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Monday, September 06, 2010

Great Acid Cinema: ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO (AKA Cult of the Damned, 1969)

"Screw anyone who hates killing!"

Netflix streaming has just delivered unto its subscribers a vast wealth of MGM-owned AIP and independent horror/sci fi titles from the 1960s-90s (many unavailable on DVD at all) just in time for the trippiest of all seasons, autumn, as in fall.. as in fall down and down we.....go.... If you have Netflix, drop everything and stream CULT OF THE DAMNED! No Jim Jones despite the poster on the site (but there is still some Kool-Aid floating around, if you know what I mean).

In fact, CULT turns out to be a counterculture 1969 AIP gas(ss) filmed in Los Angeles, California that might even be better than PSYCH-OUT or almost as good as HEAD. Whether you're an AIP fan or just a cinematic "experience seeker," you should take the CULT trip and instead of pinching yourself to see if you're dreaming, pinch your mom, shout obscenities at passing pigeons, and howl at breadheads passing on the Sunset Strip. Your lips frothing, your pupils wildly dilated, meaning to say hello to your boss and his wife as they pass on their way to Justine's, you start just laughing insanely.

You will definitely have, as they say, totally lost it, and then you'll "know." Bogart's mad vision of an America that's eaten itself down to the overweight health crisis bone has come to pass. The man is a prophet.

CULT OF THE DAMNED originally had the much more sensible (relatively) title, ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO, referring to one of the psychedelic rock songs performed by said prophet for the gone generation, the skydiving rock impresario, Bogart "as in the real Humphrey!" Peter Stuyvesant (Jordan Christopher). He's thinking of calling his new group 'Rabbit Habbit,' a trio consisting of Lou Rawls ("Everybody knows black is better, baby!"), a cute blonde flower child ("Birth control can be controlled by the mind!") and Roddy McDowell! ("I heard alcohol is coming back!") The songs are full of groovy organ and funky but non-slapped bass lines I could totally play if my bass wasn't so far away, and out of tune, and I don't wanna. The songs are written by the ISHTAR-ish Brill Building-esque song-writing team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, clearly aping the oft-aped style of the musical 'HAIR.'  With the overweight lead (and narrator) Patty Hearst-ish heiress Tara Nicole Steele (Holly Near)  who joins up with them (when their band plays at her coming out ball), it becomes a kind of HAIRSPRAY/HAIR mind-meld, sans the terrible smell of permanents, but with the pungent incense of the Manson killings to come ("My mom always told me the next war would be between the blacks and the whites!")

The film begins, still trying to make me think it's about Guyana. There are lots of jungle noises in the beginning to bear out the assumption that we're watching the right movie (at least for me, who always thought Guyana was in Africa). But as it goes on it gets very Joan Collins plays Mommy Dearest as written by Valerie Solanis channeling Oscar Wilde. While narrating her backstory, Tara hallucinates disturbing collages of her riches-to-riches family tree, where "everyone dies on schedule, beautifully." Jennifer Jones is the faded mom, who shouts at her: "You are a fat girl, you idiot! I don't know why anyone would even touch you!!" When she throws Tara Nicole a coming-out party it's like a champagne bottle missile... aimed straight at the head. Yo, that's poetry.

All through the film, I presumed Tara Nicole was going to go off to Guyana and join Jim Jones to escape her mom's cold clutches, or something, and that an angry reel of camp atrocity footage would be tacked on at the end, intercut with Tara Nicole freaking out in close-up so you couldn't tell she wasn't really there (if you were naive or stoned enough). But then, left turns start and go, baby, go, until you're freaking out in the best free love acid flashback kind of way, with just a little dab of Manson-esque foreshadowing to keep everything from getting too Partridge Family.

That's how it goes though, in AIP land: Bogart lays Tara by the lake at the tail end of her gala, and she fantasizes weird Freudian melt-down bloody Bluebeard forbidden stained-key-style virginity adieus. But soon Bogart's friends show up (The Rabbit Habit) and sweep her back to their pad and into their world of forbidden pleasure and love, love (freedom, mama angel!), pillows and purple gel accent lighting and LSD and a groovy old LP player and reel-to-reel playing their gone tracks. Bogart even records a song on the spot in ode to his newfound 'large girl' love about how "growing high and going wide gives you lots of 'room' inside."

Tara gets confident with all this attention and learns to dance free and easy like Mama Cass and later at home she works up the nerve to tease her mom about her obsession with expensive jewelry. With a little research Tara learns that fat used to be the height of beauty and that "Twiggy only dates back to Buchenwald." Whoa, baby! When Bogart decides to get with Tara's pill-head mama ("maybe you'll adopt me, maybe I'll adopt you, but oh crazy lady crazy lady!") Tara freaks out and starts crying up on the ceiling. Mom hangs by the pool and notes: "He is the sort that makes you take all sorts of tranquilizers before breakfast, isn't he? And wash them down with bloodys." Cheers, Mrs. S.! "You drive, I dive! We all die!"

With Bogart around, bloody's always for breakfast.

Needless to say, Mom gets her own song, too:, in a slow grinding bluesy vamp:

I just met a mother -
ain't gonna tell you her name.
I just met a mother
she puts us all to shame.
Well the bigger that they are,
the harder they fall.
Looka here, what do we got?
the biggest mother
of them all!

Bogart can just magically come up with some cool thing to sing and instantly move the whole cast in and out of his recording studio to belt it out in a cleverly edited montage of Bogart actually singing it into the microphone, lip-syncing it in the living room, just listening to it, and having it play in the background as they drive around in his groovy car, all within the course of a three minute song. Meanwhile, photos everywhere, on all the walls, keep it all weird, man, a nonstop lightshow of Hollywood, literature, and politics in ways that prefigure similar lightshows in NATURAL BORN KILLERS and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, like below:

So, if you haven't seen ANGEL ANGEL on Netflix (where it's mislabeled GUYANA) streaming, you haven't seen it. See this stone groove motherlover timeless remembrance of the days of cults and parental anxiety about drugged-out rebels that talked too fast and sang too much.

For Squaresville adults it was like looking right into Medusa's hazel blue eyes. Mother Lover!

Perhaps this film isn't as well-known as its other AIP psychedelic brethren due to bad timing, i.e. the Manson murders. That little event broke up negotiations between the generations like a bomb at an OPEC conference. Suddenly an innocent film--full of song, freak, and flag that just happened to be about killing your parents--was seen as something very dark, which the film's satirical tone was maybe just too frazzled to support; so they changed the name to CULT OF THE DAMNED. If four people count as a cult then oh, crazy lady crazy lady. So stuck in a limbo where BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, HAIR, AND HAIRSPRAY fans can't find it (they'd love it), the film's been rolling around in a time warp obscurity ever since, ever since now, crazylady crazylady!!

So remember, the only way to find this film is to look for another film on Netflix under the similar title, GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED -- and somehow, that makes the actual film even better, for even if they never actually get to Guyana, this damned cult's Kool-Aid still packs a 'Lovely Sort of Death' in every sip, so drink up, tune in, and dive, cannibal America, dive!

(PS 2/18/15- It's not on Netflix anymore but it did just come out on DVD via Kino Lorber) 

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