I consider myself pretty familiar with the myriad weaves and offshoots of the EXORCIST-ripped corners of the 70s Italian cinema tapestry, but THE ANTICHRIST (1974) slipped past me... until now. That's not entirely true, Father. I lied it turns out for, when I was watching it last week, during its memorable Satanic induction ceremony I had a flashback to a memory so foul and monstrous it tore loose a swath of my soul. In that grisly instance returned to my nostrils a charnel stench-filled Times Square grindhouse whose cursed name brings a knowing shudder to those who've been there.... The Roxy.
It was a hot summer afternoon around 1985 or 86. We were three 17 year-olds seeking lurid thrills and regarding, as most tourists still do, the area around 42nd St. and Broadway as the extent of NYC. Tourists today of course will find no trace of the grindhouse district it was then - a sleazy mecca punctuated by mainstream Broadway theaters and overpriced family restaurants like Beefsteak Charlie's, but the rest of the are was X-rated theaters, adult bookstores, and grindhouses showing Kung Fu and lurid horror films. If we were smarter we'd have been scared, but we felt invulnerable in our suburban teenage disaffection. No matter what we saw or heard, we'd be okay. We chose the Roxy, based on its proximity to a different theater we thought it was connected to, I think. We were ready for anything either way.
But what about smell? That was one thing I wasn't prepared for.
After navigating treacherous halls that seemed to lead us blocks away into some byzantine literal tourist trap, we entered a world that filched the jadedness right off our masks, punctured our naive armor and left us paralyzed. It was a hot hellish box of with about forty plastic seats, mostly full, people all seemingly smoking crack or cigarettes right in their seats, the screen pulsing with a lurid Satanic ceremony already in progress, replete with naked woman ass licking a real goat, the sound blaring, speaker crackling insanely with screams, demonic laughter, sexual moaning, and infernal chants, the air conditioning blasting arctic intense. All this at once was such a sensory overload we nearly started running back along our rat trap path and out of there.
But worse than all that o holy God --that smell. It was so troubling it's even memorialized in Bill Landis' and Michelle Clifford's indispensable NYC grindhouse history Sleazoid Express, who dub the place "one of the Deuce's grungiest, most pungent smelling, and most dangerous adult houses... People smoked everything openly in the audience, from nauseating Kools to cheap psychotic crack, those scary angel dust smokers puffing along with the weedheads." (285)
I had forgotten about the full horror of the moment in the ensuing years, certainly never knew the name of the place at the time-we only stayed 40 minutes or so, long enough to see the last ten minutes of RUBY and the first 20 of some Bruce Lee impersonator film (Bruce Li?) - but it took me years to get that smell out of my nose, it tainted my nightmares, brought color and tone to my teenage depression. And then I forgot it all when I started drinking and found pot, and then it all came back to me in a rush watching THE ANTICHRIST on DVD, recognizing that scene, and then remembering reading Landis and Clifford's book, running to look up which theater was "mine." Their description of the Roxy was so on point I knew instantly that was the one I had been to back in '85.
"To walk into one of Roxy's mini-theaters meant walking into any number of crazy scenes or violent outbursts.[...] You never knew what movie you were walking into. You'd have to stand there for a few minutes to figure it out.
"If you stood long enough though, people would start to surround you, thinking you were looking for a possible sex partner or just stupid and asking to be robbed. So it was wise to take one of the ass numbing seats anyway if you weren't sure, then figure it out. But before you sat down, you'd have to flick a lighter at the seat to make sure there was no weird mess on it." (285)
Instead, we spent a full minute standing there, in total shock, debating our next move. The horror of the smell, the deafening distorted crackle of unholy noise of the film on those speakers, and the cramped unfamiliarity of the boxy theater short-circuiting our brain's natural fight of flight objectivity. I was still only 17, and sober, straight-edge, a virgin to weed, booze, and all other things, except--barely--sex. So this scene affected me in ways I'd have been immune to had I gone in just a year later, numbed by whiskeys, weed, shrooms, and despair. My photographic plate was virginal, in short, and this moment in time burned it deep.
Now on DVD, in the safety of my triple bolt apartment, sober again, but in full control of my environment, I can appreciate Ippolita's (Carla Gravina - left) induction ceremony with the goat as in an alternate dimension, running concurrently - and it's to director Sergio Martino's skill at narrative that it's always clear that the damned and devout can always be two places at once--that her murderous debasements are not just a dream nor is she a passive victim under mind control cover memories ala Rosemary. We don't really judge her for giving in -- we might do the same in her shoes. It fits my argument that when you're too prohibitive and micro-managing on your kids (never allowing them a locked bedroom to masturbate in, etc.) you give the first shady louche swinger who comes along more control over them than you'll ever have. And by the time your kids realize they've been misled by this false prophet, it's too late. Take it from one of the louche, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith of Anytown USA! You better familiarize them with their horizons, or I will!
Simultaneously back at the Roxy, back before I ruined anyone, nor was myself yet ruined, my fellow faux-jaded suburbanite teens and I turned immediately to leave this godawful shoebox of the damned to find a different screen. The Roxy had numerous nonstop running double features playing on video projection in two (?) separate boxes, with stairs stretching between condemned buildings and along the exteriors of the outside, kind of like a haunted house ride where instead of papier mache ghouls there's derelict muggers crouched in corners ready to stick you with their hep-C encrusted needle.
(AKA The Tempter, L'Anticristo)
(1974) Dir. Alberto de Martino
If I had to do it all over again, well, we should have suffered through the stench, for ANTICHRIST is a great great gonzo film. It makes great use of ancient Roman architecture, and to tie in other trend-cresting films. The lead girl, Carla Gravina, has Rosemary Woodhouse short red hair for some ungodly reason (we can guess why) though it gives her a very manly countenance which works weird new crevasses in the Satanic panic mythos, helping her deliver what is easily the most deranged, inspiring raw performance of the entirety of the 70s Italian EXORCIST rip micro-genre.
Crippled as a child by a car accident (dad was driving, mom is dead) Ippolita is a 40 year-old virgin, on the cusp of becoming an old maid, and terrified her dad (Mel Ferrer) is going to leave her for another woman (giallo regular Anita Strindberg). The niece of a priest, she turns to God for guidance, but how's a priest going to her advise her on coping with sexual frustration, especially since he's played by the perennially browbeaten Arthur Kennedy? He's probably responsible for her torment in the first place, filling her mind from childhood with the evils of masturbation and the female orgasm as the devil's tool. With her short red hair and manly countenance and lack of connection with her animus, it's no wonder that, when she's possessed, her voice changes to (instead of Mercedes McCambridge for Linda Blair) that of a sadistic old Italian patriarch don on his third pack of cigarettes; and for the first time also she seems for the first time comfortable in her own skin. The confident way she sprawls out in her chair, rocking back and forth and smiling is truly disturbing to ex-drugglies like me because it's so familiar, the way one acts when some drug (especially shrooms) lifts us free and clear of our old insecurity and discomfort and depression so we feel alive and thrilled and at last to luxuriate in our movements, a 'good' Mr. Hyde coupled to a Ken Kesey prankster. In one of the cooler sequences, with her Satanic awakening giving her sudden gift of being able to walk, she goes to visit an old church and seduces a pretty German tourist boy - then kills him- leaving the body sprawled out in the catacombs (she also leaves a decapitated toad in the communion wafter cache).
But then she comes out of it and is sprawled out only a few feet from her car -unable to walk again and needing help into her vehicle. Did she just imagine it all? Again, it's to the credit of this full-blooded possession film that both answers seem to be occurring simultaneously. There's never a question that these happenings are both real and vividly imagined. Which is truer no one can say.
What is it with the Italians and red hair, though? Especially in the horror films of the 70s-80s, they are utterly obsessed. Luckily, we get to see Gravina in her past life / current alternate reality / sabbath surrender in alabaster skin an a flowing blonde wig, and she looks plenty hot, which makes her that much sexier in the modern age, because the shameless gusto with which she pantomimes her rimming of a goat's devilish arse-hole (a practice originally--unless I'm delusional--was seen first in the silent 1921 opus, HAXAN) and her subsequent penetration by Satan is so fiercely acted that we feel every emotion in the arsenal: pleasure and the joy of surrender coupled to the sleazy countercurrent of shame, pain, and horror. As with the Roxy itself, if you want to be free of the burden of self-consciousness, you must prepare to let that consciousness be mortified to the point of disintegration.
I also dig that, as this film occurring in the hauntological 70s, her shrink considers it an established scientific fact that traumatic past life events (namely unnatural, violent deaths) can carry over into a patient's subsequent incarnations, leading to neurosis and terrible nightmares. Nowadays these kinds of films feel obligated to have at least one scientific dogma mouthpiece dismissing it all as a bunch of hocus pocus mumbo jumbo, but here it's simply not that big a deal that past life trauma carries over to the current one (2), with the shrink noting that the only risk in freeing the current self from past self trauma is that a possession can occur, especially if that past self was a Satanic witch - (and even the devil follows her, via flames ala AUDREY ROSE, which we forget now but was huge in 1977).
Strange then that the shrink feels he can't approve of the Catholic exorcism that's eventually called forth. What the hell? Stop kibbitzing, doctor. You're either in or out, for keeps!
Ah well, Kennedy is pretty funny as the impotent priest, and Father Mittner (George Coulouris) is way more badass than Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) as the pinch hitter exorcist, and the cool climax, running all over Rome under multi-colored rain, including around the Coliseum, is truly haunting.
|Audrey Rose (1977)|
(1980) Dir. Alan Moyle
But there's another Times Square - I almost wrote "it ain't your parents' Times Square" -but that's the thing, man --it is. And your parents' childhood should never be more edgy and badass than their your own, but there it is... but also isn't. For in TIMES SQUARE (1980), the two lead girls (13 year old and 16 year old actresses) keep their innocence while living as mental hospital escapees amidst the Times Square squalor, floating above the cesspool like lighter-than-air street angels. It's perhaps their [excised] lesbian scenes that convey their immunity from pimps, rapists, and other exploiters of runaway girls, though then again--being so young it's not quite clear what could have been shown in that regard.
Dude, I got the last one of the TIMES SQUARE DVDs before they went OOP, based solely on a professor at Pratt's recommendation after I gave a lecture on what 42nd Street used to look like (before the kids I was speaking to were even born, I shudder to say), when squalor and vice were the order of the day... I showed them about 30 minutes of a '42nd Street Forever' trailer compilation (replete with an old Jewish couple raving about some Andy Milligan debacle or other at the Lyric), and then, torn between showing them ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK or THE WARRIORS, I went with the latter. The kids loved it! Afterwards they even said those magic words, indicating the very reaction I was looking for: "After your lecture I was all worried it would be super gory and sadistic - I was expecting to be traumatized, but it was just great fun."
That was the key of course, to the whole thing. Without that initial trepidation and fear, no relief, no sense of belonging/initiation. It told them we had the same reaction seeing THE WARRIORS for the first time back in the early 80s, having read about all the gang violence it caused in theaters. And the film traded on that scariness, transmuted our anxiety that we were scared for the 'good' gang themselves, bopping all the way back to Coney past the 'scary' gangs, which made those glorious fights so much more electric. The courage to face the gritty horror of the city made you a part of it rather than its victim. The ultimate in dour mythic self-created daemons, the Baseball Furies pursue until you stop running. Turn and face your NYC Koch-era demons (threaten to shove a bat up their asses and turn them into popsicles), bust some heads maybe, and now you're a bopper, a Sleez Sister. Now you get to prowl around scaring the tourists, too. When the upper realms of the social order fail you, a descent into the maelstrom of this Sleez-y power, can restore you to self-reliant wholeness.
TIMES SQUARE's Pamela (Trinie Alvarado) is--like ANTICHRIST's Ippolita--the fucked up (several suicide attempts) only-child daughter of a widowed father who's wealthy, important and influential. Like Ippolita, Pamela finds liberation and strength via what might be considered a bad influence friend, certainly a social outcast (Satan for Ippolia, Nicky [Robin Johnson] for Pamela)... and both need to figure out how to escape that friend when said friend's own issues come to the core (green vomit and sexist telekinetic possession; alcoholism and possessive insanity respectively). Both films end with the daughter now returning to dad a better, wiser person, while the bad influence friend goes off to pursue new adventures (a fledgling riot grrl fanbase for Nicky; Virgin Mary statue for Satan-- each a kind of dispossessed demon hang-out).
Meanwhile, in TIMES SQUARE, the original lesbian aspects between Pamela and Nicky were jettisoned to make a 'bigger' statement, with Nicky's big final concert on the roof after her on-air drunken breakdown seemingly added for rock catharsis. Also added: hot songs to pack a double album of relevant tracks in the producers' hopes of duplicating SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER album sales (3).
The film's producer also took advantage of star Robin Johnson--who got a lot of deserved cult praise in the film's aftermath--signing her to a three year exclusive contract, and then failing to cast her in anything, because no one wanted to work with him. "Johnson took a job as a bank teller whilst waiting for her RSO contract to expire, and by the time it did, there were no offers for work. Johnson did some minor film and TV roles, but by the late 1980s, she gave up on acting and got a job as a traffic reporter on a Los Angeles radio station."
The Frauds and the Fabulous) was that it was directed by a (male) music producer, the legendary Lou Adler; and written by Nancy Dowd (the macho who wrote SLAP SHOT), under a drag pseudonym, as if hiding her gender rather than trumpeting it (telling detail) and that it's marred by the spoiled bratty girlish character played by a super young Diane Lane, who promptly confuses her own grrl-power message by shacking up with the more experienced, sexist, jealous judgmental (male) punk on her tour played by Ray Winstone (who's backed by members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols).
Even the imdb.com blurb is sexist and condescending:
"The media and disaffected teens mistake the acerbic rants of an obnoxious teenage punk rocker as a rallying cry for the women of America, launching her and her talentless group to national stardom."Jeeze! "obnoxious... talentless" - pretty harsh. Well good thing that, for the big concert climax, 'punk' Ray Winstone takes the time to berate the gathered girls for being dumb conformists (they'reall wearing red and New Wave make-up authorized by the band's monetizing manager) thus sending them all home to, presumably get married and chain themselves to kitchens, as Ray--in his rebel wisdom--feels is proper for a punk rock grrl. I don't blame Ray Winstone for being pissed when Diane Lane steals his song (the terrible, draggy, endlessly-repetitive, droning, godawful "The Professionals") but for a girl empowerment movie this gets awfully chiding. Independent-minded American wannabe rebel girls letting a teddy boy tell them they're not real rock-and-roll is almost as offensive a climax in its last minute patriarchal second-guessing as KISSING JESSICA STEIN. It would be like if the douchebag husband found Thelma (in THELMA AND LOUISE), pulled her out of the car, bitch slapped her around and then dragged her home to the cheers of the crowd, while Louise drove off the cliff alone, the good straight folks throwing beer cans at her tail fins.
Well, there's none of that crap in TIMES SQUARE, the uniform of the Sleez sisters is a no-frills (no marketing) trash bag and eyeliner pencil-drawn thief mask (two things every girl can find already at home) to reflect their condemnation of the cast-off anonymity fostered on them by their heedless parents, who'd rather lock them away in rehabs than listen to them (all this added after lesbian overtones taken out: in other words 'okay, honey, we'll give you money to record your demo, but you can't bring your girlfriend home for Xmas'). So we're left with another secret gay subtext --the girls' soul mate status is conveyed as a kind of Xena-Gabrielle chaste but unwavering affection.
That's okay - could be worse. There are no boyfriends thrown in as a last minute cop-out, that's what's most important. The girls always sleep in the same bed and its their loving friendship that holds the film together; there's not a single straight boy in the cast to even come close to coming between them. Local radio DJ and 'voice of Times Square' Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) maybe has some oblique move planned but he doesn't seem too conscious of it, so I'll cut him slack. He reminds me of myself, in fact. Acting as their fairy godfather, he catches wind of the outcry launched by Pamela's mayoral aide dad and decides to use it to bring attention to the mayor's 'clean up Times Square' campaign which bodes ill for the homeless runaway squatter contingent living there. Johnny makes the girls local stars via his radio show, even acting as a kind of post office letter exchange between worried dad and the girls who dub themselves the Sleez Sisters and start tagging passing busses, dropping TVs off roofs, and recording spontaneous and declarative tracks live at the radio station ("Your Daughter is One")--each sublimely performed to seem made up on the spot, though they were co-written in advance by people like Billy Mernit--before slinking away into the safe anonymity of the Deuce.
This 'radio DJ chorus-messenger mythologizer' aspect was a staple of the time, as seen/hard in VANISHING POINT (1971), THE HARDER THEY COME (1972), THE WARRIORS ("hey, boppers").... and... uh... at any rate, the exchanges between LaGuardia and Pamela's concerned, progressively humbler, father (Peter Coffield) are hilarious and sad, with Curry's fearless goading and the father's progressive fury and desperation creating a situation that, especially in today's post-sleaze Times Square present (where an open container or lit cigarette is considered akin to a terrorist violation), is uniquely real and promising. The idea that freedom of speech could somehow protect a DJ from reckless conspiracy towards endangerment of a minor laws, etc., warms the cockles.
In this fantasia, patriarchy can't beat the all-consuming yet protective 'the zone takes care of its own' chaos of the Deuce. We all wish a braver cut existed, lesbian-wise, but that's actually interesting in a way as the whole film becomes less about sex or drugs (or even rock and roll) and more about how two fucked-up loners can be brought together by chance while sharing a room while under psychiatric observation at a NYC hospital, then bond over poetry and the Pretenders, and heal each other, kinda (making its closest companion, more than anything, KAMIKAZE GIRLS).
As for the girls' electric music, their climactic rooftoop concert, whereas Nicky Marotta's initial declarative punk song devotional to Pamela, "I'm a damn dog now" has a great arc (she starts kind of wobbly onstage at the storefront strip club with her new wave backing band, but ends up crushing it, then dragging it on too long). I'd be pissed too if I was one of the Blondells and had to lug my amp up to the roof, risk arrest, risk electrocution by tapping into some Con-Ed power cable, and hook up a PA, all so Nicky can sing half a song, apologize to her girlfriend, and dive into the crowd, leaving her saner Sleez compatriot to reconnect with her by-now-fairly-cool father (we hope he no longer feels so harshly about Times square after this). But that's just part of the weird fairy tale aspect of this film, helping to lend it some of the elements that, say, the relentlessly depressing actuality of the film SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER lacked (4)
What I especially like is that, of all the 'evil' things we see the Sleez Sisters start doing, smoking (and both girls are very young let's not forget) isn't even considered a vice, their punk rock destructiveness never considered anything but positive. Along with the genuine rebelliousness of the then-shelved OVER THE EDGE (1979), TIMES SQUARE marks a time when parents weren't considered anything but fallible and damaged kids were encouraged to find outlets wherever they could, even in squalor and destruction. There's a point, such as when Nicky gets obsessed with dropping TVs off of roofs, (or the gang starts blowing up cop cars in EDGE) that the saner minds like Pamela and Claude (or Keitel in MEAN STREETS, or Winona in GIRL INTERRUPTED) step back, get a little pale, and start thinking of exit strategies to get away from their crazy liberator friends, but that's natural. Some of us burn up rather than fade away, some of us just singe ourselves by their crazy flames, then make careers chronicling the moment this friend's crazy fire saved our lives and then blazed out of control, so we had to save our own lives by walking (or running) away from them.
It's a great shame that Robin Johnson never got to have a huge career, for she is one hell of a unique character, a throaty resonant New Yoahka street poet mix of Patti Smith and Kristy McNichol crossed with an androgynous David Johansen-esque rock star, exotic faux 30s dyke, eye-liner dripping, emotional wreck / scrappy street urchin. And as their DJ champion, Tim Curry--their Kim Fowley, if you will--is sublime. A British actor in the Bowie-esque gender-bent (he played Frank N. Furter in ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), Curry, perfectly captures the Brooklyn accent gone nasal and ultra calm and sexy that can only come from amphetamines or listening close to the Bowie-produced Lou Reed's Transformer album. And as the "Voice of Times Square" his championing of the two girls isn't as cut and dry, as didactically exploitive as the local newscaster's exploitation of Diane Lane's posturing in STAINS. LaGuardia is too complicated to be either exploiter or underdog champion. He's neither all shady manipulator nor all saint, neither profit-minded self-promoter nor true champion of the scene. He's a little all of those things and none. In short, he's a true trickster, just what NYC is all about.
A favorite of Kathleen Hanna (whose sing-in-her-underwear sexy self-appropriation approach also harkens to Diane Lane's big moment in STAINS), TIMES SQUARE has stood the test of time even as, in its way, it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In imagining Times Square as a place safe for young girls to squat in, it made it so. The real estate is too precious for any building to stand too long condemned, now, of course. They still exist while legalities drag and architects argue, but the grit is gone, replaced by a stream of tourism so rapid and incessant I personally can no longer even go anywhere near it without having a panic attack.
I never panicked at the Roxy. Though god knows it left me traumatized.
But on a positive note, since 1980, gayness has gone out of the closet and off the editing room floor and into the open, there's been legions of mainstream lesbian coming-of-age tales and even if the vile Roxy has been razed, the movies remain, free of stench and vice, in our living room. Back in 1985, with 'Wings Hauser and his coat hanger stalking the Season Hubely' (5) cable, we never would have predicted this smokeless clarity and tolerance... Miracles, man, are all around. So what if we lost our map through the Bog of Stench? We still have the Goblin King. Is there life on Mars? No, my dear Hoggle... but we can be heroes, even if our song never travels farther than a five block radius on some local AM DJ's show.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em, your living room is now the world.
1. 'Wet' being the NYC slang for the dried formaldehyde sprayed-on-cheap weed smoked by the truly deranged so well known in Bellevue where the users so often wind up, raving about demons following them with microphones, etc.
2. If you doubt this kind of thing is true, check out the book Life after Life and the TV showThe Ghost Inside my Child.
3. The end of the 70s marked a time when, as punk/new wave was going mainstream, the NYC godfathers like Johnny Thunders and Lou Reed were reaching wretched pinnacles of near-death dissociative speed/heroin junkie mania, where jaded fans, high on Lester Bangs' prose, crowded in to venues to goad their idols into ranting fitss before devolving into incoherence, ala Lou's Take No Prisoners LP
4. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER ended, as I recall, with the gang deb being gang banged in some big car while Travolta sulks, and then later one of his annoying mob kills himself by jumping off a bridge, and so finally Tony decides to go try and sponge off his rich dance partner in Manhattan, still the paint can lugging scrub. Damn but I was disgusted by this movie... and I was only around thirteen and seeing it at the drive-in with my mom and brother - and man it was way too depressing and tawdry for a thirteen year old expecting GREASE style life-affirmation. And don't get me started about how, also at thirteen, I got permanently scarred after stumbling the last half hour of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR one afternoon on Movie Channel (which showed R-rated movies during the day), thinking it was ANNIE HALL. (See: Blades in the Apple)
5. See: VICE SQUAD (1982)