Thursday, October 15, 2015


The thrilling, dirty-kick drive-in fodder of yesteryear might be all that sustains we, the trash lovers, trapped like frozen rats in the cold digital now, so it's lucky for us the trove seems bottomless, and if we run out, it's possible to even go back into the past and make more. Dig those 'stressed' retro posters above and marvel - neither was made a day before 2010! Can you believe it? No ordinary cosmetic imitations, these! One finds a middle ground between 50s juvenile delinquent musicals and the Roger Corman aliens of Bronson Canyon; the other says fuck the middle ground and crashes a Faster Pussycat Kill Kill bomber into frickin' Loch Ness, like a kid bashing action figures of different scales into each other. Both fusions show a thorough love and knowledge of the films they're homage-ing, to the point 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 herein: a solid entry in the 'foursome of sexy babes hit summer vacation at a sunny lake hoping to score' genre, and a female-directed film about a female bisexual vampire...

But first... a note of caution: Handle with care and don't drop your guard.... . there are a lot of tough and sexy women going on in these films --their flesh soft, their curves wanton. And they will kill you.

(2010) dir. Stuart Simpson

Here, at last is a movie that actually delivers what all those lame stripper pole cash grabs like Bitch Slap and Cat Run promise - genuinely bad girls in groups, roaming loose. Starting out in Faster Pussycat black-and-white, the film erupts into color with the ladies' first throat slit (performed on an innocent male), letting us know right off that--while some 'bad' girls spend their time waiting for some sleaze bag to warrant their vengeance-- some girls consider any dude they meet fair game, an in-season blood orgy waiting to happen ---no provocation needed.

None shall escape, not even the kraken....

Needless to say,  we're in Australia. 

Occupying a punk rock zone between John Waters/Russ Meyer girl gang gutter camp and Roger Corman-Jack Hill strong female 'bare-breasted feminism', there's a refreshing amorality at play to help make up for the paucity of budget. By breaking the sanctified arrangement that says women protagonists can't kill without a reason (self defense mainly) and even then they have to cry afterwards, or be somehow damaged from it ("he t-t-t-tried to.... but I, I, I!"), the Monstro women say fuck that, they actually seem to have seen Russ Meyer and Jack Hill movies rather than being directed by them at the time. 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. For example, these broads all carry folding knives in their boots, and when they sense danger, they just quiet down and walk towards it, silently reaching down, taking them out, and unfolding them, keeping them out and low as they slink, as naturally and subtly and without big music stings as you could ever hope for. It's so Hawksian I want to cry.

As the dark-haired leader, Baretta, Nelli Scarlett rocks a welcome drag queen edge - evoking Divine, Tura Satana, Mary Woronov, and Shirley Stoler, sometimes all at once; Karli Madden is in the Lori Williams role (the hard-partying semi-innocent still holding onto some measure of compassion); Kate Watts is the Haji (Baretta's right-hand bitch). They're all decked out in that retro 50s Trash and Vaudeville chic--bows, bangs, and black--which all might be too campy by half, but here it seems like their genuine style. Whatever thy are, they transcend time and fakery (this is all of their film debuts and they're joyously free of any kind of trite 'professionalism' or tedious polish). 

Remember your lines
While the it lacks Meyer's punchy editing, wild angles, film quality, and existentially gonzo Jack Moran dialogue ("like a velvet glove cast in iron!"), Monstro recoups somewhat via sheer perversity and the sense these girls must be pretty fun to hang out with in real life: their playful coked-up drunken banter and horseplay is naturalistic and real in the ways Meyer's wasn't. His women were big and strong, but it was clear they weren't deviating from an already gonzo script (the over-the-top acting worked because the lines were great: they could stand the tone-deaf shouting, they still hold up). Here, the lines are just okay but they feel natural, they're said, not read, yet you can feel the love of Meyer's film in their inflections. By the same token, these girls look like they drink a lot, and could fuck a man up no sweat and not even remember it the next afternoon when they wake up.

This kind of naturalism doesn't always work, especially if some old 'pro' joins the cast and can't tap into their same collective vibe. Unlike the great Stuart Lancaster in Faster, here the old man tied to this chair for life (Norman Yemm) is a little too old and dour to fit their rhythm, and so throws off the curve. Lancaster could do wonders with a line like "you girls nudists or are ya just short of clothes?" or "the train's late. Nothing's on schedule today!" he could match the larger-than-life action without overdoing it, and could contextualize and shape the less accomplished performers around him. Lancaster 'got' Meyere's vision perfectly. Here in Monstro it's clear old Yemm doesn't get it, or if he does he doesn't approve. Rather than going with the bend in the material he keeps trying to hammer it back to some kind of normality straightnes, like a dickweed pink instead of a stealth Bob Dobbs, gluing Humpty Dumpty back into an egg shape rather than --as the rest of the cast is making--a Julian Schnabel-style shell bit mosaic

Director Stuart Simpson also did his own cinematography (surprise surprise!), and while it's clearly just high-contrast HD video, it's nonetheless a welcome change of pace from that sun-bleached look SOVs take on when transferred to 35mm. His fellow retro-crap auteurs like Larry Blamire (Lost Skeleton of Cadavra) end up delivering what looks like a color video switched to black and white on FCP - there's no contrast or grain or silvery glimmer. Simpson, on the other hand, gives each setting its own look- it's clear he tinkered to get it right as best he could, so good on ya, mate: the black-and-white opener is crisp, the switch to color is cool and appropriate (ala the expanded version of Death-Proof), the scene of the girls stalking a noise through the shrubbery has a dreamy pastoral lushness that evokes Rollin or Malick; the seaside look is high contrast and darkly inviting; the interior of the beach shack feels like a real beach shack, the kind full of garage sale furniture and warped wood. Almost like the back of an Avenue B coffee shop, you can smell the dirty wet sand and sea water.  Moby Dick (Orson at the ship bow altar) is on the TV in one bit; Kyrie Capri who the girls introduce to drugs and alcohol so she'll grow up enough to tell her coward of a grandfather to fuck off (making her way cooler than the ever-cowering Susan Bernard in Pussycat). At night the ladies rock out to a cassette of Pinetop Smith and the monster is a mix of puppet and CGI rather than just the latter so what's not to love...or at least tolerate, como uno venganza

(2012) Dir. Paul Bunnell

Bronson Canyon and its legendary 'Bat Cave' is a magical corner of Griffith Park that's been incorporated into hundreds of films, and never more perfectly than in the B-movie sci-fi of the 1950s where it stood in for Mars, the Moon, prehistoric Arizona, and so on, a perfect oasis of eerie prehistoric primordial wilderness in the middle of LA? It's not seen nearly as much these days, as green screens replace the world, but lo! Hark and looky here --out of the cool Bronson Bat Cave darkness and into the California sunshine comes a group of 50s gang members, the types with combs in their back pockets and matching jackets. Only dese guys is from space, hey? Hey, it's the legitimately weird and great retro 50s sci-fi rock musical from Paul Bunnell.

Shot on Kodak's lovely high contrast Eastman Plus-X Negative Film 5231 (Bunnell snagged the last rolls before it was discontinued), The Ghastly Love of Johnny X can stand proudly in that same super classy gorgeous black-and-white retro realm as Tim Burton's Ed Wood  and David Lynch's Elephant Man, which both got their black and white beauty from the same stock. In other words this isn't some Larry Blamire Lost Skeleton-style no-budget homage, where it's just HD video with the color drained out. This looks like a million bucks and it was (two in fact). So we're a long way from the basement.

The question is, how did such a cult classic-in-the-making wind up in the margin's margins? Maybe, like Plan Nine itself, it's just so far behind its time it's still ten years ahead.

The irrepressible De Anna Joy Brooks
Bunnell may not the first modern day auteur to reach into the tar pit of 50s low budget drive-in filmmaking--to fish out some preserved oil-slicked style and true rebellious anarchy still on the bone amidst the wealth of tail fins, tortoise shell sunglasses, tight skirts, jukeboxes, flying saucers and zombie frugging ---but there's no prize for first, especially in retro-homage. And while there's a smattering of musical theatricality with his cast, Bunnell is no fey poseur. His tale never backs down from the kind of dirt in the nice girl's face para-misogyny that would please Victor Jory in Cat Women of the Moon but would make Tim Burton loosen his skinny tie and blush.

You know me: my misogyny radar is rivaled only by NORAD, so if it doesn't go off for a film where a gang leader uses mental powers to force his exes face into the California desert parking lot, and who treats his adoring deserves-better second tier booty call like crap, then it's all good. It's like it would be with, say, John Waters, where the open-chested 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!...  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 transistors, 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." Kate Maberly (right) shows up later as a moist-eyed young faun, enthralled with the Cramps-zombie Roy Orbison rockabilly star who might be Johnny's biological father (played and sung by ex-Seed Creed Bratton [The Office]); Heather Provost is the cool brassy wife of the club manager King Clayton (Phantasm's Reggie Bannister). There's also a special cameo from Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as an alien judge in a Devo hat who sentences Johnny to Earth for his rebel ways (though he gets to take his gang with him, not sure if that's a reward or punishment).

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 stock, the scene glows with the same spooky smoky decay as the back rooms of Kubrck's The Killing.

Ego Plum (Frieda Kahlo's grandson)'s score-- full of theremins, booming brass, crashing timpani, wailing harmonies and lurid synth notes--is enough to make Danny Elfman hide under the bed and vow to never be retro again. As for the songs, they're about what you'd expect for the most part, trailing into fantasy numbers with Johnny and the gang: the choreography's groovy without being showy; the singing voices are properly mixed so you can decipher every lyric (a rarity, even in the best of these endeavors) and everyone's on the same jazzy theater geek page as they dovetail from 'reality' into Off-Broadway Expressionism with a faux-50s Grease (if Travolta's gang were composed of members of the Cramps) patina.

The best (diegetic) music comes from old Creed, who represents all that's wrong, weird and wondrous about this goofy corner of the desert world. His craggy face seems born to play dead under such brilliant black-and-white photography and he brings all his ex-Seeds rock star sadness to bear (and that sadness is mighty, believe you me) to this newly dead creature of the night.

Also worth mentioning: the special effects 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, all wrapped in Roger Corman 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 the sexual oomph an alpine mountain setting could provide, that aggressive female sexuality could be portrayed in a positive way, and how to hit all the right drive-in points without sacrificing momentum, wit, and flair. The RoomMates comes in the middle of a three film roll beginning with Bonnie's Kids and ending Detroit 9000 (all the same year). All of them are good, but best served in the right mood: Detroit is for when you're in a Joe Rocco mood; Bonnie's Kids is for when you're in a Bolling phase; 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 autumn darkness comes earlier and earlier; and now, 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 --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, and that decade's wondrously more open-shirted, less dehumanizing, approach to straight sex hookups. so what's not to live for? I went into it feeling cold, self-pitying, isolated and miserable, and by the time it was over I felt like I just got back from a casual vacation in the Catskills. 

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 too much --with predictable results; Marki Bey (Sugar Hill) displays her witty brand of overacting while working for the summer at the local library, where she soon falls for a cool black cop (though it means dumping her white boyfriend - twist!); 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, much to Woodell's anger. She takes it out on an itinerant hipster handyman (he tries to get her to let her guard down but the pole cat's left her pretty jaded). And there's a killer on the loose.   

Hottest of them all though (my special crush - left): Laurie Rose - as a counsellor at all-boys camp. She pays 'special attention' to the boy too shy to make friends, but doing so in a midriff and form-hugging hiking shorts shorts camp ensemble, seems like the worst form or torture. What is she trying to do, drive those lads insane? She seduces one of her charges for no other reason than he's shy! What is the phrase about the happy camper? Sigh, remember when winning the heart of a cute older girl was possible solely by being shy and awkward? Oh, 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 spirit 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, just as seductive, just as natural, and just as gone.

(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 an openly sexy lesbian vampire movie; and so they came, a cloud of blood-drinking bats opening the veins of 1971. Nearly ever one of them is an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 lesbian vampire novella Carmilla (it pre-dated Stoker's Dracula by 26 years!). Like Dracula is now, at the time, Le Fanu's piece was public domain, so there was a pre-set blueprint. But of the many variations, 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 then it goes from there.

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 for the weekend includes the interested and hunky Lee (Michael Blodgett) as well as his reluctant 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 is 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.

I relate to her woeful misgivings about the situation. Especially since getting sober, I'm terrified of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. bored out of my skull but unable to escape, as some lecherous comfortable-in-his-own-skin host makes the least veiled moves on my girlfriend (or vice versa). (Mine was in Cordoba, Argentina. You know who you are).

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 (though Rothman apparently borrowed it from Jack Hill after working with him on Blood Bath). 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, you got a nocturnal blur between worlds I can get into. Perhaps a meta-echo of Rothman herself watching the rushes, layering her hungry staring together with their desert mirage-dream (which they wake up and share, realizing they had the same dream, like the lovers in Midsummer Night).

This film aired frequently on early Saturday morning TV when I was growing up and I never understood what was going on in it, though the title promised a lot. I'm sure it was edited near to death and there was very little 'monsterness' as my dad called it, neither velvet nor vampires to be found, and I was too young to get any references, sapphic (which would have been edited out) or otherwise. All I remember is the yellow dune buggy and the blonde haired lad (Michael Blodgett) and his doleful girlfriend, lolling in bed, and the glare of the red dress amidst the desert scrubs. Now on a great Shout DVD, the red dresses worn by Diane and the yellow of the dune buggy really pop amidst the desert gold and brown, and the score--a haunting Jimi Page-style Middle Eastern slow tempo cycling acoustic guitar (an unbilled Grass/Dollarhide) with some rushing whoozy blood thinning synth drones--tap a deep psychedelic plaintiveness that makes those weird dreams vibrate on a whole other level. There's also a great old blues man (an unbilled Johnny Shines) singing "Hellhounds on my Trail" at Stoker's art opening.

All in all, Rothman brings a unique feminine energy anyone 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. And the chief 'sadistic gaze' supplied by an ageless woman. 

What's more noticeable now, too, is how Lee's slowly mounting, increasingly desperate attempt to escape the house goes from distractedly dismissing Suzy's worry as mere veiled jealousy, to trying to steal Diane's dune buggy; Blodgett ably outpaces David Manners' similar escalation of panic 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 (I have), 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, or have a Rocky Horror cult pedigree, but it's just as gender-bent transgressive in its own way. Rothman gets top marks for being the first lady director of the Corman's New World, give a few slyly Byron-esque pointers on smoov to sweet transvestites from Transylvania, and going deep into the heady world wherein seduction and destruction are inseparable, even under blazing sun of the desert in the mirror, or the dead of day-for-night.  (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)


  1. "wait 70's come back" - i've been saying this since 1976.

  2. Thanks for the love, my friend! -Katherine (aka Bobbi Socks)


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