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 clearly 'interested' male), letting us know right off that while some 'bad' girls spend their time waiting for some sleaze bag to warrant their vengeance, hesitating before killing them because murder is 'yawn' wrong, these girls consider any dude they meet as a fair game in-season blood orgy waiting to happen. None shall escape, not even the kraken....
Needless to say, we're in Australia.
Needless to say, we're in Australia.
For some reason Aussie cinema has sidestepped the bad faith arrangement that says women protagonists can't kill without a reason and even then have to cry afterwards, or be somehow damaged from it. These 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 this 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 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, then it's all good. As with Russ Meyer and El Monstro above, it's forgivable since women are on the whole 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. But then she's forgotten 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 wishes it had been different --he kind of forgot about her, but Bobbi Socks I got mad love for you! You deserved better than a lonely death hanging onto the foot of the power-plugged Sluggo). (END SPOILER)
Well, now that I got off my chest, know that another big ace in Bunnell's hand, that puts him way ahead of Burton, is the Ego Plum (Frieda Kahlo's grandson) score, full of theremins, booming brass, crashing timpani, wailing harmonies and lurid synth notes, all in all it blows Danny Elfman's shit waaay out of the water. I can only hope Tim Burton sees this film and finally gets rid of Elfman the way I hope Spielberg finally gets rid of John Williams. (That said, why mess with success and Danny, you know I love you).
Another ace: lending historical continuity, good old Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as an alien judge in a Devo hat who asks of space alien greaser Johnny X "only a modest conformity" but he doesn't get it so he's exiling the perennial rebel, with his leather jacket and opaque sunglasses and crew of snickering toadies and preening debs... Earthward. Johnny's psyched. He can meet the King. (You know which king I mean, don't you, Danny? It ain't Carole)
|Cute Kate Maberly as Mickey O'Flynn's devoted fan|
Aces keep coming; Phantasm's own Reggie Bannister as the manager of Micky O'Flynn, an undead Cramps-zombie version of Roy Orbison, a composite rockabilly icon played (excellently) by Creed Bratton. (The Office, the band The Grass Roots). And with those shades and that hair, Johnny X, (Will "Tromeo" Keenan) looks an eerie lot like a young Lou Reed and displays a great mastery of knowing just when to overact and when to underact and let other cast members have their scenes. I liked his moment of sad confession to a literally dead-drunk Creed in a truly beautifully lit backstage dressing room, at a truly realistic looking and beautifully lit rock club. The darkness and light in all these scenes is sublime, reminding me, believe it or not, of Kubrick's The Killing.
Last ace of all (1): the special effects involving Johnny's crazy astro suit, powered up through the rock club soundboard, and/or zapping people--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!
Put all those aces together and you're bound to win this hand of 'strange new auteur does retro-drive-in homage' poker. Far from just some amateur HD video class project feature this is a stunningly photographed and brio-laden cult classic in the making that if there's a just god in the 50s ceramic oven of heaven, should vault Bunnell into position as the Guy Maddin of 50s drive-in homage-the range, doo boop be doo, made of Wood, Waters and Grease wrapped in Meyers dough and most baked. 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 showed even the most conservative backers that the world was ready for lesbian-themed vampire movies and so they came... in droves. 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. Just check the date on your favorite titles in this genre and see for yourself --they're ALL from 1971. The Velvet Vampire (AKA Cemetery Girls) is the only one, though, directed by an actual woman, Corman company regular Stephanie Rothman. 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 Michael Blodgett as well as his reluctant girlfriend Sherry Miles. They meet at mutual friend Stoker's (!) gallery show and are promptly invited for a wild weekend to Diane's remote desert getaway crib. Suzy's not keen on going to some mysterious femme's pad in the middle of nowhere--smelling a trap-but Lee's hooked.
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 there are cool dream sequences which--a rarity--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 sleep through a two-way mirror sitting next to a skull, perhaps an echo of Rothman herself watching the rushes; layer them together and you have the coolest dream sequence maybe ever.
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 the villain's desire (ala say the shirtless boys in Twilight), and his girl just the frosting on the cake, rather than the cake itself. His increasingly desperate attempt to escape, via stealing the dune buggy, trying to call the garage to check up on his broken down car--the way he gradually goes from trying to be polite about it and not offend his host vs. outright panic--ably outpaces David Manners' similar escalation in The Black Cat and 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 while you were either seduced by the host and hissed at by your jealous girlfriend or boyfriend or forced to endure boredom and jealousy watching as the host tries seducing your boyfriend or girlfriend, or any other element of that equation, then you'll agree Rothman's film gets it all very right. I've done/been on all sides of the equation and can vouch that though half of them are fun while they last, none of them leave you feeling good about yourself.
With Velvet Vampire is the same way. Forgive it because there's a cool chase climax through the bus station, an eerie late-night bus ride, and a stretch of film in Diane's bedroom, where she seduces each member of the couple in turn, using the exact same rap, with the exact same sincerity. Remember that 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 and making the guy take his shirt off, for a change. (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)