The thrilling dirty kick drive-in fodder of yesteryear: it's all that sustains us now in this grim caged digital future. Dig those 'stressed' retro posters above (for films no older than 2010) and know the whole score. One finds the post-AIP middle ground between the 50s juvenile delinquent musicals and the Roger Corman aliens of Bronson Canyon; the other says fuck the middle ground and crashes Faster Pussycat Kill Kill into frickin' Loch Ness, like a kid bashing action figures from different movies and sizes into each other. Both fusions are noble enough, their love and knowledge of the films they're homage-ing clear enough, that they make a solid post-retro double bill, or even a quadruple bill with two films from the actual drive-in era I discuss afterwards. The first one of these is a solid entry in the 'foursome of sexy babes hit summer vacation at a sunny lake hoping to score' genre, and the other's a female-directed film about a female bisexual vampire... So there are a lot of tough and sexy women going on in these films --their flesh soft, their curves wanton. But a note of caution, handle with care and don't drop your guard....
EL MONSTRO DEL MAR
(2010) dir. Stuart Simpson
Here, at last is a movie that actually delivers what the Bitch Slaps and Cat Runs all promise - genuinely bad girls of the sort we thought only Russ Meyer, John Waters, and Jack Hill ever truly understood. Starting out in Faster Pussycat black and white, the film erupts into color with the ladies' first throat slit (an innocent--if 'interested'--male), letting us know right off that while some 'bad' girls spend their time waiting for some sleaze bag to warrant their vengeance, these girls consider any dude they meet as a fair game in-season blood orgy waiting to happen ---no provocation needed. None shall escape, not even the kraken....
Needless to say, we're in Australia.
Needless to say, we're in Australia.
Occupying a punk rock zone between John Waters and Russ Meyer-Jack Hill drive-in feminism but amping up the attitude, there's a refreshing amorality at play, breaking the sanctified arrangement that says women protagonists can't kill without a reason and even then have to cry afterwards, or be somehow damaged from it. The Monstro women say fuck that, they actually seem to have seen Russ Meyer and Jack Hill movies rather than just name checking them. You can bet they don't carry soft drinks in their cooler, and if you get that reference, then you've probably seen Faster Pussycat Kill Kill! as many times as I have and will like this film. It's really low budget, underground-ish, but a lot of love and chutzpah went into it, and you can tell director Simpson's quite well-versed in 60s-70s drive-in parlance. These broads all carry folding knives and when they sense danger they reach into their boots and unfold them as naturally and subtly as they might light a cigarette, which so Hawksian I want to cry. They smoke constantly which makes them cooler than even Meyer's Pussycat trio. If only Russ'd studied his Dobbsianism he'd know...
|Remember your lines|
THE GHASTLY LOVE OF JOHNNY X
(2012) Dir. Paul Bunnell
|The irrepressible De Anna Joy Brooks|
You know me: my misogyny radar is rivaled only by NORAD, so if it doesn't go off for this film, even with all the demeaning shit going on, then it's all good. It's like it would be with, say, John Waters, where the open-hearted love is palpable no matter what horrible stuff is going on, so you're never worried or offended. As with Russ Meyer and El Monstro above, women are the strongest characters, like the tough Bobbi Socks (the too-cool Katherine Giaquinto), who (SPOILER) saves the day by dragging a Tor Johnson-meets-Bobby Moynihan skinhead named Sluggo (Jed Rowen) off a cliff. Yes Bobbi was my favorite, but then--as soon as she's off-camera, after dying to save Johnny... and Johnny... Groovy Johnny forgets all about her so he can mope over some (male) soda jerk too stupid to stay out of switchblade range. I wanted to scream at Johnny through the TV transistor, I wanted to scream "Hey Johnny! If you did sleep with Bobbi Socks and then let her take the literal fall to save you from the loathsome Sluggo then the least you can do is look down there and see if maybe she's still alive. Maybe shed one goddamned tear for Bobbi Socks! (I asked Bunnell about it and he says he kind of forgot about her when writing the script, but Bobbi Socks I got mad love for you! You deserved better). (END SPOILER).
The main romance for our Johnny though, is the other strong woman, Bliss (De Anna Joy Brooks) a badass chick spouting the kind of tough girl aggressive maneater dialogue that might make even Russ Meyer sit up and take notes in his coffin! She's been cooling her heels in Bronson canyon with Johnny, "and his pack of jackals, for forty days and forty nights." She's restless and wants to take a bite out of Chip (Les Williams) the blank-faced soda jerk at a nearby diner, or at least take him out for a spin in her "motor rotor." There's also a devoted fan Kate Maberly as a moist-eyed young faun enthralled with the Cramps-zombie Roy Orbison rockabilly star ushered (played and sung by ex-Seed Creed Bratton [The Office]); and Heather Provost as the cool brassy wife of the club manager King Clayton (Phantasm's Reggie Bannister).
|Cute Kate Maberly as Mickey O'Flynn's devoted fan|
Not very tall, but at least better looking than Eric Von Zipper, Johnny X, (Will "Tromeo" Keenan) has the sunglasses and facial structure of a (Warhol era) young Lou Reed and knows just when to overact and hog the stage and when to underact and let other cast members shine around him. I liked his moment of sad confession to a literally dead-drunk Creed in a truly beautifully-lit backstage dressing room, shimmering in the deep black of the Eastman Plus with the same spooky decay as the back rooms of Kubrck's The Killing.
Also worth mentioning: the special effects / CGI involving Johnny's crazy astro suit, powered up through the rock club soundboard, and/or zapping people--these effect don't feel CGI at all but retro analog delicious. Even without the stereo on you can feel the power surging in your belly and those rings of lightwaves are truly magical - all the more so for not being overused. In short, if there's a just god in the 50s ceramic oven of heaven, Ghastly Love of Johnny X--that cake of equal parts Wood, Waters and Grease, wrapped in Meyers dough--shall finally rise to sainthood in the cult classics pantheon. Do herself a favor, friend. Go Ghastly.
(1973 ) Dir. Arthur Marks
The "quartet or trio of hottie young things having summer flings across a wide age/class spectrum" genre stretches back to the 30s' Gold Diggers series (and then disappeared some time in the 90s, only seen recently in Tarantino's Death-Proof), but don't let that stop you from believing it all began with The Valley of the Dolls when you're digging Arthur Marks' spritely 1973 masterpiece The RoomMates. The girls even use the phrase "beyond the Valley of the Dolls" in some of the Laugh-In derived, cut-on-the-punchline 'modern women sexual mores' soundbytes. Kind of a Russ Meyer for the normal proportions / hot bare midriff set, Marks knew how to hit all the right drive-in points (the array of girls allows each viewer to pick their special crush) without sacrificing momentum, wit, and covert feminist flair. The RoomMates comes in the middle of a three film Arthur Marks 1973 roll beginning with Bonnie's Kids and ending Detroit 9000. All of them be slammin' but Detroit is for when you're in a Joe Rocco mood, which is always. Bonnie's Kids is for when you're in a Bolling strait, but RoomMates is for whenever you need soothing fir tree-flanked mountain lakes and eye-candy/crush-worthy distraction.
That's what I need. Here, in fall of 2015, my girlfriend just moved out and the panic attacks a feminine presence never fails to allay come fast and relentless; the darkness comes earlier and earlier, and alone now in my haunted mansion the existential panic kicks in like an old familiar enemy, the blue devil Deborah Kerr speaks of in Night of the Iguana. And so I naturally turn to onscreen women in the 70s, girls who could have been my babysitters, happy and free, in films that allow me to gaze back on a great legacy of damage --inflicted and suffered--along with the good times, in my long trail of broken hearts, shattered illusions, and six week stands. But happy memories bring only bittersweet aching, fleeting crack highs followed by crushing sadness and loneliness --the eternal nagging constant. Luckily, the free-spirited, sexually-active girls of The RoomMates are an eternal balm to that lonesome. And like Russ Meyer, Jack Hill, and Roger Corman, Marks loves strong women, and gorgeous mountain lake scenery. There are groovy 70s cars and giant old growth fir trees, so what's not to live for?
So here's a rundown: AIP WIP blonde mainstay Roberta Collins thinks she's found love with an older rich divorced swinger, but she rushes it, wants to start 'picking out furniture together' --with predictable results; Marki Bey (Sugar Hill) works at the local library, arousing male middle aged white male attention and dumping her white boyfriend for a cool black cop; Pat Woodell sleeps with the same polecat married loser every time she comes up (as he sleazily mentions they've been having these trysts since she was sixteen); her younger cousin (Christina Hart) is staying there for the summer--and drawing the eye of that same sleazy pole-cat. Woodell, in turn, treats a young homeless wandering handyman--he tries to get her to let her guard down but--like shit. But wait, is he the mysterious roaming killer?
The 'never mix never worry' racism of these kind of movies--the only black man and only black woman in the cast always hook up--usually irritate my liberal arts rash, but I only mention it here because here it's cool because the black guy's less a 'brother' or a 'cop' and more a nice, low key guy along the lines of Austin Stoker in Assault on Precinct 13, and the white guy a hipster like herself and none of the three seem particularly stigmatized, and Bey's doing her usual witty brand of over-acting where she might be hamming it up but is radiating a contagious kind of blast-having.
Wait, 70s, come back!
I was only five when The RoomMates came out, the slasher boom was years away, but Marks saw ahead: a killer at Camp Arrowhead makes for a great half-way through semi-side plot, offering both a genuinely scary (lots of good deep dark night shots) midnight knife chase and later a hilarious sniper massacre at a groovy country club party on the veranda. You'll guess the killer early if you're an astute cineaste, but it doesn't matter; the party never stops and everyone has enough material when they head back to school to "write ten books!" Yeah, says Collins, "but have we really suffered?" Weird last line, considering the massacre, but hey, those killings spice it up, aren't too vile or misogynist in their executions (rather reflecting yet another maladjusted attitude towards sexual desire), and the callous way that a rash of murders does nothing to dampen anyone's glib resort town spirits prefigures Scream and makes all Brody's fuss over closing beaches and mayoral meddling seem like girly hysterics.
The Gorgon Blu-ray (doubled with Marks' inferior --but still pretty good-- A Woman for all Men) is flawlessly restored, so Harry J. May's peerless photography and the gorgeous lakefront scenery can really reach out and smooth even the most ruffle-damaged of feathers, and I should know. Laurie Rose Laurie Rose... you are the 70s to me, and just as gone.
THE VELVET VAMPIRE
(1971) Dir. Stephanie Rothman
The box office success of Hammer's 1970 Vampire Lovers proved to even the most conservative backers that the world was finally ready for lesbian-themed vampire movies and so they came, a cloud of blood-drinking bats opening the veins of 1971-4. Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 lesbian vampire novella Carmilla (pre-dating Stoker's Dracula by 26 years) was a public domain wellspring anyone might drink from, so there was a pre-set blueprint. But of the many offerings, The Velvet Vampire (AKA Cemetery Girls) is the only one I know of that's directed by an actual woman, Corman company regular Stephanie Rothman. That makes it special to begin with, and it is.
Celeste Yarnall plays the (bisexual) vampire, Diane LeFanu (!). She can move around in the daytime, which saves a lot of money on lighting (see also Franco's Vampyros Lesbos) and she likes couples rather than just girls, which ensures her take-out order includes hunky Lee (Michael Blodgett) as well as his reluctant-to-come girlfriend Suzy (Sherry Miles). They meet at mutual friend Stoker's (!) gallery show and are promptly invited for a wild weekend to Diane's remote desert hideaway. Suzy's not keen on going to some mysterious femme's pad in the middle of nowhere. Neither would we, of course, in her shoes; but Lee's hooked, and Suzy doesn't want to seem either square or permissive.
Anyway, the drive out is very interesting, as the world of LA disappears in endless flat scrub brush and desert hills. Yarnall isn't the sexiest vampire lesbian (or even the coolest) but she can ensure some communal wild dream sequences which--a rarity--prove as important to the story as the film's core reality. They also succeed in proving that a floor length mirror standing in the middle of the desert is worlds of cool, especially if you add a Touch of Evil headboard, and Diane LeFanu in flowing red robes watching you in the conscious world through a two-way mirror sitting next to a skull, as you sleep. Perhaps an echo of Rothman herself watching the rushes, layer her hungry staring together with their desert mirage-dream (which they wake up and share, taking the fact they've had the same weird dream in Midsummer Night-esque stride).
All in all, Rothman brings a unique feminine energy one can relate to even if it throws some of us male viewers off our game. We're not used to seeing the gender reverse of Universal horror templates, with the heavy-lidded beauty of Michael Blodgett kind of put forth as the object of desire (ala say the shirtless boys in Twilight), and his girlfriend just the frosting, so to speak, rather than the cake itself.
What's more noticeable now, too, is how Lee's slowly mounting, increasingly desperate attempt to escape goes from distractedly dismissing Suzy's worry as mere reticence to stealing the dune buggy; Blodgett ably outpaces David Manners' similar escalation in The Black Cat and this sequence proves itself the most indelible bit of the film, acting-wise. If you've ever spent a weekend as part of a couple invited to someone's remote house and then couldn't escape for whatever reason, or any other element of the Velvet triangle, then you'll agree: Rothman's film gets it all very right. There's also a cool nocturnal chase climax that leads from the desert to the bus back to LA, and through the bus station as Diane relentlessly, patiently, stalks her prey.
The most remarkable sequence however is surely the one in Diane's bedroom where she seduces each member of the couple in turn, using the exact same rap, with the exact same sincerity, one after the other. Remember it the next time you see Tim Curry's sweet transsexual pull the EXACT same thing on Janet Weiss and Brad in Rocky Horror Picture Show a few years later. So way to go, Stephanie Rothman! This film may not achieve any notable greatness, but top marks for being the first lady director of the Corman's New World, teaching a few slyly Byron-esque moves to sweet transvestites from Transylvania, and going deep into the heady world wherein seduction and destruction are inseparable, even under blazing desert sun. (2)
1. Five aces, partner (that's a whaddaya call a finesse)
2."I'm very tired of the whole tradition in western art in which women are always presented nude and men aren't. I'm not going to dress women and undress men – that would be a form of tortured vengeance. But I certainly am going to undress men, and the result is probably a more healthy environment, because one group of people presenting another in a vulnerable, weaker, more servile position is always distorted" - Rothman (1973 interview)