Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Manson Poppins: DEATHMASTER

The Age of Aquarius... remember when it dawned? Wast thou there in that dawning yawning chasm, a new kind of exploitation film to find? If you can keep your mind while everyone around you is losing their Hair --then Claude to the Zodiac amore; flowers in the heads and nails in their hands and minds of easily swayed runaways huddled shivery in the candle-lit squats of Haight, ready to follow anyone with long hair and confidence; one tin soldier writhing away in a mangy corner, writing what is only a masterpiece while the ink's still wet and his pupils too dilated to read. Girls with beautiful blonde straight hair dancing like Prakriti in the flames of Bruce Dern's burning sculptures and sister Strasberg's childhood treasure box, spinning like a sparkling pinwheel in that basement furnace memory. Old SF Haight-Ashbury or Laurel Canyon mansions with paisley-painted steps, cults emceed by shirtless longhairs with an eye for the young and clueless, bumpkins desperate to not seem so rube-like; ready to follow anyone who looked the part (fringe and facial hair) and deigned to feed and water them; Peter Fonda, wandering in search of lost Lenore or Salli Sachse; college campus foyers choked with seated radicals; dirty thrift stores and new age bookshops run by Dick Miller in a paisley vest.... Remember all that? Even if thou weren't thar? 

All of it, all of it gone, sliced away, by the arrival of the hard shit, meth, coke --the killers of empathy, the murderous exploiters of these pie-eyed specimens, the sexual predators following their nose from all points east towards the 'free love' they read about or saw on TV. Needy middle-aged male sex drives like a tidal wave of pollution rolling towards an Edenic spring. All it needed was a match and it would burn like the Cuyahoga River. Charlie Manson putting the lysergic blood hex on the forehead of the sleeping Virgin Tate through his remote control hot chick assassins; armed acidheads kicking up violent dove sediment as they snake upriver towards your peaceful Kurz-ish lagoon, their self-righteous conviction leaving the ears of the fatherless young exposed to the sound of the barefoot rainbowed piper (1). Anyone willing to lead them, be it off the lemming cliff, or into their parents' bedroom to write 'acid is groovy' on the walls in their baby brother's blood, anyone with long hair and confidence... all you have to do is take the consequences, and their money, if they have any. 

(They don't).

Just as the alchemical conjunction of the late 60s created the runaway shelter squatter cult free love commune utopia Woodstock, the early 70s was spent reeling from the gate-crashers at Altamont, who all wanted someone to give them 'the scene' they had envisioned when they ran away from home. Satanists, warlocks, scheming crooks, vampires, and the devil himself all put in bids after the parents put the older leaders--Leary, Ginsberg, Kesey--in jail, left them crucified on the altar of 'drug laws.' Timothy Leary in jail for 20 years for possession of two roaches; Ken Kesey forced to tell everyone the acid test was over and 'everybody passed.' To name but two. Yeesh, but was he so far wrong? Acid was too powerful a thing to be played with by dumbass 16 year-old hicks who could barely read a set list. Naturally, the minute they felt they were gonna die they went to the hospital - which is about the most stupid thing you can do on acid, and on acid if you do go through that spiritual / transformative death... if you just roll with it, you get to the other side where the bliss is. If you don't, bad trip city, the hospital is no place to come down. But if no one was there to tell these snots that, yeeesh. Yeeeeachhhh! Just thinking of these wallies now I can smell the mustiness of their flannels, their lame attempts at facial hair, their crap tattoos and terrible tie-dyes, the pleading puppy desperation behind their Saran Wrap-thin bravado.

Manson accepted them, when no one else would, and in the process stained the face of every long-haired date brought home late to worried-sick suburban parents in the early 70s. There were so many moonies, Hare Krishnas and other 'options' available that studying to be a cult deprogrammer seemed a viable career. Even in elementary school we were taught about brainwashing, although we had a pretty literal conception of it (I pictured it literally, the brain removed and massaged with soapy water - I didn't get how they could put it back in so easily, or where the soap went).

In 1978, Jim Jones replaced the occult-LSD hippie cocktail with cyanide Christian Kool-Aid as the cult beverage; but between '69-'77 cults were still signified by chants and robes-- Krishna to Zeppelin to Crowley to EST swirled together in a haze of drugs and chanting--and back in the dawn of the 70s even upscale college grads and suburban parents were opting for the communal living style (including my own aunt). And if some Pagan love rites were included, so be it. We even had a Parker Bros. Ouija board in the closet with the goddamned Monopoly. Who didn't?

Meanwhile, at the drive-in, the national post-Manson hippie backlash brought in a psycho guru murderous long haired cult gusher... Manson clones by the dozens, including this very special leader...

(1972) - Dir Ray Danton

The 'other' self-help guru vampire character Robert Quarry played in the early 70s (the first being COUNT YORGA) DEATHMASTER got no love from the critics of the era, who sneered at its dated look, but like a rainforest serpent crawling up from the depths of the Amazon Instant Video riverbed, it bit me at just the right time and place, and so I  love it. Also, the print on Amazon Prime looks damned good (which is--if you've surfed around down there you'll know what I mean--unusual in and of itself). It's special, man -- a real gem in the rough. All these screenshots are from it. Savor them, my children.

Lensed by the great DP, Bill Butler (JAWS, DEMON SEED) in countercultural AIP semi-documentary style, part Kovacs elaborate pull focuses, part Gordon Willis darkness and texture, the film might be a bit shoddy special effects wise but it looks great.  I dig that once the pre-credit coffin on a river sequence is over, you'd never even know it was a horror movie until around 45 minutes in. Before the biting starts, while the sun is out, Butler pulls focus along interweaving groups of bikers, free spirits selling trinkets outside at the 'Patagonia Market' parking lot, and that coffin being driven past in the back of an old pick-up fits-right-in, like 1968's PSYCH-OUT (which you'll remember also has a coffin) meets a non-musical HAIR divided by WILD ANGELS x BILLY JACK + an after school message movie where I was expecting William Shatner or Keith Carradine to up to deal 'death,' i.e. acid which is just as addictive as heroin according to, say, GO ASK ALICE (1973)

I think of course that that's the way all countercultural-aspiring movies should be watched, with no clue what genre they're even in. This happened to me with CULT OF THE DAMNED (1969), which I thought (due to Netflix's use of the wrong icon art) was about Jim Jones --I still think it is, even though Jones never shows up. Would the movie have blown my mind the same way, otherwise? No, but not knowing what the film you're watching is called, about or what genre it's in, is liberating. If something's a comedy, tragedy, horror film, anti-drug message movie, or parental paranoia exploitation film we come to it with pre-set expectations. Not knowing, but committing to the film anyway, as I did (I put it on, then forgot what it was, as I was writing some other post, it kind of sucked me in). I'd go so far as to say not knowing puts you in the mind of what acid is actually like when you're on it. (1) It's the same thing Antonioni was after in his films from L'AVENTURA onwards, or Godard, or Brecht... where our brain's habit of organizing random information and layering expectations on a story (going back to childhood with mom reading our favorite books over and over), is thwarted and altered, so our dusty grasp on a symbolic register vanishes and we see the lunch as the nakedness it is, so to speak, resulting in a kind of existential cosmic ecstasy.

On that note, since you might otherwise never notice this gem while paddling down the Amazon's datura root-webbed banks, be aware that the cover they use--with its faded monochromatic red bearded face like some hungry mental patient getting stabbed in his eyes with a thousand acupuncture needles--might be an instant turn-off, conjuring disheartening memories of 80s shot-on-video gorefests starring bearded fat guys in gore-stained bibs. It ain't like that, man. It's a safe place to hang out, get a free meal, read some of our groovy literature and maybe think about joining us at sunrise for morning chants. Interested? You just might find what you're seeking, and if that momentary joyous white light total acceptance cooks down to selling flowers barefoot in the street to keep our little family in tambourines, robes, candles, mushrooms, and dime store Dracula fangs, well, it's a chance to serve the cause. No matter how weak and susceptible not eating meat leaves you, granting the great leader your essence--your mortality's platelets and plasma--will actually give you life in his taking of it.

Only an idiot would say no to being bitten by love, by the source of eternal life and so DEATHMASTER needed an idiot, and for his sins, they sent him one. His name was Pico, and Bill Ewing was the actor (if that is the word) who played him.

(L-R: Reese, Jordan, Tree, Ewing, Dickson)
We first think DEATHMASTER is going to be a biker film (maybe it's the name of a chopper?) when old-school dirtbag Monk (William Jordan) brum-brums into town with his old lady Essine (Betty Anne Reese); his brusque savagery and thuggish behavior at the Patagonia Fair soon pits him against Billy Jack-style Kung Fu 'peacenik' straight-edge hippie Pico (Bill Ewing) and his girlfriend Rona (Brenda Dickson) who's secretly turned on by Monk's outlaw swagger. The much smaller Pico knocks Monk on his ass, but no hard feelings because they all end up on the run from the fuzz and Pico, ever the Zen dude, invites Monk and his chick up to this groovy squat, where the kids hang out.

Up there, in that house on the hill, these kids are making it work, you know, with no electricity but they got candles, love, and a big bowl of what looks like chicken nuggets. And while the kids sit around in the dim light there's a melancholy, haunting flute playing, slowly the buzz seems to dwindle, the gathering storm, the candles seeming to barely put a dent in the darkness. The flute gets more and more mournful. As the resident guitar guy, Bobby "Boris" Pickett says, "Hey what's happening? We're all hung up on some kind of gloom."

Pico, the ever square Paul Walker-esque narc conscience of the clan says "We're hung up all right, but always the same old thing, looking for our damn head, man"

Khorda, manifesting in the party, as yet unnoticed as anyone
other than another tribal scene maker

Rona: (singing like nursery rhyme taunt): His head, his head, Pico can't find his head!
Pico: (wearily) round and round we go
Khorda (unseen, a voice in the shadows behind Pico, sitting cross-legged, having just kind of appeared in the dark morass of hippies, not speaking directly to them but in that same offhand to no one in particular way close-knit groups have of batting ideas around, like he's a teacher in the Socratic style)
... like living in limbo
Pico: yeah, that's it- - a treadmill
Khorda: ... gets to be a bore.
  Pico: Right, a goddamn mother lovin' bore.
 Khorda: The thing to do is to break away... find  a purpose
 Rona: I got a purpose --love... (gets up, starts  dancing around)
 Khorda: Love power... something to cherish. To  hang onto.... But to know love one must first be  alive... live
 Pico: That's just my point, we ain't living.
 Khorda: Perhaps you need a spark, to light the  fuel within
 Pickett - Far out - you mean like a miracle or  something?
 Khorda: why not? (Claps hands - lights come  on)
Rona: Did you see that? What's with that guy?
Pico: Hey man, this is a weird scene!

(they pause, notice the flute player, Barbado [LeSesne Hilton] a big-afroed zombie-type, blowing like a hypnotized cobra /snake charmer combo all the while, casting the gloom mood in the first place most likely)
Bobby Pickett: What's with him?
Khorda: He's achieving his future 
(Barbados continues his memsmerizing drumming)
A hippie: Get in there, Barbados (Barbado keeps playing)
Another hippie: Yeah. Lay it down, man

The kids begin gather wide-eyed around Khorda, like he's Manson Poppins, wanting him to say more, man. Say more about the stars and love and the power of purity of essence (POE). Fix the place up first, he says. Clean house and switch to an all-living things diet (like a vegan Renfield) and he'll be back later to discuss further the ways of things. 

Then, dig it, baby, he vanishes

It's like whoaThe 'now generation' patter continues once the cleaning montage is over. 

If I could I'd write it all down, I wouldn't, cuz it's so spot off it might lose its essence. When he returns, Khorda says he's from 'The Isles of Maybe" and languidly picks apart a flower, accusing its beauty of a conceit "as ephemeral as man's wish for immortality." 

But then he loses his cool over Monk's iron cross pendant. Ain't nothin' holy 'bout that cross, Khorda! What does Khorda do at a KKK rally cross burning, have a stroke? If he's going to find god there he may just as well shrink from a tire jack. Fuck this bullshitter, says Monk, and announces he's going out for some steak... and some whiskey!! Damn right. Seeing this, again kind of randomly--still not sure what it even was--I rose up and cheered. I generally dislike bikers in AIP films as they're always destructive rapists, but sometimes they speak much wisdom. Like Heavenly Blue's telling the priest they want to get loaded in THE WILD ANGELS.

But there's something amiss that Monk, for all his abrasiveness and thick stupidity, is hep to, reminding us of the speech about 'needing the assholes' at the end of TEAM AMERICA. When Khorda returns with Barbado, this time playing the conga, he puts the bite on Essine, and the kids hear her scream upstairs. Where is she? They run up to investigate. When they come back down, Essine's there dancing. The music "consecrates them to immortal life." But the second sign something is wrong is that Khorda doesn't like when you try to skip out on the scene. He's made his move, and shit just got mad fascist, that quick. 

Like any effective cult, you only realize there's a trap once you're already trapped.

Pico and Rona figure they better split fast, especially once everyone else starts dancing too--in slow motion!!  Khorda is taking them outside time-space, as any good guru is wont to do, and the scene with them dancing in slow motion, as normal-time Pico and Rona watch aghast, carries a uniquely weird druggy vibe that lets you know, yes, Khorda may be sucking the blood of today's youth, but unlike Nixon and everyone else doing it less literally, Khorda is delivering the spiritual goods in exchange --he does make them immortal. 

The trick of all gurus of course is that, once you surrender your will and believe whole-heartedly in the cause, you do feel a deep egoless bliss and connection to the eternal now. It's liberating. But at what cost?!? You've also just let someone else take over your whole existence, and now you can't escape the guru's clutches even if you realize you're now a slace. You need your parents or someone to come rescue you in the dead of night, whisk you back to Iowa and hire a capable deprogrammer.... or send you to a 90-day detox facility if we're talking an addiction metaphor...  sheesh, nevermind. What a choice.

Now a small

You see them every day, on the street, their hollowed out eyes, rotting teeth, dirty clothes, pock-marked skin, abscess arms... the shivering, pleading, twiching. Hoping for one more shot to take them through the day. Well, now you can be their hero. Now YOU can make a difference in some poor junky's life. For just $300 a day, that's less than the price of a small car, you can help a junky get the sustenance he needs. 
Won't you give.... all you can? Including your TV?

Aside from the excellent cinematography by Butler, what makes DEATHMASTER so supreme in the annals of AIP horror-hippy hyrbridization is the marvelously off-the-wall cast and their unholy raiment: Like Dean Stockwell in PSYCH-OUT, Ewing's long black hair/bangs/Native American headband combo is probably an all-in-one wig leftover from AIP's western unit (it may even be the same one). His pretty face resembles a young Robert Conrad, and though he can't act, his bi-polar veering from super-hammy to super-low key finally pays off when he 'snaps' into a weird bug-eyed maniac at the climax. 

As his girlfriend Rona, Brenda Dickson has these big expressive blue eyes, n Ellen Burstyn meets Jaclyn Smith facial structure, and a lithe, pale midriff that all combines to make her accessibly naive girl-next-door accessible yet sexually mature and strangely cool all at once. Her eyes dilate with desire and contract with concern when appropriate; she seems genuinely thrilled to be on camera, no matter in what capacity, all but fluttering and twirling around the periphery of any group scene. Her infectious energy seeps into the corners of the film like helium and lifts the whole first swath of the film into a strange world where you don't know what you're watching. It could be a Billy Jack vs. bikers movie, it could be a youth in revolt kinda thing, a romantic soap, an after-school special, a valentine to the Santa Monica Pier flea-market, you just don't know. 

Alas: she disappears for most of the second swath, the 'Khorda shows his fangs' secton, and her absence creates an anxiety in young Pico that we feel too. It helps motivate his return to the house, the way Valeria's death in CONAN or Kim Cattrall's in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, helps us thirst for a return to the dragon's den, a final fight, despite our feeling the hero is delusional and outgunned. 

As the Van Helsing of the piece there's Pop (voice of Pooh) Fiedler, a mousy middle-aged little balding capitalist in a hippie vest and sandals. An iffy father figure/librarian to the kids in the neighborhood, it's to him Pico runs when he realizes the truth about this suave new guru.

Naturally, when some long-haired faux Native American boy barges into your store, foaming at the mouth and raving about vampires, you just assumes he's having a really bad trip. You find him a beanbag in the back so he ride out the peak in relative safety. Maybe you give him an orange, keep the music earthy, electric and soulful, and let the trip run its course til he's sane enough to walk out on his own power. 

But you don't believe him.... do you?

I mean, who hasn't been tripping at a party and had some hip, charismatic know-it-all older dude show up and--with a single eight-ball of coke--turn what was only an hour ago a  'peace and electric love' mammalian group mind happening' into a 'dirtbag-studded festival of foamy-mouthed sex-obsessed reptilian egotists'?  You figured you were with your tribe and safe for the night, and quick as you like your tribe had joined the evil clan, and sk so you had to run, disillusioned, disoriented, scared, freaked out and confused, into the night you presumed yourself safe from navigating? I used to rant myself hoarse trying to convince Johnny Spliff that his perennial townie couch guest Doug E. Fresh was a crank-snorting dirtbag who could give him nothing but IOUs, lowered whiskey levels, and hep-C. Johnny would just look at me slack-jawed and do nothing. He was an easy mark. For us both, I guess. But I was cleaner!!  And bought whiskey! Suddenly I had to find a different couch to crash on.

It was a nightmare.

Believe it or not, Pop's convinced, eventually, (his dog gets drained of blood as a warning) and soon they're examining a paperback on magical cults through the ages together. Ah, used bookstores on the west coast! Those same books are probably still there, well-thumbed and never purchased by the dirty broke Santa Monica flower children, now grown paunchy and burnt out. 

Dude, I bought a used paperback of Gravity's Rainbow at one of those bookstores, and was raving to my friend Beth about all the reptilian comfortable-in-their-own-skin evil swine around us at Reggae on the River out in Humboldt County, CA, summer of 1990. She thought I was hallucinating too. Why wouldn't she listen?? I barely understood a word of Pynchon's prose but I kept reading all through our road trip, hoping she would be impressed. She wasn't. She stuck with Robertson Davies. It was the summer of 1990, there was a massive draught so no campfires were allowed, and Operation Green Sweep was in full effect. Ever try to camp without a campfire, or enjoy reggae without weed, or share close quarters while traveling platonically with a gorgeous Connecticut hippie girl? Or read an 800+ page book with no comprehension of its presumedly rich historical subtext, in a time before internet or cell phones to look up dates and big words? On shitty acid? It would have been enough to make anyone see vampires everywhere. I was ready to drown myself, but could barely afford enough whiskey to make it worth the drive into McKinleyville. And--worse--if I did, when I got it back to camp, the seagulls would descend, all those thirsty hippie mouths. Or were they more like vampire bats? Every drop of that 1.75 of Ten High should have been coursing through my grateful bloodstream instead of theirs. But I was too young to be selfish. Either way, no matter how much got I drunk, it never was enough. I'd just pass out and when I woke up, the same misery + interest was waiting for me -- and not a drop left.

If a Khorda came for me then, I would not have wavered in my surrender. If he bought me steak and whiskey.

And that brings us to the final marvelous performance in the clan - the 'adult' in the group, the great Robert Quarry. As COUNT YORGA he played self-help guru to a slightly older and richer enclave of California swingers, but there's apparently no relation to his incarnation here, which is fine, because I like this film much better than either of those (probably thanks to the great Butler cinematography). Though I know full well even the RETURN OF COUNT YORGA is far better reviewed than DEATHMASTER. I am not swayed.

Cinematography makes all the diff.

Quarry, for his sins, doesn't ham it up or phone it in until the very end, but when the time comes, look out. He drops one of the fakest and worst evil laughs-turned-screams in horror history, which is followed almost immediately by Ewing's wild-eyed farewell to Lorna, where he seems to be passive-aggressively sabotaging his own already incompetent performance like it's the 100th take and the director's been screaming at him all day and--rather than finally getting it right--he just snaps and does a burlesque mockery of the director's instructions. And the director thinking it's better than what he was getting in the first 99, calls it a wrap. Not a great way to go out, but hey!! The photography is beautiful. 

His name isn't fresh in the zeigeist like James Wong Howe or Vilmos Zsigmond, but it should be. Even with something as innocuous as Deathmaster, it's easy to see why Bill Butler would go on to be considered--by the people in the business--one of the best, and winning two Oscars. There's a kind of Gordon Willis'Godfather-style earthen duskiness at work here in this crazy hippie house and Santa Monica scene. He catches more than a few great magic hours, and that abrupt switch from the PSYCH-OUT hippie house vibe to full on psychedelic uber-cheap vampire film is well turned, becuase it all looks so good it catches you off guard. Rather than anticipating what's happening next, you fall into a state of aesthetic arrest. 

All that said, there are many annoying things about the iflm, like that Pico is such a genius with booby traps but then forgets to use his kung fu on Barbado, twice, and forgets he managed to defeat him the first time by just painting a cross on his chest in blood. Also, like so many idiot vampire hunters, he never even thinks about bringing a real cross with him, or to bring a priest instead of the cops, fucking narc that he is.

I kept hoping that it would turn out that the only way to defeat Khorda would be for Pico go get a crew cut and a job. That would have been so cherry, bro. 

Well, you can't have everything.

But, if you have Amazon Prime and a tolerance for plastic fangs, you can have 90 minutes with the DEATHMASTER. May the joy it bring add fruitful notes to your blood's bouquet! Ave Santa Sangrardo! 

1. see my story of tripping to FLATLINERS


  1. Erich, I once upon a time misremembered this film as Return of Count Yorga based on dim memories of a NYC TV broadcast and strong memories of Quarry's TV-suave voice. It really was an exploitation of the Yorga films, since ads for the actual Return actually identified him as "the Deathmaster." Both the Yorga character and this film would get more props if we all just agreed that Khorda is Yorga continuing to adapt to the times.

  2. Thanks Sam - you'd be right if you reversed the chronology, so that Khorda came first - otherwise it's like he's swimming backwards through time

  3. Interestingly, this film was shot between the Yorga duo, as GURU VAMPIRE in December 1970. AIP only picked it up as a tax write off, finding a greater audience through its many TV showings into the 80s. Still lesser known than Yorga but just as good.

  4. Robery Quarry rules! I hate to be the voice of dissent but Deathmaster leaves me a bit cold. Too may dumb hippies,not enough Quarry! I still gotta go with the Yorga films. Forgive me.


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