"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Manson Poppins: DEATHMASTER


The Age of Aquarius... remember when it dawned? Wast thou thar? Wist thar thou, that dawning yawning chasm a new kind of exploitation film for to find, if you can keep your mind while everyone around you is losing theirs, man, from Hair of the Claude to the Zodiac amore, flowers in the hair and hands and minds of runaways huddled shivery there in the candle-lit squats of Haight; one tin soldier writing away in a mangy corner, his tattered book a masterwork only while the ink's still wet and the 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. Old SF Haight-Ashbury or Laurel Canyon mansions with paisley painted steps, cults emceed by shirtless long hairs with an eye for the young and clueless, those saps ready to follow anyone who looked the part and deigned to feed them; Peter Fonda wandering in search of lost Lenore or Salli Sachse; college campus foyers with afroed radicals; dirty thrift stores and new age bookshops run by Dick Miller in a paisley vest.... All of it, all of it gone, sliced away, by the arrival of the hard shit, 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 in Time. Charlie Manson putting the lysergic blood hex on the forehead of the sleeping Virgin Tate; armed acidheads kicking up violent dove sediment as they snake upriver towards your peaceful hawk Kurz-y 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 worse, into their parents' bedroom to write 'acid is groovy' on the walls in their baby brother's blood. 



If he 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 represent '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, 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.' 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 you feel you're gonna die a lot - and if you roll with it, you get to the other side where the bliss is. If you don't, bad trip city. But if no one was there to tell these snots that, yeeesh.

Meanwhile, Manson's strung-out wackos bled into assassin shadows that stained the face of every long-haired date brought home late to worried-sick suburban parents. 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). Jim Jones replaced the occult-LSD hippie cocktail with Kool-Aid as the cult beverage in 1978; 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. And if some Pagan love rites were included, so be it. We had a Parker Bro. Ouija board in the closet with the goddamned Monopoly.


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...


DEATHMASTER 
(1972) - Dir Ray Danton
***

The 'other' self-help guru vampire character Robert Quarry played in the early 70s, DEATHMASTER gets no love from the man, the critics, 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 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.

Lensed by the great DP, Bill Butler (JAWS, DEMON SEED) in great 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. In the cinema verite style of just a few years earlier, 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 would show 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 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 a pre-set expectation. Not knowing but committing to the film anyway, as I did, almost accidentally, kind of puts you in the mind of what acid is actually like when you're on it. Which is groovy.

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. It ain't like that, man. It's a safe place to hang out, get a free meal, read some literature (that you know, really reaches you kids, telling it all in your hip language) 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 rush cooks down to selling flowers 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 hungry and crazy not eating meat leaves you. Dig, man, it's a chance to be the picture, for the picture itself is in, as it is in life which is love and life is essence, therefore granting the great teacher your essence--your mortality's platelets and plasma--is to spend eternity as one "bitten" by the love bug. Only an idiot would say no to eternal life and so DEATHMASTER needed an idiot, and in his grace, they sent him one. His name was Pico, and Bill Ewing was the actor (if that is the word) who plays 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 soon pits him against a Billy Jack-style Kung Fu 'peacenik' straight-edge hippie named Pico (Bill Ewing) and his girlfriend Rona (Brenda Dickson) who's 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 are all hanging 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 mull around 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. 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"



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.
Khorda, manifesting in the party, as yet unnoticed as anyone
other than another tribal scene maker
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 zombie 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
A hippie: Get in there, Barbados
Another hippie: Yeah. Lay it down, man

The kids gather wide-eyed like he's Manson Poppins, wanting him to say more, man, about the stars and shit. 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 to discuss further the ways of things. Then, dig it, he vanishes. 

It's like whoa. The 'now generation' patter continues once the cleaning montage is over. If I could I'd write it all down, it's so spot on/off.  Khorda says he's from 'The Isles of Maybe" and picking apart a flower, notes its beauty is a conceit, "as ephemeral as man's wish for immortality." But he loses his cool over Monk's iron cross pendant. Fuck this bullshitter, says Monk, and announces he's going out for some steak... and some whiskey!! Man, if I was still drinking, that line would have made me stand up and cheer! It might be the best line in a biker film since, say it with me, Heavenly Blue's telling the priest what kids want in THE WILD ANGELS.

But there's something amiss that Monk, for all his abrasiveness, 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, 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. He's made his move, and shit just got heavy culty.

Pico and Rona figure they better split fast, especially once everyone else starts dancing too. They should have just rolled with it/ Khorda is taking them outside time-space, as any good guru is wont to do, and the scene with them dancing in slow motion has a weird druggy vibe that lets you know, yes, Khorda is delivering the spiritual goods. The trick of all gurus of course is that once you surrender your will to theirs then sure, you feel a deep egoless bliss and connection to the eternal now, but 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 start to smell a rat. You need your parents or someone to come rescue you in the dead of night, whisk you back to Iowa.... sheesh, nevermind.





After the excellent cinematography by Butler, what makes DEATHMASTER so supreme is the marvelously off-the-wall cast and their unholy raiment: As with the man called Dean Stockwell in PSYCH-OUT, Ewing wears a combination Native American headband long black hair wig probably 'borrowed' from the B-western unit. 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 mode. Whatever the method it took to get him there, I like the weird dichotomy results.


As his girlfriend Rona, Brenda Dickson has these big expressive blue eyes, Ellen Burstyn meets Jaclyn Smith features and a lithe, pale midriff that all combines to make her accessibly naive girl-next-door yet cool. Her eyes dilate with desire and contract with concern and best of all she seems genuinely thrilled to be on camera, no matter in what capacity. It's her infectious good nature that seeps into the corners of the film like helium and lifts the whole first swath of the film. I fell in love with her the way I did with Sandahl Bergman in CONAN or Kim Cattrall in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Alas: she disappears for most of the second swath, 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 helps us thirst for a final fight.


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. It's to him Pico runs when he realizes the truth about this suave new guru Khorda. 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. Who wouldn't?

And who hasn't been tripping at a party and have some hip know-it-all older skeeve show up with coke and turn what was moments ago a peace-love-unity happening into a dirtbag-studded fiend fest of foamy-mouthed sex-obsessed reptilian egotists and so had to run, screaming and hysterical, naked into the night? I used to rant myself hoarse trying to convince Johnny Spliff that his couch guest Doug E. Fresh was a moronic townie dirtbag who could give him nothing but IOUs, lowered whiskey bottle water lines, and crabs. Johnny would just look at me slack-jawed. It was a nightmare. That couch was MINE!

At least Pop's convinced eventually (his dog gets killed) and soon they're examining a paperback on magical cults through the ages, very typical of west coast used bookstores at the time, and those same books are probably still there, well-thumbed and never purchased by the dirty broke hippies of the region. 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. She thought I was hallucinating too. Why wouldn't she listen?? I barely understood a word of Pynchon's prose but I kept reading, 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, so no weed. 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? It's 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 when I got it back to camp, the seagulls would descend. 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. No matter how much drunk I got, never was enough, save to pass me out for just long enough I woke up with double the misery and not a drop left. If a Khorda came for me, I would not waiver in my surrender.


And that brings us to the final marvelous performance in the clan - the 'adult' in the group, the great Robert Quarry. As 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) and I know full well they're far better reviewed than DEATHMASTER. I am not swayed.

Quarry, for his sins, doesn't ham it up or phone it in until the very end, but when he does, 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 incompetence 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. Not a great way to go out, but the photography is beautiful; it's easy to see why Bill Butler would go on to be one of the best in the business, winning two Oscars. There's a kind of Gordon Willis duskiness at work, almost GODFATHER-level darkness; he catches more than a few great magic hour shots. And that abrupt switch from the PSYCH-OUT hippie house vibe to full on psychedelic uber-cheap vampire film is well turned. Granted by then the whole enterprise has gone south, but what a great drop!

There are annoying things, like that Pico is such a genius with booby traps but 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, but 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 to get a crew cut, a suit and a job. 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! 



2 comments:

  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.

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  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

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