Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Monday, September 06, 2010

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

"Screw anyone who hates killing!"

Hard to find, AIP's renamed CULT OF THE DAMNED (AKA ANGEL ANGEL DOWN WE GO) deserves a damned cult already, but it's still hiding under different posters.  That's how I found it, clicking on what I thought was a Jim Jones documentary on Netflix. But no, this film offers a whole different kind of dosed Kool-Aid. First held back from release due to the blowback from the Manson murders in 1969, it was eventually released CULT OF THE DAMNED to capitalize on them, waiting just long enough for the "too soon"-ness of it to die down. But by then, its cautious HAIR-style peans to freedom didn't ring quite right - we couldn't put the genie back in the bottle. Suddenly an innocent hippie musical 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, but it's hardly that either. If four people count as a cult then oh, crazy lady crazy lady.

So, for the crime of being 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!! And now, it's on Netflix as GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED, where I just watched it thinking Jim Jones is going to show up any minute.


But he doesn't! Seriously, I was so confused just now watching this. I kept thinking "now they'll fly to South America to join the commune.... any minute now..." But they don't. DAMN IT. It's even better without old Jones, sweating in his fatigues. Fuck that guy. But maybe the reason I loved it so much was because I kept thinking it was about to veer into danger and madness at any second.

See Netflix put up the picture at left, for GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED, so when I clicked it I expected to see that film. While this CULT, the one Netflix does have... turns out to be a counterculture 1969 AIP gas(ss) filmed in Los Angeles, California that might even be better than 1968's PSYCH-OUT or HEAD. If those names mean nothing to you then, dude, why are you hanging out here? Go see them at once! CULT isn't really like them, plot-wise, more like THE BIG CUBE meets Pasolini's TEOREMA. Either way, 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 by 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 instead. He's French, he'll just shrug it off. Hopefully.

That's the kind of scene I mean, man. You will definitely have, as they say, totally lost it, and then you'll "know." Bogart Petery Stuyvesant'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 the skydiving rock impresario, Bogart "as in the real Humphrey!" Peter Stuyvesant (Jordan Christopher). A genuinely great singer, he's thinking of calling his new group 'Rabbit Habbit.' They're a trio consisting of Lou Rawls ("Everybody knows black is better, baby!"), a cute blonde flower child Davey Davison ("Birth control can be controlled by the mind!") and Roddy McDowell! ("I heard alcohol is coming back!") Their songs are full of groovy organ, Jew's harp, 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 all penned by the Brill Building-esque song-writing team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, clearly aping the oft-aped style of the musical 'HAIR.' And since the main character/narrator, who joins with the group and finds her groove as Bogart's lover, is the curvy full-body typed heiress Tara Nicole Steele (Holly Near (she meets them when their band plays at her coming out ball), it becomes a kind of HAIR/SPRAY 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.

Little could mom know, Tara's going to be losing her virginity to the rock star they hired for entertainment that very night, out in by the lake outside the mansion.

But the real show-stopper: Tara's slow motion walk down the stairs during the druggy prelude to the title song ("Angel Angel Down we Go"). After spending the first chunk of the movie suffering along with Tara over her mother's ceaseless verbal harangues we wonder how Tara is ever going to get som self esteem. So when she walks down the stairs, right as the very druggy, very very psycedelic title song begins, it's magic. The people around dancing or talking in slow motion around her are oblivious as she enters the magic domain of the Rabbit Habbit.

"Virgin child," Bogart sings right to her (he sees her). "it's time you tried to fly."

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. But then, left turns start to righten, 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 and she fantasizes weird Freudian melt-down bloody Bluebeard forbidden stained-key-style virginity adieus. But soon Bogart's band shows up on the scene; they too accept her, and sweep her back to their pad and into their world of forbidden pleasure and love, love ("Freedom, Mama Angel!"); pillows are piled on the floor around the hookah, 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 she has a lot to offer them. For one thing she has a pilot's license so he has her fly his plane and they all go skydiving ("No one skydives 'cuz it's safe!!"). Tara learns to dance free and easy like Mama Cass as a reward. Back at home, Tara works up the nerve to tease her mom about her obsession with expensive jewelry, her reliance on pills and booze. 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... That's too much. 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 the Original Humphrey 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 to his already recorded track while hanging around in the living room, just listening to it, and/or 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 are everywhere, on all the walls, keep it all weird, man, a nonstop light show of Hollywood icons, authors, and politicians in ways that prefigure similar light shows in NATURAL BORN KILLERS and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, like below:


So, if you haven't seen ANGEL ANGEL on Netflix (again, where it's mislabeled GUYANA) streaming, you haven't seen "it" baby lady. This film is so "it" they had to hide it, twice. 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! Here comes Charlie!



PS - 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!) 

2 comments:

  1. I am obsessed with this film. It's like a bad weekend in Tijuana. And the legendary Jennifer Jones, our little Saint Bernie, is debased and defiled in every scene. My favorite line by Jones is "In my heart of hearts, I'm a sexual clam" - make a great T-shirt.

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  2. It seems this movie may be getting a little easier to find. As I write early in the morning of June 12, 2019, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will be airing it at 2:45 a.m.

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