, trailers, and countdowns. Olive Films has recently released Voodoo Man on Blu-ray in a pristine transfer.

 

280. DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

“By the time I made Desperate Living, the era of midnight movies was over, so at the time it was the least successful of all my films. Weirdly enough, it now does really well on video and college campuses. And I’m not quite sure why.”–John Waters

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Susan Lowe, Liz Renay, Jean Hill, , , “Turkey Joe”

PLOT:  With the help of 400 pound maid Griselda, suburban housewife Peggy accidentally murders her deceptively bucolic husband and goes on the lam. A cop directs the fugitives toward a Pleasure Island for criminals called Mortville. Things go south with the village’s fascistic matriarch, until there’s a mutiny in the ramshackle town.

Still from Desperate Living (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • was originally intended for the role of Mole McHenry (eventually played by Susan Lowe), but could not back out of an alternate commitment. Desperate Living is the only film Waters made during Divine’s lifetime in which the hefty transvestite did not appear.
  • Waters did not cast regular for the film due to the latter’s drug use. Lochary died soon after Desperate Living was released, either from a PCP overdose or from bleeding to death during an accident that occurred while he was tripping on PCP (reports differ).
  • The tagline was “It isn’t very pretty”—a radical understatement.
  • Budgeted at $65,000, this was Waters’ most expensive film to date. 1974’s Female Trouble had a budget of $25,000, while 1972’s Pink Flamingos cost a mere $10,000.
  • The extras of Mortville were homeless residents from the Baltimore skid row, bused in for a single day’s shoot.
  • According to Waters, lesbian groups in Boston protested the film, forcing its cancellation in Beantown.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The opening credit scene of a dead rat served on expensive china, salted, and eaten at a swank dinner party. It sets the table for what’s to come.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cross-dressing cop; toddler in the fridge; scissors self-castration

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waters outdoes Multiple Maniacs“cavalcade of perversion” in this grunge fairy tale that includes systematic lesbianism, cross-dressing, odious hippie sex scenes, cannibalism, necrophilia, bat rabies, copious facial warts, and gap-toothed queen Edith Massey sexually serviced by leather-bound Nazis.

Opening credits for Desperate Living

COMMENTS:  The finale in John Waters’ “Trash Trilogy,” Desperate Continue reading 280. DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

CAPSULE: XANADU (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Greenwald

FEATURING: Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, Gene Kelly, Matt Lattanzi, James Sloyan

PLOT: Sonny Malone is a gifted artist reduced to designing album covers, but when he meets former big band leader Danny McGuire, the duo join forces with an Olympian muse open a roller disco club.

Still from Xanadu (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Xanadu is campy, kitschy and appalling, but it’s not weird. It’s just one of the last death rattles of the disco era.

COMMENTS: La La Land may have revived the movie musical, which has been on life support for decades because of flops like Xanadu. This film spawned a soundtrack album (deliriously overproduced by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne) that was a monster hit in 1980, spawning five top 20 singles. The movie itself, however, bombed, and rightfully so. It’s inoffensive, embarrassing piffle. Made on a big budget, Xanadu still looks cheap, and director Robert Greenwald , who later made The Burning Bed and several progressive-minded documentaries, doesn’t really seem to know how to stage musical numbers, despite choreography from Kenny Ortega (High School Musical). Michael Beck, fresh off the macho action classic The Warriors, looks embarrassed (he never starred in a movie again), and poor 68-year-old Gene Kelly makes his unfortunate farewell to musicals in this dud. Olivia Newton-John is beautiful but cannot act—although she was much better in Grease—-while director Don Bluth (An American Tail) contributes a weak animated segment.

Practically all memory of the film vanishes right after you’ve seen it. Xanadu is sort of a remake of the indifferently received 1947 Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth, while Kelly also played a character named Danny McGuire in the 1944’s Cover Girl opposite Hayworth. Either of those films has to better than Xanadu, which only Newton-John may still remember fondly: the young Danny McGuire is played in flashback by dancer-actor Matt Lattanzi, who later became her husband. No amount of fake glitter and flash can salvage this Lattanzi-Newton John family album, however: the climactic musical number involves a series of revolving stages that reminded me of the old Disneyland show “America Sings”. I’d rather sit through “America Sings” again. In fact, those who want to experience Xanadu should listen to the soundtrack album (featuring Newton John, ELO, Cliff Richard, and the Tubes)  instead of slumbering through this decidedly non-weird musical relic of the Studio 54 era.

Someone apparently had pleasant, perhaps drug-induced memories of the picture, because in 2007 Xanadu was adapted into a modestly produced Broadway musical (starring “30 Rock”‘s Cheyenne Jackson) that was nominated  for a few Tony awards. In the end, Xanadu may be recalled chiefly as being part of the “great”—or awful—disco musical trend of 1980, which also gave us the infamous Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music. Anecdotally, unfortunate moviegoer John J.B. Wilson saw both films at a 99-cent double feature and came up with the idea of the Razzie awards, “honoring” the year’s worst films, which are still held today. At least Xanadu has better songs than Can’t Stop the Music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To appreciate the madness within, one must take in the blinding neon sights with an open heart and at least one nostril-coating line of cocaine. Surely I hold no certainty that ‘Xanadu’ was fueled by heaping spoonfuls of Bolivian marching powder, but I offer this evidence: it was 1980 and the picture is bonkers.”–Brian Orndoff, Brianorndoff.com (DVD)

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 Continue reading 275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

  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. []

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

The Love Witch has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Comments on this post are closed. Please post any comments on the official Certified Weird entry.

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Anna Biller

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel

PLOT: A California witch who casts magic spells to seek out her true love finds that her lovers keep dying.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively unique—a blend of romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectic, and Technicolor melodramas—that perhaps it can only rightfully described as “weird.”

COMMENTS: One main stylistic feature of The Love Witch is the campy acting—Samantha Robinson’s Elaine speaks as if she’s always lost in an interior world of hearts and unicorns, making her sound insincere even when she’s at her most heartfelt. Other actors take an overly broad, TV-melodrama approach. This technique helps sustain the film’s sense of otherworldliness, but the other, and far more impressive, stylistic feature is the unreal, anachronistic, and impressively detailed mise-en-scene. A girly-girl café where the clientele all dress in pink and white with flowery hats—looking more like bridesmaids than ladies out for a spot of tea—while ethereal blondes play harps and sing medieval love hymns. The local burlesque house, in a lustful red-on-red color scheme, where dancers with feather boas never take it all off but ensorcell the drooling males nonetheless. The Renaissance Faire run by witches, where Elaine and her date “accidentally” end up wed in a mock pagan ceremony. The minutiae of Elaine’s witchcraft rituals, which at one point involves her honoring a corpse with her urine and a used tampon. Clever details and decorative ideas abound in nearly every scene. Reversing the seduction stereotype, Elaine uses a comically oversized brandy snifter to decrease her conquests’ inhibitions. Trish finds Elaine’s witchcraft altar full of bizarre potions and magickal totems, then walks into her adjoining bedroom to discover, oriented in exact mirror image position, a vanity set out with wig, perfume, and makeup.

The smart script is not simplistic in its satire; it prides itself on creating and holding contradictory views. Elaine and her friends toss out ideas about femininity that are sometimes laughably old-fashioned, but are sometimes still with us today, and trusts us to sort out which are which. Witchcraft is shown as harmless New Agey neo-paganism, no more or less ritually ridiculous than Christianity, but it’s also a source of implied abuse and exploitation, and a real threat to the community. And of course, the biggest contradiction of all is Elaine, a mixture of idealism and ruthless cunning, who expresses naïve ideas with a simple conviction that no one can effectively refute, simultaneously a victim and a serial victimizer.

Because the stylistic world Anna Biller creates in The Love Witch is cinematically familiar—with its widescreen compositions, brazen color schemes, cigarette smoking femme fatales and square-jawed cops—many are tempted to go hunting for movie references and homages. Indeed, I was reminded of The Birds (in Elaine’s rear-projection convertible ride up the California coast),  (the nude witchcraft rituals), The Trip (the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens when Elaine seduces the hippie professor) and TV’s “Dragnet” (in the sappy hard-boiled dialogue of the police squad room); others cite , Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as inspirations. But none of the scenes Biller stages are outright allusions or in-jokes. She absorbs the period style—particularly its vivacious use of the full chromatic scale—-without simply referencing a checklist of favorite films; you’ll search in vain for nods to her specific influences. The Love Witch is a Sixties-era Technicolor B-movie that could have been, but in an alternate universe at a slight tangent to our own. The biggest compliment I can give Biller is to say that she does something for 1960s Technicolor spectacles similar to what did for silents and early talkies: she uses antiquated techniques to create a timeless, abstract setting that reflects her own personality. It’s gratifying to see her receive critical praise for this monumentally inventive and deceptively intelligent feminist statement dressed in Satanic sexploitation robes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The results are wildly over-the-top, in a ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’-meets-‘Dark Shadows’ kind of way, but Biller’s commitment to her vision is weirdly endearing.”–Sean P. Means, The Salt Lake Tribune (contemporaneous)