Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Angels of Groovy Death #IV: Lynn Lowry Special Edition

With her big cat eyes, button nose, a wide sudden innocent but-terrifying-smile, long straight hair, and knack for being cast in future iconic cult gems, Lynn Lowry was a kind of unofficial poster girl for the post-Manson hippy horror micro-genre of the early 70s, the quintessential gone-homicidal-flower-child who Middle American viewers dreaded drawing as a babysitter. She glowed with a kind of worldly ephemeral inner luminescence that somehow kept her innocent and free even as she was being gunned down by soldiers or cutting off a housewife's hand with an electric carving knife. We kids all knew the type, she babysat us all the time, and we loved her. Anything could happen when they came over: fun board games, seduction, arson, menacing boyfriends, you name it, all with a spontaneous air that let you know rain checks and second guessing were out of the question. You either ran with her giddy madness or got left behind to die in the dull roar of the TV flames.

Even I--just an elementary school kid at the time--well remember the urban legend of the hippy babysitter who was so high on LSD she cooked and ate the baby and put the chicken to bed. The stoned babysitter was a kind of protean Michael Meyers, the fear was so mainstream that when Alice finds out she's been dosed while on a babysitting job in Go Ask Alice (1973) she locks herself in the closet to ensure she wont end up 'testing' the Radarange. That the film doesn't even need to explain why she does this testifies to that legend's prevalence.

And when we all imagined what that babysitter looked like, she looked just like Lynn Lowry. We wanted to have her --wanted all mom's first choices to fall through.

This innocent serpent flower child was a new kind of femme fatale. Not the sort to go framing you for murder or shaking you down with blackmail like in the 40s-50s; she wasn't even a new version of the old spoiled nympho drug addict waif like Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep. This new acid waif homicidal cultist was never spiteful or mischievous, her heart was too full of love; acid had burned out those small minded reptilian fear-desire tail-biting instincts, and it's this above all else that made that love dangerous and unpredictable. Acid dissolved away the morality and impulse control the rest of us took for granted. These tripping waifs belonged more in a comfy psych ward where they couldn't have long fingernails or access to sharp things like pointed scissors until the drugs wore off.

There was no resisting them.

Consider this, especially if you're a straight male look at that picture below left and consider if these three girls were to come onto you in, say, the park while you were alone reading the paper on a bench.  You know that you'd have no problem resisting the ones on the left and right but the girl in the middle, if she wanted to go home with you, you'd be dead by dawn, and she'd wake up snug in your entrails with no knowledge where she was or who you were. Then she'd shower off the blood, eat enough acid to send a rhino to the psych ward, then fingerpaint on the walls with your coagulating blood while softly singing "tralalalala."

"We have no jelly donuts for you today... only death."
The 'Manson Girls" singing and chanting as one, had become national figures and though I was too young to remember the courtroom hooplah I do remember the urban legends about the baby in the oven and the fear some crazy cult would put razors or acid in your apples on Halloween. This fear goosed the 70s along and gave seemingly helpless little street-corner waifs and psychedelic flower-covered urchins a kind mobster street gang clout. No one dared mess with them. And as a kid nosing through mom's record albums, the ones with similarly clad babes, or electric fros and evil looking dwarf monsters all had a queasy bone-chilling dread about them.

Then again, my aunt on my dad's side in Chicago ran off and joined a commune, and we went to visit, and man that was a hairy place - I tried cat food for the first time, and ran through lots of beaded doorways, and groovy art, and so forth. My aunt was dating her fourth guy named Randy... four Randys.... in a row... the mind boggled. My grandmother had disowned her.

My parents were just a few years too old for that scene, Ours was like in Mad Men, that bridge club wife swap 70s middle class golf game walk to school of your own accord freedom type. And after school, TV. Sugar Snaps. And we molested the babysitters, not the other way around.

And if you grew up kind of crushing on Susan Dey (from The Partridge Family) even if you rarely watched it (Danny was gross; the music horrific), then she might be who comes to mind the first time you see Lynn Lowry; with that downturned lip and sultry eyes and wavy straight hair, Lowry strikes me first as if she's Dey crossed with a cute alien hybrid drawn by a Disney animator unwittingly dosed by a CIA operative at a Washington cocktail soiree. Someone sure should have dosed the Partridge Family. God I hated that redheaded kid Danny, that plagiarizing ginger with his unheimlich neediness.... and wasn't too crazy about Shirley Jones and her sister wife collars and androgynous hair. She was like that mom who eavesdrops as you try to pick up her daughter than snidely puts you in your place, so that you blush and stammer and run home to sulk with your comic books, and then you never come over again. C'mon get happy, yeah right --quit tellin' us what to do. You could tell she was one of those hovering mothers that never questions why she's always grabbing things out of her daughters' hands and lavishing them on Keith, whether he wants them or not. Feeling badly, Keith waits til mom goes off to pray or something, then gives sis back her shit. Nice, sweet doomed Keith. He'd make a good sacrifice for the solstice.

On the other hand, if Mrs. Brady saw you clumsily putting some moves on fair Marcia (in The Brady Bunch), she would probably just call you into the den, give you some hands-on sexual advice and then kick you back downstairs with a strip of condoms in your hand and lipstick on your forehead like a governmental seal of approval. Why? Because unlike Mrs. Partridge , Mrs. Brady got laid, really laid. You could tell, and her sexually satisfied glow kept the decade alight with a special base line magic.

David Lynch would make great use of this terrifying yet sweetly innocuous smile.  Lowry goes for it without hamming, knowing just how to make untrammeled flower child joy indistinguishable from a rending maenad frenzy
I mention all this to illustrate how the Partridge Family vs. Brady Bunch dichotomy provided parameters for our collective 70s child's Jungian psyche, and maybe that's partially why the idea of a Susan Dey archetype untethered from her prim bitch overprotective mom and ginger brother, running away with a Satan-worshipping boyfriend and winding up on post-Manson LSD and rabid (in 1970's I Drink Your Blood --her first movie role) seemed a natural progression. The times demanded a girl who could slice off a woman's hand with an electric carving knife and still be an innocent, a free spirit cranked to eleven. Then the dial breaks, snaps and spins out of control before the amp catches on fire. If you've ever known and partied with the type then you know how rare and intoxicating they are right at the moment before that happens, and how sublimely chilling after.

give the lady a hand
Lowry's wide-eyed beauty is so 'there' in that moment she can make grown men blush and stammer just by watching her on the screen, as if she can see them and is blushing back, but at the same time she seems to be thinking about killing us, if we're lucky. In that moment of fear we're still protective of her, nervous like fauns we are, genteel-like, the gaze of the camera seems to shudder with the realization it's found itself privilege to some special moment in time, one that won't come again.

A sweet, sweet Scorpio (born Oct. 15), she's the kind of friendly animal a Pisces like me would let ride on our back as we swim the channel, but I'm too savvy to ask why she'd sting me to death halfway across - it's not even cuz a man or a sexually transmitted parasite or water-spread virus told her too, or because of acid, it's just her nature. Her long straight hair like wind-stirred gossamer over a denim jacket picturesquely dabbed in a cop's blood, when she starts slowly laughing at the carnage going on down the hill in The Crazies there's a weird schism that marks a great unexplored middle ground between the sane heroes and the 'changed.'  Rather than turn zombie or something, where the line is clearly drawn between normal and 'possessed' or us vs. them, Lowry extends the 'in between' with her contracting and expanding organic circular breathing. She's already scans a "little" crazy, so going all the way crazy is no great stretch, nor is it quite clear the extent to which her incestuous dad's behavior is a result of Trixie (the virus) or just habit. Eventually she's too crazy to know to hide when the military comes. They end up surrounding her, guns drawn, like she's a dangerous maniac even though all she's doing is offering them flowers and singing, just another flower child protester with no concern for her own life as she marches towards the bayonets with a flower in her hand.

Like some Innsmouth elder royal Neptune princess
With that air elemental aura (she'd make a great Ariel in Shakespeare's Tempest), Lowry is both uncanny and inviting, innocent and corrupting, the babysitter from the 70s my little brother and I prayed for as my mom made her round of early evening phone calls. We only got her around 1/3 of the time but when we did our stomachs sank with queasy dread. Whether she'd be in the mood to play her dangerous Go Ask Alice-style games with us rather than staying on the phone all night or hanging out on the porch with some sketchy boyfriend was another story. But if Jupiter aligned with Mars and she was ready to focus her loving laser beam attention upon us, then it was like some magic new dimension was opened in the Kuersten house, like she alone had a key to a secret door in the hallway wall that led to where all the cool stuff was.

Lowry has that same vibe, an open book of forbidden but benign ambivalence that puts her past our reach even while making her as accessible as all outdoors; she can dive merrily into the depths of depravity and horror and escape unscathed, like Daniel in the lion's den. As long as we don't try to pull her out of it, no harm will come to either of us. If we step in, we'll get hurt.

Shivers - during the transformation from sexually available but professional nurse to uninhibited maenad orgiast.
Toots, my darling, I was only eight years-old and didn't understand but I still hated the implied ascension to older man leering implied in the your acceptance of a quasi-derogatory nickname (I was always trying to come up with a different one) clearly given by a much older man, like a pissed off patron of a table she's waiting on at a roadside diner. Toots, I hated having to say that name to address you, my froggy voice stringy anchored by sublime pre-sexual adoration. I still recoil from that same 'ewa' vowel sound in words, like "food" - couldn't even watch Blue Velvet because Frank calls  Isabella "Tits." Took me years, man. Years...

Mom stopped volunteering at that runaway shelter when we moved to NJ in 1980, a fitting analogy. I was 13, so bye-bye cool wild flower power kiss you-on-the-mouth babysitters and hello slasher craze sober virgin final girls making sure we did all our homework and went to bed on time and then we lay  awake, terrified anyway. The early 80s: devil worship wasn't 'fun' with denim babysitters anymore, but the province of icky child molesters at day care centers. The slasher craze had even us once-louche grade school swingers afraid, we wouldn't even dare to go upstairs at night unless mom was already up there, her sewing machine humming the "all clear". Only WW2 saved me from that fear. I stopped thinking about slashers with knives and started thinking about Sgt. Rock, Sherman tanks vs. Panzers, Messerschmidts, Spitfires, B-17s. I was invulnerable when being shot at over Berlin.

Was it some kind of EC/DC House of Secrets/Tales from the Crypt, post-code/pre-code comic book comeuppance, all this terror and tub-thumping? It didn't matter which side of the censorship barrier, what was once shag carpet and wood panelling vivid--once Thulsa Doom snake cult decadent--was now just postage stamp size color pictures in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and John Buscemi Conan the Barbarian reprints. And that was how I wanted it. Whether the one led to the other, in grand macabre twist payback paperback style I don't know. But if both sides want a thing, at least on some level, and if no one else is involved or hurt, can it still be evil, even if it kills them?

It might depend who you ask, but frankly I'd trust Baudelaire as a babysitter over Cardinal Richelieu any day, for he who writes of evil needn't express it, physically. Either way, whether we felt it was evil or not, the fall-out was the same. We may wonder what happened in that Tenderloin peep both in THE HOWLING that caused Dee Wallace to repress her memories. Did that Fiona Apple "Criminal" MTV video cause me to revert back to savagery in the early 90s? Maybe, but by then I was an adult, strung out on a melancholy from never being able to get that delirious first MDMA peak high moment back again. Apple had that certain Lynn Lowry mix of childlike glee and physical corruption. Calvin Klein ran ads that looked intentionally like they were taken in some pervert's basement to send into Flesh World.  The important thing to understand is that dirty old man perversion of today was the gold chain hedonist swinger of yesterday, and if the girl is over eighteen and broke and hot and really into doing your drugs, is it a crime to get involved? Some people sure think so, irregardless. Lynn Lowry--or at least her archetypal hippie Mansonite--doesn't. She forgives you in advance.

We, who were just in elementary school at the time, can't remember if those days were really that deranged, but there's magic and power in the wicked but sweet, terrifying but absolving cat sister mile of Lowry on film which will never fade. Whether succumbing to the mad slavering ecstasy-overdose insane group orgy hysteria of Shivers or giggling in progressive waves of insanity in The Crazies or playing with an electric carving knife in I Drink Your Blood, this strange wondrous actress evokes that 70s post-Manson 'girl next door' anxiety with a flair unrivaled. Some girls are just never far enough away from the fire to know they're burning. Bless them for that, and even if following them drowns you in cop bullets, hitting you like scorpion knife flicker stinging flames of razor wire cat o'nine tails water, how can you keep from singing? Tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....tra-la-la-la....

"That's how you play 'Get the Guests'" SCORE!
SHIVERS! (capsule review)


  1. And you know what else? I could never figure out just how big The Partridge Family, in the world of the show itself, was supposed to be. One week Keith Partridge would be getting mobbed by chicks, the next week they were playing a lounge in a Holiday Inn. Musically, they were so lame! The Monkees and the Archies kicked their ass, and they weren't even funny. And their bus! In the days of the shag carpeted Good Times Van and Three For The Road traveling TV families, they didn't do anything to make the inside of that bus comfortable at all! They just painted the outside with a ripped off Mondrian patchwork and wrote, "Caution, Nervous Mother Driving" (Yeah, that was funny every week) on the emergency exit and went to play their slobbery gigs.

    But yes, Susan Dey, with that long hair and all that youth going for her. I have three older sisters, and my house was filled with hippy high school girls like her. 70's girls. Paul Thomas Anderson got it when he cast Katherine Waterston as Shasta. What a reverse Noir the whole Manson Girls scene was, huh? Usually chicks like that make men do their bidding, but in their case, it didn't quite pan out that way. The women did the killing while the man stayed at home listening to the White Album. What did that guy have? It couldn't have been just drugs. Or maybe it was, but, you know, lots of drugs. Oh 70's girls, did you learn nothing from Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

  2. Also, Tra.. Man, Lou knew there were Street Hassles from coast to coast.

  3. yeah you know you gotta be careful / around the little girls


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