Friday, January 18, 2019

The cruel, cruel things we did to LAST SUMMER (1969)

There's ever so often I catch even a time out critic evincing he's not seen the movie he's capsulizing, as in the Time Out Britannia entry on LAST SUMMER (1969), which calls it "winsome," and notes 'typical lessons are learned"? Oopsy-daisy. Either he's one sick British puppy or he's hearing the title and painting a very different sort of beach idyll in his mind. Sure, there's lessons learned in Frank and Eleanor Perry's sneakily devastating adaptation of Evan Hunter's novel, but calling them typical is like calling Hitchcock's The Birds (which Hunter scripted), an 'ornithologist's bayside holiday.'

I don't blame that writer; he probably couldn't find a copy of the film when he was assigned it, and needs must when the devil drives. To my knowledge it's never been on any official DVD or tape, in fact I'm not even sure where Max got the copy I duped that we watched so religiously during one of our drunken LBI summers back in the early 90s. I may not have a copy today for reference, or have seen it once sober, but I can attest: there's nothing idyllic or remotely typical about Last Summer, unless Over the Edge and Don't Deliver us from Evil are just like landlocked versions of Gidget and Beach Party. Can you imagine? This critic might remark that Evil is the tale of two good Catholic BFFs and their summer journey of emotional maturity, leading up to an incendiary talent show poetry recital, and Edge is about a group of kid activists fighting to save their after-school arts program. Those descriptions are both true, in their way, but so misleading.

On the other hand, misleading surfaces and morality drifting astray on invisible currents, is what LAST SUMMER is all about. It turns out to be so easy to drift away on Where the Boys Are down rip currents, invisible to the naked eye, never giving the feeling you're moving down the beach at all, and finally wash ashore by the Last House on the Left. How the hell does that happen?

The tale of three (and then four) privileged youngsters left to their own devices on Fire Island (?) over the summer, Last Summer builds to its evil gradually, to the point where our own giddy love for Scorpio-Pisces mayhem is used against us. There's sexual assault, menage a trois cinema groping, evil-confessing, seagull sadism, the kind of things kids grow up to either regret, repress, forget, unless it turns them permanent sociopath. The story of two blonde beach bum rich kids who meet and bond with a bad influence girl, who manages to keep them both turned on and that sex drive sublimated into evil decadence, and the fourth wheel downer who comes to stay, like an annoying kid sister who always threatens to tell mom.

It stars Bruce Davison and Richard Thomas (a long way from John Boy, not that, thank god, my parents ever watched that show) as a pair of beach-loafing buddies (no parents in sight) who find a wounded sea gull and Barbara Hershey all in the same day. What a break! Together the three generate what Max's mom once said about us, down on those wasted LBI summers: "a bad influence on each other." As with Eric Rohmer's summer holiday idylls, sexual tension generates in real time over whole reels, until when it finally cracks open you feel weak in the knees. As with a more decadent European 'sexual idyll' swooner like Jean Rollin, a sense of impending doom, a naturalistic series of ambiguous omens, conspiratorial glances, and burst of random hostility amidst the hypnotic momentum, reminds us constantly that the ocean is a demonic bad influence friend itself. And I love that, unlike so many beach movies, it also rains some days. During a protracted, masterful sequence, the threesome stay indoors while it rains and wash each other's hair, smoke weed, and let the air of existential melancholy that a rainy afternoon on the beach can bring wash over them. Dude, so been there. A terrible time to take acid, let me tell you. 

Max and I, during those LBI summers, had a few different girl partners in crime but our serial monogamous hetero chastity was ironclad. Alcohol only made us even more gallant. But I was later lured into latent evil via a beautiful Scorpio woman in AA, so I know how intoxicating it can all be even without drinking. 

At any rate, in 1991 this movie was the perfect thing to watch on a rainy hungover Wednesday LBI morning, drinking gin and Strawberry SlimFast while recovering from the previous night's long iguana of a night. The lagoon-side of the island gently lapping our brains into something like a parasympathetic rhythm, we loved this movie because we well knew the way the right girl could ignite all sorts of ballsy courage and decadent mischief in the right pair of unemployed but well-stocked bandmates. You could alienate all your (real) girl friends and most everyone else over a single weekend. And you'd just laugh evilly, a kind of Cruel Intentions' ghosts of Vicomte Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil possession you were too drunk to fight (or too sober to remember)

Taken together, the right threesome can melt the rest of the world clean away in a haze of cigarettes, highballs, the psychedelics always wearing off or about to kick in. In that lifestyle one is always either coasting on the fumes or anticipating the next refill, but one is never completely sober. When someone else enters into that unholy threesome, and they cannot or will not party? Pity them, lord, for they shall be doomed to rot in hell, unless of course they're even more decadent than we are. Chances are they're just putzes who totally don't get it. 

Pity them but not to the point of inviting them.

With its great naturalistic dialogue, the success of Last Summer lies largely with the tight small ensemble cast keeping the peripheral squares at bay. It starts innocently enough, trying to save a seagull with a fishhook caught in its mouth. Their shared empathy with the bird will gradually be inverted by the stunning ending, but for now, their good deed gives them a kind of holy trifecta aura that evokes among other similar triads, like the trio dancing the Madison in Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964).

 Just mentioning rabies (if the wounded gull bites one of them), Sandy says "oh rabies my ass." Today the boys' shared smirk over her using the word "ass" might seem odd, as if they're already plotting something at the mere mention of a body part, but in the context of its era, children using this word (or any 'bad' word) in public was the equivalent of what in the 80s would have been mentioning she had weed (the anti-drug hysteria of the time was so insane that lighting up became an act of political solidarity). (1) It ends, well, no spoilers, but lets just say it ain't the 60s anymore. 

Last Summer isn't a horror movie, or a ponderous piece of 'art' either, neither surrealistic or weighty. Like Over the Edge it fools you by slowly winning you over to its protagonist's perspective which, considering their youth and the absence of strong parental guidance, is a dangerous place to be. If you grew up watching 'After School Specials' and 'safety films' on 16mm (while in class), then you were accustomed to the feel of Last Summer--but it's a cautionary tale without a narrator, or a moral, or a parent, it trusts we don't need them. Like the girls doing their Baudelaire routine in Don't Deliver us from Evil, all the movies we've seen in the past make us blindsided by a whole new swerve. If you're like me, you are highly susceptible to the 'bad influence' of any intelligent, gorgeous young person who falls into your circle. Even just as a friend, they give you a kind of high-octane cache that can cause latent Mean Girls-cliquey kind of giddy moral blindness.

The cast is all set up for menaga-a-trouble, Design for Living-style. As Peter, Richard Thomas's sadistic demonic eyebrow arches convey a real, deep propensity for evil that runs deliciously counter to his Waltons good boy warmth. But it's more than stunt casting. He conveys a real sense of nurturing and natural leadership without ever seeming older than he is. But it's a warmth made all the more dangerous by the eerily self-confident sociopathy lurking below the surface smile. The sweeter he is, the more you feel there's a reverse action building. We watch the demonic glint wax and wane in his eyes like a sinister but enticing moon.

As the smirkier blonde beta male, Dan (Norton) on the other hand, keeps his guile exposed and ever a bit sophomoric. While Peter is the type of character who won't strike until he's got the girl all but naked in his bed already, Dan plays the numbers game, so used to rejection he's built up a tolerance, to the point he wouldn't know what to do if he got one.

Lighting the fire is the new girl Sandy (Hershey), ever eager to seem more mature than she is through expressive "language," relishing the combined attention of these two blonde troublemakers. The love she shows to them, mainly to Peter, while they both lay on her lap, for example, listening to sitar music and getting high, creates a seductive bubble; the sound mixing gamely captures her whispered sutbtle breathing almost in ASMR cocoon we can feel. We're smitten; we're there; there's no lumpen Catherine Burns to drag our locus of identification kicking and screaming back to the loser's table. Not yet. 

Together, their sublimated sexual energy is a force first of good (rescuing the gull from the hook) and then, through misuse, the sublimation wanes and the fermented passions bubbles up like oil seeps. Using a kind of loose cycle incorporation of tricks perhaps gleaned from Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living, she avoids breaking up their friendship by never picking one or the other ("no sex!" - though in this case pretty close, constantly) or risking her own ostracization by either choosing or rejecting either one, rather the cycle of move-busting runs from Peter to Sandy to Dan in a continuous loop that garners intense energy as it goes. Naturally it has to find an outlet, like Sandy luring a slightly older hispanic man via personal ad on a date, tricking him into his doom at the hands of some local racist toughs.

Everyone is excellent in their naughty conspiratorial whirlwind of sexual sublimation-amped mischief; but then Catherine Burns comes loping along the lonely beach, appointing herself the ugly duckling fourth wheel. It's only during that rainy afternoon after the three of them lost in pot and hair washing that they're ready to actually pay attention to her. With a single long monologue (that led to an Oscar-nomination), recounting the last hours of seeing her mom alive --at a cocktail party that's been raging at their house for days--Burns hypnotizes us and them so completely that by the time she's done you can smell the liquor on her mom's breath, the reek of sand, alcoholic pores, cologne, sexual heat, and ocean brine, the stale cigarettes, and--finally--a fatal misjudgment of impaired motor skills that led to mom's death. 

And it's this tale (notably of mom's decadence rather than her own), set to the melancholy ominousness of the rain outside, that's just enough to get her through the door into the threesome's evil club. But then they don't know any other way to either shake her off or get her to loosen up and stop cramping their style than what they inevitably, shamefully, do. Because even though they thought, after their dope-enhanced empathy with her plight, that they might turn her bad like them she just wont quit her glum whininess. 

you know if you're an alcoholic if the first thing you notice in this pic is the (upper left) Heineken

No matter how many jump cuts from the trio's galavanting around Fire Island, the slow simmer hypnotic Baudelaire-ian budding evil of Last Summer never skips ahead. That's one of the reasons I love it, and maybe why it confuses Time Out critic so much -- it pulls off the seduction into irrevocable evil better than any other film that comes to mind, yet without ever jumping the groove of its languid beach rhythm: you can hear the waves--or if not, the faint sound of rain--in every scene. The ocean becomes like "Trevor" in The Wild Boys)! a demonic possessor, and rather than point fingers, or spread feel-bad trauma, it points out we hold on to the 'magic' of childhood at our own peril. As long as we're too small to do any real damage, nature's sociopathy flows unchecked; carry it over into adulthood, and we're going to jail.

It all makes me wonder--as I wonder with other genuinely subversive films and TV shows--if that's the reason it's unavailable (there's not even a thumbnail of it on Amazon!). Rather than rant and fume against frat boys I am forced to examine my pwn past behavior that--at the time--seemed wholly justified and awesome--especially with a Cruel Intentions marquise in my corner urging me on--but which--of late, especially--hang in my conscience. A douche bag is a douche bag, regardless of mutual consent and vehemence of one's momentary delusion that it's ever "just" sex.

Wherever the licensing keeps it from being on Blu-ray, no matter how much it looks 'winsome' on the surface, it's a film every young punk should see, for the "lessons learned" are vital. The film itself lulls us into a rhythm we're seduced by, so that when the slow erratic buzzkillery of Burns enters, we're almost privy to the wild demon that drives us to try and make her wake up and walk with the fire so we can get back to our dirty little round robin thrills without a safety-first Clyde dragging the mood down.

At the end there's still no adult in sight to shame them, but it's clear they don't even need one. These
are 'good' people, usually. But they drank "truth serum" together - they fell in love as one person, and lost their connection to the consequence-ridden world. As the poster says, this summer was "too beautiful to forget... and to painful to remember." Like the first sudden gust of evening hitting your sunburned skin after a day on the beach, a sickly early fall chill runs through all concerned. The leaves can't cover their bodies fast enough to keep out the sudden, irreversible cold.

1.In the 60s and early 70s (I remember when the word 'suck' was first being used as a negative, i.e. 'you suck' - in fact I think I was in first grade with the girl who started it, referring to someone so immature they still sucked their thumb - in fact it was associated with the word "still" as in latency - ala "that girl Lisa, I bet she still sucks" It wasn't "you suck" but "you probably still suck" as in get the thumb out of your mouth. This was a time when 'bad words' were genuinely bad. We'd whisper them under our breath to shock each other, and then only with people who wouldn't tell on us. If you doubt, just watch Burt Reynolds movies from the mid-70s and listen for the pause (for audiences gasps and hoots and howls) at the end of every four-letter word. Just saying "Shit!" would bring the house down (one of the reasons people fainted at the Exorcist)


  1. Yeah, I saw this movie late one night on TCM (I think), and it went dark and left me shook. Childless people complain about the helicopter parenting that runs so rampant these days, but watch this movie and remember the free range shenanigans and chicanery of growing up as a 70's kid, and being protective and suspicious makes perfect sense.

    1. Anonymous23 July, 2023

      Agree! These were nasty teens (three of them were) left to their own devices. Never a good thing.

  2. I remember first encountering this one not long after I read and got my head completely fucked over by Mendal Johnson's "Lets Go Play at the Adams," another story of evil doings along the beach, though more overt. Still, this movie did not help with my mental recovery.

  3. "It stars Peter Norton..."? I think you mean Bruce Davison. (Peter is the name of Richard Thomas's character.)

    1. Thank you Mr. Ed. I'm getting might dyslexic with names these days.

  4. Where’d you watch this? I can’t find it anywhere.

  5. it sometimes shows up on TCM... I used to have it on an old VHS tape. No clue where to find it now.

    1. Anonymous23 July, 2023

      Hopefully in the dust bin. An awful movie in my opinion. Totally pointless and feinging great importance for its time. Hated it.

  6. Anonymous23 July, 2023

    I didn't like this movie at all. I was 17 in 1969, and these teens just seemed bratty and nasty (and sadicsic), sort of like "Mean Girls," only two were "Mean Guys." Hershey's acting has always left me cold, and Davison is creepy here (like he's got a psychopathic personality he's doing his best to try and hide). Of course, he was never one of my favorites either. The best of the bunch were Richard Thomas (the most credible actor in the group) and Catherine Burns, the latter of whom seemed very honest and real. This was a movie that did not really need to be made in my opinion. Pointless and over rated.

  7. It's not available anywhere because no good film elements have been found to make a Blu-ray or HD streaming version. The only known surviving film copy is a 16mm print of the cut (R-rated) version. Everything else has apparently either faded or rotted away, unless something usable shows up miraculously in a film vault somewhere. Who knows if the original negative even still exists. It was released on VHS, but VHS quality doesn't come close to holding up on today's screens. It's really amazing how much film footage and recorded music has been left to rot, burn, or fade away. Another lost film.

  8. I know but it was good enough to show on TCM, so they could at least release something with a disclaimer - or streaming on Prime or something.


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