DIRECTED BY: Robert Thom
FEATURING: Jennifer Jones, Holly Near, Jordan Christopher, Charles Aidman, Lou Rawls, Davey Davison, Roddy McDowall
PLOT: The travails of Beverly Hills-born Tara Nicole Steele, whose mother is a famous film star still trying to remain in the spotlight and whose father (Charles Aidman) is a closeted homosexual. When she returns home for her debutante party, she falls under the influence of a charismatic rock singer and his band mates, and the influence spreads to the entire household.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of the lesser known products of the culture clash of the Psychedelic 60’s with Old Hollywood, Angel is a sweaty Tennessee Williams fever dream/soap opera on acid, and would make a decent double bill with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—and give it a run for its money.
COMMENTS: There’s just no description for Angel, Angel, Down We Go, other than to call it another raw look into the (twisted) brain of Robert Thom, writer of Wild in the Streets, Death Race 2000, and The Witch Who Came from the Sea, among others. Angel is the one time that Thom was in the director’s chair, having direct control over his material.
Angel was soundly flogged by critics and ignored by the general public when first released in August 1969, but when the Manson Family made their debut at roughly the same time, the film was given a second go-around under a different title, Cult of the Damned, in hopes that audiences would flock to the carny show. Audiences didn’t, critics still flogged the film, and it fell into obscurity, not even getting a home video release until February 2015. There were some satellite-TV screenings in the 80’s and on Showtime, and it streamed on Netflix (often getting confused with Guyana: Cult of the Damned). The movie gained a small cult of devotees who managed to catch the rare screening or who saw it during its initial run. While the title Cult of the Damned hints at lurid Mansonesque goings-on in upscale Beverly Hills, there is no cathartic massacre of demented hippies tearing down the social order at the end of the film. The original Angel title is more in line with the film’s tone, which is violent, but is mainly emotional/intellectual violence.
Angel would seem to be part of that slew of films made in the late 60’s where Old Hollywood, trying to stay relevant to audiences, collided, J.G. Ballard-style, with the New Counterculture (Valley of the Dolls, The Big Cube, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckenridge). It also partakes of the subgenre where a charismatic individual wreaks havoc on a ‘normal’ family (Teorema). It even goes further by actively incorporating aspects of avant-garde/underground film and theater, further exaggerating the camp of Hollywood melodrama. Imagine if some studio had hired Kenneth Anger to do a narrative feature film.
According to Paul Green’s “Jennifer Jones: The Life and Films,” Angel originally derived from a 1961 play of Robert Thom’s, repurposed as “A far out version of The Green Hat kind of play about a wild girl heading for destruction… a present day type of F. Scott Fitzgerald heroine.” That fits with reading the film as a demented fever dream of its main character/unreliable narrator, Tara Steele (Holly Near): child of neglectful parents and victim of emotional (and quite possibly, sexual) abuse, whose psychology is visualized via a Robert Rauschenberg/Martha Colburn type of collage created by artist Shirley Kaplan.
One can go on about the flaws of this film—and many have—but the main flaw is oddly the thing which makes it fascinating. Angel is overstuffed with themes which occur throughout Thom’s work: the fascination/repulsion with Old Hollywood (The Legend of Lylah Clare, The Phantom of Hollywood), the jaundiced look at the youth culture (Wild in the Streets), the effects of emotional and sexual abuse (The Witch Who Came from the Sea). It’s as though he decided to put in as much as he possibly could, since he was finally directing. The film never registers as being out of control, however; Thom’s direction is very deliberate and he gets excellent performances from the cast.
Recently released on Blu-Ray by Scorpion Releasing/Kino-Lorber (under the Cult of the Damned title), the film has an excellent presentation for home video, including a very informative and insightful commentary by film historians Nathaniel Thompson (from Mondo Digital) and Tim Greer. One quibble is the lack of subtitles; the film is very dialog-heavy, with a lot of melodramatic word play that you might miss the first time. Subs would definitely help follow the theatrical dialog.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Confusion reigns in this sick film about Hollywood decadence.”–TV Guide