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.
Divine 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 David Lochary 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 Troublehad 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.
FEATURING: Claire Williams, Didi Conn (voice), Mark Baker (voice)
PLOT: Raggedy Ann and Andy to pursue a toy pirate into a mystical fantasy world to rescue a French waif.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because of its reputation as a weird animated film which traumatized generations of kids, we dare not exclude it from consideration, lest the masses rise up against us. But also, it includes an auto-cannibalistic taffy pit, singing naked twins, a camel who insists on pointing out his deformities, and a practical-joker knight—and we haven’t even entered Loony Land yet.
COMMENTS: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: A bunch of animated, sentient toys in a child’s room greet a new toy which is unable to accept its lot in life. It runs away with another toy from the room while the rest of the toys marshal a plan to go rescue them—with lots of songs along the way. Toy Story? Ding, you are correct! But Raggedy Ann and Andy did it all eighteen years before. The film is in fact based on the book “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knee,” by Johnny and Marcella Gruelle. There were a whole series of these books that came out around the Great Depression and are soaked in that time period’s sensibilities—after all, Ann is raggedy, not shiny and new like a rich kid’s doll would be.
From the letter-by-letter animated credits to the full-blown absurd climax, this movie is a treat in every sense, but it is also some of the most bonkers animation ever set to film. It’s an onslaught of eccentric characters, spontaneous songs every ten minutes, fantasy places as exotic as anything you’d find in Wonderland, and demented dream logic throughout. All of this is animated by a team working on individual segments, chiefly led by legendary animator Richard Williams, with meticulous attention to detail but mismatched styles throughout the film, giving it Heavy Metal levels of inconsistency. Flopsy moppet dolls gambol in boneless dances, shape-shifting blobs boil in a hodge-podge of mismatched eyeballs, and at times the cast is propelled through what appears to be an MC Escher world or a psychedelic rainbow land, except when they’re charging off cliffs against a sky that’s an homage to Vincent van Gogh.
Raggedy Ann and Andy reside with a host of other dolls in the playroom of a little girl, Marcella, who’s getting a new toy for her birthday: Babette, a French doll who snobbishly disdains her surroundings. She’ll be taken down a notch when the pirate Captain, finagling an escape from the solitary confinement of his snow globe, sails away with her lashed to the mast of his ship. Ann and Andy set out to rescue her, encountering the wrinkly-kneed Camel, the sentient self-consuming lake of taffy known as the “Greedy,” a sadistic practical joker Knight, and eventually the appropriately named Loony Land where bedlam is the only law.
If you see this film as a wee tot, it’s just a fun fantasy musical with a tad more psychedelic imagery than the average animated feature. The weirdness sneaks up on you long after. Perhaps the movie’s story comes from more innocent times, but there’s almost too many disturbing implications for it to be unintentional. Ann and Andy are brother and sister but act like lovers, there’s a mean and crazy man who torments lost little dolls in the woods at night while singing that he loves them, there’s an impotent king whose body parts inflate at random and who rages that he can’t expand bigger unless he’s torturing a captive, there’s a female former captive in bondage who now rules a crew of men while cracking a whip, there’s a tickle monster, and you could go on all day. Now ponder the hellish existence of the Greedy, a monster made of candy who craves candy and so eats himself constantly, before discovering Ann’s candy heart and coming after her with a pair of scissors to cut it out – because he wants a “sweetheart.” Now you know why everybody loved this movie as a kid and yet recalls it with shivers.
FEATURING: Zalman King, Robert Walden, Mark Goddard, Deborah Winters, Ann Cooper, Ray Young, Charles Siebert, Richard Crystal, Alice Ghostley, Stefan Gierasch, Brion James
PLOT: A plague of victims go bald and turn into psychotic killers; the one common factor appears to be a variety of acid, Blue Sunshine, taken during their college days.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Blue Sunshine usually gets classified as a horror/thriller with a brilliant premise behind it, but it’s also a twisted satire about what would later come to be known as “The Big Chill Generation.” It’s a lot tougher and less self-flattering than TheBig Chill turned out to be. Maybe if The Big Chill had an unhinged leading man and psycho killers… but Blue Sunshine is the next best thing.
COMMENTS: “Did you ever hear the words ‘Blue Sunshine’… ?”
If it had come from grindhouse producers, a good alternate title for Blue Sunshine would have been Bad Acid, Dead Hippie,… well, make that Dead Ex-Hippie. Sort of a social satire within the parameters of a horror movie (which is pretty much Jeff Lieberman’s career in a nutshell, come to think of it), Blue Sunshine benefits from a clever premise: what if all those drug-scare films were right? It was just the right film at just the right time to skewer the Sixties generation, who were turning from lives of idealism and awareness towards materialism and narcissistic self-examination.
Even though there’s enough knowing laughs to keep the audience entertained, there’s also enough to keep them unsettled and on edge, mainly with the intense performance of Zalman King, whose protagonist might indeed turn out to be as unhinged as the Blue Sunshine victims. The violence, while relatively tame by today’s standards, also is unsettling. People get incinerated and children are threatened with knives. And there’s the minor game of guessing who might be affected and who isn’t. One clue: watch the hair.
Blue Sunshine first hit DVD as a Special Edition release from Synapse Films, which was transferred from a surviving print as the negative thought to be lost to time. In 2016 it got an upgrade to Blu-Ray from FilmCentrix, after the negative was discovered and restored.
LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Ringer – Lieberman’s first film, a pseudo-PSA that’s actually effective, but probably not in the way its sponsors realized. A clear, scathing look at ‘Youth Culture’.
FEATURING: Jerzy Trela, Andrzej Seweryn, Iwona Bielska, Grazyna Dylaq, Jerzy Gralek, Krystyna Janda, Elizabeth Karkoszka, Maciej Goraj, Leszek Dlugosz, Jan Frycz
PLOT: An expedition crash lands on a planet, and the surviving astronauts establish a tribe and a religion explaining their origins. After a recording of the crash is found, another astronaut, Marek, is sent to investigate and is received as a messiah whose arrival has been prophesied. He becomes involved in a struggle against the planet’s original inhabitants, a birdlike race called the Sherms.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of the few science-fiction adaptations that can earn the adjective of “epic,” and not only in terms of not dumbing down its ideas in favor of effects. The Polish government attempted to kill it, and end its director’s career. Despite it being only 80% of a finished film, there are images that will remain in the mind long after.
COMMENTS: In the best of all possible worlds, On the Silver Globe would be more widely known for the epic saga it is intended to be rather than as an unfinished curiosity, and it would’ve been the blueprint for science-fiction cinema to follow, rather than George Lucas’ Star Wars. Or possibly not. After all, its source material, “The Lunar Trilogy” written by Jerzy Zulawski (Andrzej’s great-uncle), which Stanislaw Lem acknowledged as an influence on his own writing, STILL has never gotten an English translation, making it unknown in the U.S. and other English speaking countries. This is one of the few films where its backstory is as fascinating as the actual film.
To wit: after the success of The Most Important Thing Is to Love, the exiled Zulawski was allowed to return to Poland to work. It was at this time that his marriage collapsed and his wife left (we’ll get to that later on…), and he chose to adapt his great uncle’s trilogy. Two years of work went into the enterprise, with most of the shooting done in 1976 and 1977, until the Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, saw some of the footage and in June 1977, ordered the production to shut down. Props, scenery and costumes were warehoused and/or destroyed; Zulawski was once again persona non grata in Poland, couldn’t get any work, and was again forced to leave home. (Out of this experience came the cult favorite Possession). Wilhelmi died in a plane crash the following year (1978), but despite several attempts to resurrect the project, authorities refused to release the existing material; some of the crew members managed to save what they could, but to no avail. By 1986, the regime in Poland had collapsed, but it was too late—too much material had been lost, several actors had died, and cinematic sci-fi was by then firmly caught in the throes of Star Wars‘s aftermath. However, what was left of the film could indeed be presented in some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)→
Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from Bela Lugosi to Elvis Presley were influenced by him.
Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.
Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)→
FEATURING: Rudy Ray Moore, Jimmy Lynch, Leroy Daniels, Ernest Mayhand, Ebony Wright, Steve Gallon, G. Tito Shaw, Ted Clemmons
PLOT: Comedians Leroy and Skillet borrow a large sum of money from the mob to put on a show. Unfortunately for the duo, rival comedian Petey Wheatstraw’s show is the very same week. When Petey refuses Leroy and Skillet’s request to change the date of his show they use more aggressive tactics. The young brother of one of Petey’s entourage is shot and killed by Leroy and Skillet’s goons, who then shoot all of the attendees at the boy’s funeral. Lucifer is on hand at the tragic event to make a deal with Petey. Petey and his friends will get to live and enact righteous revenge if Petey agrees to marry Lucifer’s ugly daughter and give him a grandson. Petey makes the deal, but he has no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. Will Petey be able to outsmart the Devil?
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Selling your soul to Satan plots are practically as old as film itself. This fact alone does not disqualify Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law as a contender for the List. But while Wheatstraw is a potpourri of genres—a comedy, crime, action, horror film that is completely ludicrous and full of wacky hi-jinx—there are only a couple of “what the hell?” moments. Generally speaking, it is funny and not particularly weird.
COMMENTS: Rudy Ray Moore was an American stand up comedian who recorded his first comedy album, “Below the Belt,” in 1959. In 1975, Moore used the proceeds from his comedy albums to finance his first film, Dolemite. Moore plays the title character Dolemite, a ladies’ man skilled in kung-fu, hell bent on defending the ghetto. Dolemite spawned the sequel The Human Tornado, my personal favorite Rudy Ray Moore film. Moore only made five films throughout the Seventies, and thanks to his presence they are all pretty entertaining. Moore is funny, foul-mouthed, charismatic and energetic. Moore is not an actor, he is a comedian, and he brings his comedic persona with him to his films. He is also one mighty fine dresser. If you can’t enjoy Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law for its humor, you should at very least appreciate Rudy Ray Moore’s sensational wardrobe! Moore dons about a dozen super Seventies ensembles over the course of the film.
Petey Wheatstraw opens with a flashback of his birth during a storm; exiting his mother’s womb as a seven-ish year old boy, he attacks both the doctor and his own father. Petey, like Dolemite, is also a ladies’ man, a master of kung-fu, and a defender of the ghetto. In an early scene Petey teaches three junkies a lesson while the neighbors gleefully cheer him on. The movie keeps a good pace with goofy antics at regular intervals, but most of the funniest bits happen after Petey makes the deal with the devil around mid-film. Once the plastic devil horns, the guys in tights, and Lucifer’s magic cane make their appearance, things get livelier. After Petey discovers the power of the magic cane he uses it without abandon. He grants one woman a wish to prevent her from stabbing her cheating husband to death:
Petey: Don’t kill him ma’am. I have one wish I will grant you. What might it be?
Angry wife: He’s a dog! He’s a damn dog! Just turn him into a little black puppy.
Petey: That wish will be granted.
You can look forward to a she-demon orgy, but don’t count on seeing more than a couple of bare breasts. There are some poorly executed fight scenes with a bunch of demons with bad makeup in tights and capes that were absolutely hilarious! Every fight scene in the film is quite ridiculous and thoroughly amusing. Moore has some funny lines and priceless expressions that alone make the film worth watching.
I always walk away from a Rudy Ray Moore movie with at least one awesome quote. Bar none, my favorite from Petey was “Romance without finance is a damn nuisance.” So true, Petey Wheatstraw, so true. I enjoyed the heck out of Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law; it is good old-fashioned entertainment that made me laugh regularly. I definitely recommend picking up the 2016 Vinegar Syndrome release which contains both the Blu-ray and DVD. This copy is worlds better than the Xenon Pictures (“The Dolemite Collection”) version I had previously owned on DVD (see comparison below).
PLOT: When his elderly landlord suggests that he, recently-released prisoner Bruno, and their mutual friend Eva escape to America, the trio head to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin; there, they start living the American Dream, only to have it reposessed.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The unlikely plot, combined with the unlikely locales (Berlin and the fictional “Railroad Flats”), further combined with unlikely leads (mostly non-actors) results in a strange story—but not-so-strange a movie. The tale being told is a weird one; the movie itself is a (commendably) straightforward telling of it.
COMMENTS: As road movies go, this one is quite the odd duck. This is, of course, to be expected from one of the great oddball directors of the ’70s and ’80s (the reliably offbeat Werner Herzog) who concocted this film specifically for one of the great eccentrics of the last century, the vagrant/street-performer/poet/musician/non-actor known as Bruno S. Like the lead, most of the characters are played by people who did not act for a living, and as such they give their story a layer of truthfulness.
In fact, much of the movie has a documentary vibe. Straight-forward mise-en-scène, realistic lighting, medium shots, and even occasional glances at the camera from Bruno all combine to provide a sensation one is watching, as it were, a “movie-movie” as it flows in and out of a “documentary movie”. Various avenues are explored by this non-documentary: alienation, family, emotional and physical survival, but most of all, the American Dream. The simple joys of this dream, however, quickly give way to the grinding vexations of bleak reality. Toward the end of the movie, Bruno makes a telling remark as he listens to an English conversation he doesn’t understand. He mutters, “I’m really pessimistic about all this.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a man seemingly transplanted from another time (if not another world), Bruno S. copes with his surroundings as ably as his innocence allows. The audience first meets him when he’s being released from jail, imprisoned for unspecified “alcohol-related crimes.” He has only two friends: his landlord, Clemens Scheitz, who not only kept Bruno’s room as he left it but also watched after his Myna bird; and Eva, a much-abused prostitute who may or may not be Bruno’s lover. In Berlin, their lives are semi-tragic but comfortingly mundane. Once in America, Bruno doesn’t so much eventually “lose it” as much as he realizes as there isn’t really any place for him to quietly exist. As events unfold, his American experiences become increasingly strange, until everything unravels. His home is repossessed by the world’s friendliest banker, his old friend goes around the bend and gets arrested, and he himself ends up being hunted by the police. His escape through the most crudely conceived tourist attraction imaginable—which includes not only a “Fire Chief” rabbit but also two (2!) musical chickens—stands as one of Herzog’s stranger set-pieces.
Both location and society seem out to get our endearing protagonist. In the film’s first half, his environment conspires to force him to flee his home; in the film’s second half, it conspires to take away the only people he cares about. Somehow, Herzog makes great swaths of the movie either hilarious or just plain delightful to watch. While a happier trajectory for the film would have been enjoyable, Herzog’s nuanced cynicism makes the film, for all its eccentricity, feel very real.