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

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Up from the Meyer: GHASTLY LOVE OF JOHNNY X, EL MONSTRO DEL MAR, VELVET VAMPIRE, THE GIRLFRIENDS





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
**3/4

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. 

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...

Occupying a punk rock zone between John Waters and Russ Meyer-Jack Hill drive-in feminism but amping up the attitude, there's a gigantic larger than life leader, Baretta (Nelli Scarlett), delivering badassery that's still sexy though but carries that slight drag queen edge so perfectly embodied in Divine, Tura Satana, Mary Woronov, and Shirley Stoler; Karli Madden is in the Lori Williams role;  Kate Watts is the Haji. They're all decked out in that retro 50s Trash and Vaudeville chic--bows, bangs, and black-- but it seems like their genuine style. It works. The film might well be set in the 50s or now; the girls transcend time and fakery (this is their film debut and they're joyously free of 'professionalism'). 

Remember your lines?
While the it lacks Meyer's punchy editing, wild angles and existentially gonzo dialogue ("like a velvet glove cast in iron!"), Monstro makes do with 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 it just clearly wasn't with Meyer, where his women were big and strong but it was clear they weren't deviating from an already gonzo script. In Meyers' film the over-the-top acting worked because the lines were great: they could stand the attention. In Simpson's homage here, well, the lines are just okay but they feel natural; these girls look like they drink a lot, and could fuck a man up no sweat and not even remember it. The films' naturalism doesn't always work: the old man tied to this chair for life ("better you should be nailed to it!") Norman Yemm is a little too old and dour here, he throws off the curve. It would have been better with a man like Stuart Lancaster ("you girls nudists or are ya just short of clothes?") who could actually match the larger than life action without overdoing it, and could contextualize and shape the less accomplished performers around him. Instead it's clear old Yemm doesn't get what's going on in this film and is trying to warp the warpedness back to some kind of normality, like a dickweed pink instead of a stealth Dobbs.

Simpson's cinematography is also a welcome change of pace from that sun-bleached look shot-on-HD indies adopt in vain attempt to look film-like. Other retro chic auteurs like Larry Blamire (Lost Skeleton of Cadavra) end up delivering what looks like a color video switched to black and white on FCP. Simpson, on the other hand, gives each setting its own look: the black and white opener is crisp, the switch to color cool and appropriate (ala the expanded version of Death-Proof) the sight of the girls whipping out their knives from their boots at the sight of something alive and rustling in the bushes has a dreamy pastoral lushness; 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 panelling, almost like the back of an Avenue B coffee shop; you can smell the dirty wet sand and sea water; some old seafaring dogs have a chubby little girl with them who runs off when the monster rips them to shreds; Moby Dick (Orson at the ship bow altar) on the TV in the shack; old Norman Yemm in the wheelchair tells his granddaughter (Kyrie Capri) she must never go into the ocean but doesn't tell her why until it's far too late, so it becomes a saga of an innocent young girl finally telling her coward of a grandfather to fuck off, then grabbing a shotgun to settle old scores, i.e. tienes mucho mas cajones grandes than the ever-cowering Susan Bernard in Pussycat. At night the ladies rock out to Pinetop Smith and the monster is a mix of puppet and CGI rather than just the latter so what's not to love... como uno venganza


THE GHASTLY LOVE OF JOHNNY X
(2012) Dir. Paul Bunnell
***1/4

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 eerily than in nearly every Corman sci fi film of the 1950s. It and the surrounding desert are made swell use of in an unjustly neglected and legitimately weird 50s sci fi rock musical homage from Paul Bunnell. Shot in Kodak's lovely high contrast Eastman Plus-X Negative Film 5231 (Bunnell got 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 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. It looks like a million bucks and it was (two million to be precise and it looks it), so how did such a highbrow 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 tap the tar pit of 50s low budget drive-in filmmaking, to realize that there is style and true rebellion 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 never backs down from the kind of dirt in the nice girl's face para-misogyny of the type that would please Victor Jory in Cat Women of the Moon but would make Tim Burton loosen his skinny tie and blush. After all, what will the critics say? What indeed, gentlemen?

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
We then find Johnny and co. exiting the legendary Bronson Canyon bat cave, some months later. He's following the trail of his errant girlfriend 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. 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 a recurring Chesterfield commercial on the TV behind them, the one where the shill coughs after a drag. Is this perhaps to excuse the criminal lack of cigarettes amongst these alleged juvenile delinquents?

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.

As for the songs, they're about what you'd expect for the most part when trailing into fantasy numbers with Johnny and the gang: the choreography's groovy, the singing voices are properly mixed (a rarity, believe it or not) 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. But the best music comes from old Creed's undead rockabilly icon, who represents all that's wrong, weird and wondrous about this goofy corner of the desert world. His craggy face seems born to be dead under such brilliant black and white photography and he brings all his ex-rock star sadness to bear (and that sadness is mighty, believe you me).

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.


THE ROOMMATES
(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.

Hottest of them all though (my special crush): Laurie Rose (left) is the girl off to her own location-- a counsellor at all-boys camp, which seems insane considering how hot she is in a midriff and shorts camp ensemble. She seduces one of her charges for no other reason than he's shy--what is the phrase about the happy camper? It is like every dream I ever had as a kid coming true, what every kid who'd rather sulk than fit in thinks his petulance will win him.

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
**3/4

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.

I relate to Suzy's woe, I'm terrified of being stranded in the middle of nowhere bored out of my skull but unable to escape. Don't even get me started on Cordoba, Argentina.

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.



This film was 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, and I was too young to get any references, sapphic (which would have been edited out) or other, but I remembered the dune buggy and the blonde haired lad (Michael Blodgett) and his doleful girlfriend, and the red blood and red dress amidst the desert scrubs. And I tried to watch it a few years ago out of loyalty (since I was/am buddies with Blodgett's daughter Lucy) but only now that there's finally a good version (on Shout - avoid all others) is it watchable. Now 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. 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 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)

NOTES:
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)

3 comments:

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

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

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. my pleasure dolling, keep slugging!

      Delete

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