Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Post-Futuristic Gang Violence, Italian-style: 6 Badass Trips from the early 80s

The holy triptych of the early 80s: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE ROAD WARRIOR and THE WARRIORS (their 1979 inspiration) launched a giant leather glove into the face of banal 'urban vigilante' genre filmmaking (and the slasher offshoot) that choked the R-rated marquees of the time. They loved loved loved that glove in Italy, inspiring a vast, rewarding spate of inspired super-charged homage-type variations that were kind of just 'there' in bad pan-and-scans, before the advent of widescreen HD restoring their full wide frame glory. The charred landscape of the endlessly-evolving Italian genre pastiche filmmaking (quarries and left-over WW2 ruins) found perfect use for these films. All the old peplum, spaghetti western and WW2 movie props and costumes could be dug up and retro-fitted and made fine post-historical use of (i.e. Roman helmets painted silver and combined with western gun belts and WW2 machine gun mounted jeeps). Craftsmen like Antonio Marghereti, Sergio Martino, and Enzo G. Castellari cranked these out by the dozen at the time and--hey--they still hold up, especially with digital color corrections and good prints courtesy the likes of Arrow, Scorpion, and Blue Underground, the likes of which one can now access easily on good old American Amazon Prime!

One of them you should check out that is not on Prime yet is Sergio Martino's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983). A post-nuclear ("present day") Manhattan serves as ground zero for a stealthy battle between a pretty boy brooding Michael Becketty loner warrior (Michael Sopkiw) and mutants, ape men acrobats, robots, and a Catholic-style death cult presided over by a whip-snapping hottie all in leather (Anna Kanakis).

In grand Erich synchronicity of the gods fashion, I happened to see it the same night as the 2019 RENT broadcast premiered on FOX and it's set in the early 90s - and stars a brooding Michael Becketty loner warrio  musician, tangling with dangers like AIDS, landlords, and selling out. In RENT, NYC is a place were everyone in the neighborhood knows your name, and the landlord actually apologizes to his building's squatters for trying to get people to pay rent by threatening to turn off their free heating. No one in the film pays any rent!  Just getting a job is considered a betrayal of one's art, even if one's art depends on, for example, an unlimited supply of 16mm film and a pipeline to all the major news outlets (that's never explained). 

In short, it's a 90s fantasy that's really an idealistic imagining of what it must have been like in 1983, or whenever AIDS got going. Dude, it's all connected. See them as I did on the same night and the whole section of Martino's film, involving an array of types hanging out on a dilapidated NYC theater stage dovetails effortlessly with the vast squats of RENT. One is a post-modern broken down of the NYC of artistic fantasy, replete with homeless squatter urban dregs and skyscraper-painted curtains, the other is, well, pretty much the same, except they sing instead of fight. It's a wonderful town. Each is rife with eccentric kooks and stars a hunky smoldering-eyed young brooder for whom self-deprecation is anathema, and for whom the idea of working for a living is worse than death. But that's just the tip of their perfect intersection along the meta-draft!

Both are idealized, naive wish fulfillment but Sergio Martino's move is another kind of wish fulfillment, a kind that RENT--for all its Feral Kid-posturing--will never understand. Martino dares to hope that in 2019 Manhattan will be a war zone and not an overpriced ever-more-sterile collection of banks, haughty boutiques, and high-end coffee shops. It's not because he's a communist, or an artist, but because he's a filmmaker, and his screenwriter has a flair for the nihilistic. And he's got balls. 

It's not just because I love time warping Moebius strips of meta that I compare them. They're a lot alike: each idealized city (1983's 2019, and 2019's 1983) is 

top to bottom: 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK; 2019's RENT

Which is the bigger fantasy all depends on perspective.

But yo -- to get back to the holy trinity leather glove in paragrah one-- they too weren't born in a vacuum: THE WARRIORS came out of a late-70s yen for 'Brooklyn street gang movies' ala LORDS OF FLATBUSH, PARADISE ALLEY which were ignited by the Fonze (ayyy!) and Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino GREASE/FEVER streak. This Italian street gang thing itself came out of the  waning late 60s biker gang subgenre (via THE WILD ANGELS) and the urban revenge film of the early 70s, (via DEATH WISH, TAXI DRIVER). 

In short, we watched as the street gang archetype became less and less Officer Krupke and "We wanna get loaded" and more and more a fantasy about the cesspool that was 70s NYC, by then so crime-ridden and filthy they just put a wall around it and make the city itself the prison, i.e. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. We'd go there sometimes, the family, to see plays on Broadway and my 12 year old self would marvel at the plethora of XXX theaters and urban waste. It was gritty and terrifying and altogether swell. The idea of making the whole island a prison did not originate with Carpenter. Nearly everyone who visited thought the same thing. but JC acted on it - that's his genius. 

Down under, they were catching up thanks to George Miller: gangs of amok bikers didn't really work in Sydney or Melbourne, but out in the Australian Outback, on the open road, they could still pack menace. In the Outback, the apocalypse could had come without anyone noticing the difference. The cops were gone, as were gas stations. SEARCHERS-style space western elements circled back, like the Comanche, after leading the men off on a posse into nowhere. In Australia, the interior of the entire continent was the inner city. Turn off the pumps and bounce the cop's paychecks and the roving gangs simply took over. Calling a cop to complain might involve an hour drive to a pay phone and then two hours for him to get there. By then, your girlfriend would be ready for John Wayne to throw his coat over, and bury with his own hands. 

By THE ROAD WARRIOR, you didn't even need show a mushroom cloud in the prologue. Just show us dirt-covered vehicles manned by dudes in crazy punk rock eyeliner--the same wacky new wave punk monsters from the Escape/Warriors movies only now with cool killer cars-- and we knew the score. It was a time to man up, renew out Soldier of Fortune subscription, and order a chain whip out of the back. Time to get in the game (chain whip was always my fantasy weapon of choice - I'm a terrible shot).

(1982) Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
*** / Amazon Image - A

In this Castellari 1982 classic, 1990s NYC is still a cesspool. Oh if only!

Hell, maybe it still was up in the Bronx--I've only been there once, on the way to the Cloisters, and it looked pretty rundown. But in Castellari's fevered imagination, the Bronx has devolved into a kind of Escape from NY/Warriors wasteland / paradise. All the outlaws and derelicts now go there to be free of the encroaching Disneyfication to be found down in Manhattan. The best the cops in the Bronx can do is monitor he outskirts to make sure no one sneaks downtown to rob the 'good' people. But what about going the other direction!?  Ann (Stefania Girolami), a rich heiress (to the "Manhattan Corporation,") escapes her bodyguards to find out how the other half lives (a bit like Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels), sneaking up into the Bronx, where she's saved from hockey-themed thugs by the charismatic Swan-style gang leader, Trash (Mark Gregory). He's like the big man on the South Side, or something. Fred Williamson is 'the Ogre' the head of the uptown crew, and very stylish. 

In other words, if you've seen John Carpenter's 1995's Escape From LA, this is more or less the same plot, with the sympathies reversed. The Snake Plissken is played by Vic Morrow here - and named Hammer! He's up in the Bronx to try and ignite a turf war between the gangs, but Fred and Trash are both too sly to fall for that. Trash and Ann bop their way past various gangs on their long sewer tunnel odyssey uptown to parlay with him, and Fred and Trash decide to team up. Morrow and his army of guys in silver hazmat suits with flame throwers crrash the party. Sooner or later everything and everyone explodes. Everybody wins.

 Where are you, Joe (Walsh)?

If you lived in Manhattan in the actual 1990s, you know, in real life, there were parts--dwindling like Savannah watering holes in summer--that were still this dilapidated and scary.  Turn the wrong corner downtown and you could wind up in a pimp-and-crack-whore war zone. But then you'd try to find it again next week to show your drunk friends, and it would be gone, replaced by a blockade of cops making everyone pour their beers out. Boo! Not exactly flame throwers, but it felt pretty close at the time. It was all over but for the planting of the Warner Bros. flagship store next to Planet Hollywood. Then the smoking ceased. I had to get sober. The 90s were over.

But man, if we'd have seen 1990: The Bronx Warriors in time, maybe we'd have known how to fight back, perhaps futilely but oh so stylishly. Its fusion of Warriors / Escape from NY iconography, kinetic streamlined forward momentum, anti-corporate nihilism and droll humor seems to smell Giuliani coming like some cheap knock-off cologne in the wind. The permissive Age of Dinkins was over. 

Castellari filmed in the actual Bronx, and used a lot of real bikers (supposedly Hell's Angels) as extras, giving the shots of Trash and Ann zipping around in front of a vast parade of bikers under an overpass extra oomph (top). Of the scattered Warriors-style gangs, the best is a bunch of Bob Fosse style fey dancers in steel bowler hats and metal rod canes. Their leader (Carla Brait-above) let's Trash pass because she's kind of turned on by his tight jeans. And I'm a fan of the gruff bond that forms between Trash and the Ogre. At the end, the Ogre and his mob throw Ann a birthday party with a big NYC skyline cake! 

Trash my walk like a Harryhausen cyclops with a stick up his ass, but that's not a debit in anyone's book. Certainly not mine. It is, in fact, quite hilarious (no doubt Castellari kept yelling at Gregory to keep his shoulders back and spine straight when he walked - the result is almot a passive-aggressive parody of straight spine walking). Surely cast for his passing resemblance to both Warriors' Michael Beck, John Travolta and maybe the wandering wolf-boy from the 1977-78 TV series Lucan, Marc Gregory's lithe youthful beauty contrasts marvelously with growly Bronx-accented voice he's been dubbed in (Italian film fans will recognize the dubbing guy right off - he does all the 'gruff' Bud Spencer parts). Great combination!

Doing his own dubbing and dazzling us with wild smiles and raw flashy charisma, Williamson seems to be savoring his own sexiness as much as we are. The man moves and acts like a king. No posture coaching needed. Sometimes his easy going attitude suggests maybe he thinks he's a little too good for the film he's in, but he makes that work by being larger than life to match it. He proves he's too good for it, proves it to himself and that's enough for him to relax and become delightful, like a black Cary Grant. He also has a cool right hand woman, "the Witch" (Betty Dessy), who rocks Krueger/Wolverine claws and snaps a whip. Together with Trash and Ann, Ogre and the Witch bop their way through the sewers to round up the other gangs in revolt, leading to tons of wild stunts of people on fire, people falling from holes in second story windows or down into sewers. The flame throwers explode everything including themselves. Castellari's camera frolics in the ruins with lots of great comic book panel-style compositions, strikingly shots and swooping crane movements going up and down between exposed floors from the outside of a blasted out building or up through giant holes in the concrete floor. You can tell he too is having a good time. It's all way better than one would think it needs to be, at times it's almost Hawksian!

And of course, as in any classic Italian joint, the score is everything. Composer Walter Rizzati knows what we need: rockin' synths, drums and a thudding electric bass, with appropriate moody synth washes. Man what a crime that those kind of old school electric bass lines are so gone from movies. Give me a badass electric bass over an orchestra any day. Morricone whipped together his first truly great score with just a simple two-note bass line. Sure maybe his genius was born from necessity, but born it wa.

Trash and the Ogre team up to fight Vic Morrow!
Mark Gregory as Trash - center, in the distance, - walking to the left, straight as a street pole or half a gazelle
(1983) Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Mark Gregory returns as the stiff-postured Swann/Vinnie-esque gang leader Trash for this napalm-drenched sequel. Even more flagrantly cynical and anti-capitalist than its predecessor, it picks up where 1990: The Bronx Warriors left off (see them back-to-back on a lazy Saturday double feature for maximum yield). It's a few year later and the 'Manhattan Corporation' is out of Ann's hands, evil has triumphed, and now they've been given the green light by the mayor to raze the Bronx and evict (i.e. incinerate) its denizens. Cops in flame-thrower gear slowly 'cleanse' the area, going block-to-block, burning out the resistance and any hold-outs, including Trash's oblivious Bronx-dwelling parents. Well, as you can guess, Trash ain't leaving and he ain't hiding and now you better believe he's going to get even. But--while his long black hair still flutters as a banner of freedom--most everyone from the last film are dead. The few survivors of the last film's climactic battle are now hiding out underground under the rule of earring-wearing Diablone (Antonio Sabato). He's cool enough, but he's no Fred Williamson. Luckily, scene-stealing Carla Brait--the Iron Man leader from the previous film--is also a survivor, and as refreshingly coy as ever, with her one line of dialogue. 

Meanwhile, above ground, an intrepid journalist named Moon Grey (Valeria D'abici) gets ejected from a Manhattan Corp. press conference for speaking truth to power! She sneaks into the Bronx to tell Trash that if he wants to really get anyone to listen to the truth, he'll need to kidnap the president of Manhattan Corp! Enter master thief Strike (Giancarlo Prete) and his young son Alessandro, whose innocent glee planting bombs evokes Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria (1965). As they work their kidnapping plan, a ruthless efficiency expert (Henry Silva) is sent into the Bronx to kill Trash. Like Morrow in the last film, Silva achieves that rare balance between menace and fun, giving the sense that--as in the previous film--hunter and prey don't mind changing roles as long as they get to kill each other. Naturally Silver 'rescues' the president with a bullet- and then shakes hands with the slimy successor (Paolo Malco, sans House by the Cemetery facial hair).

Whatever one thinks of Italian trash cinema, there's no denying Castellari gets interesting performances from his actors. Also, he's so antiauthority he makes John Carpenter seem like a Reaganite. I haven't read any interviews about what it was like on set, but the vibe on the screen is wryly jacked-up without ever tumbling into camp. The dubbing is flawless, the vibe of the music is propulsive. The climax is an all-out bloodbath of massive explosions (cars erupt into fireballs from a single pistol shot) and lots of guys in hazmat suits with flamethrowers die in cool falls and window crashes. Great stuff! There's also exploding hostages, lots of other explosions. Fireballs. Explosions. And more shit getting blown up. Some more explosions after that, lots of gunfire, and blasting. And explosions. And people setting each other on fire with flamethrowers. And so on. Castellari as usual gets great mileage out of the ancient tunnels and ruins of, presumably, Rome. (Exteriors are all filmed in Manhattan and the Bronx though, as usual - this being back when NYC was an urban jungle, so it works). So in short, Trash's hair is even fuller, Francesco De Masi's synth score is more than serviceable, and The death count hits triple digits if you're counting. No Fred, but otherwise, hey....

(aka 'The New Barbarians')
(1983 Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
*** / Amazon Image - B+

The Old Testament gets rewritten in high Road Warrior style in this (unrelated) third film in Castellari's trilogy. Now we're outside the city in a desert wilderness of souped up goofball vehicles. Cars have bubble roofs for no reason, clear body armor lets us see the pale skin of the hero, the evil gang are gay nihilists, and some peaceful villagers are building a flimsy rocket to the moon. Straggling religious pilgrims travel the wasteland in search of the holy land, recruiting Nadir (Fred Williamson-- wearing outrageous black leather and gold trim armor) and 'Scorpion' (Giancarlo Prete) as guides/guardians. Both would rather just roam around trying to mind their own business but this world must be awfully small as they keep crossing paths and bailing each other out of jams. If you've seen a lot of Italian westerns you know these kind of strange male frenemyships occur frequently, perhaps because of Clint and Lee in A Few Dollars More. Or maybe it's just a thing Italian guys do for/to each other...

Aside from the silly tubes and futuristic gizmos welded onto the wacky vehicles. the craziest things are the main villains: a gang of nihilistic zealots called the Templars. Dressed in white Star Wars storm trooper armor (not a good fashion choice in a mangy desert) with big shoulder pads (giving a subliminal impression of folded angel wings), purple mohawks and/or samurai pony tails and eye liner, their mission: wanton torture and killing. Their leader, "One" (a very hammy and wondrous George Eastman) blames the apocalypse on "books". There's something to be said for the purity of their mission (they also seem to be gay, as we're spared the usual sexual assaults.) Apparently, Scorpion used to be a Templar but he left after winning a duel with "One" but sparing his life (is this a kind of sequel to Endgame?). "One" needs to be cajoled into going after him to 'reclaim his manhood' and if the guy in the ponytail doing the cajoling seems familiar, it's because he wasthe president of the Manhattan Corp. in the previous entry on this list. How the mighty have fallen. (Ennio Girolami, i.e. the Italian B-list Burt Lancaster). Small world indeed!

Most Road Warrior knock-offs are shit, but Castellari has no interest in wasting our time with a lot of static talk, sadistic bullying and/or driving scenes; he just wants to keep the fireballs coming, the heads lobbing, and the screen buzzing with tricked-out futuristic vehicles. In fact, all the vehicles here look like normal, dinged-up, dirty cars with a few (suspiciously clean) sci-fi additions affixed, evoking Death Race 2000 as much as they do The Road Warrior, helping us wonder just how much of this Castellari intended as sociological deadpan satire. 

And as with Fred Williamson's other work for Castellari (see above), he seems to enjoy himself immensely here, especially when he hooks up with a smoky blue-eyed creature in a tie-dyed dress named Vinya (Iris Peynado - above). Fred's eyes light up when he first catches sight of her, and when they begin to hook up, Fred's eyes carry such a complicated range of emotions--from caution to tenderness to tough blaxploitation studliness to shyness and back again--that he once again transcends his weird dialogue (he seems to have been written as a kind of Muslim warrior/friend in the Parsifal myth) to become the gravitic core of the lunacy around him. If you've lived the joy of an out-of-the-blue hookup with a knock-out girl in her bedroom while in a strange town after being forever on the road (say, as a musician), you'll feel it all come rushing back, even if it's cloaked in enough weird 'code' to fool the kids and make Joe Breen's head explode.

The rest of the time we can't tell if Fred's having a blast, just clowning around because he doesn't give a shit, or is just slowly going insane. It's surely all three, and that's why it's always Hammer time at chez Kuersten.

Wait, there's another girl? Two? The Sean Young/Jennifer Beals-esque Anna Kanakis (she'd play the whip-snapping villainess in the same year's 2019: After the Fall of New York). She plays a big-haired lady in red goggles, no pants, and a capable attitude. The blue-eyed towhead kid from Lucio Fulci's House by the Cemetery (Giovanni Frezza, much better dubbing voice this time) is the mechanic who outfits our two apocalyptic heroes in all sorts of explosive ordinance and automobile souping-up, including a big phallic drill bit, for the climactic bout. He also comes along with his exploding smoke bomb-slinging sling-shot, noting "there's only one thing that matters, winning!" Hot damn! I don't like kids in movies unless they're badasses and I like him so what's that tell you? Here he's clearly modeled on the pyro son in the same year's Escape from the Bronx, both of whom are surely inspired by the Feral Kid in the Road Warrior, who must have given the Italians some ideas as to how wild a child can be.

(Aka Atlantis Interceptors)
(1983) Dir. Ruggero Deodato
**** (Amazon Image - B-)

I reviewed this in an earlier Prime round-up, but it's become one of my favorite go-tos when afflicted with that Goblin-scored, aurora grotesk-credit-fonted 70s-80s Italian horror/action/sci-fi hybrid itch, which is very specific and very--if you can find the right salve--rewarding. Raiders is one of the best such salves, right up there with Nightmare City and Contamination as far as recently-discovered Italian psychotronica I can return to again and again when the never-ending film marathon of my life runs dry of viable programming options. I've already seen Raiders at least four times since discovering it in 2017. There are so many reasons it rocks: I love that the central relationship is between two men: Italian cinema mainstay Christopher Connelly and Tony King as a pair of mercs who own a boat together and do all sorts of dangerous work outside the jurisdiction of the US military (?) ala The Expendables. They have great banter/rapport and the film is nonstop cool, with Hawksian attention paid to cigarettes, alcohol, and manly camaraderie (they also have a helicopter pilot buddy played by Ivan Rassimov). Giola Scol is the Hawksian girl, also a professional, whose skill at deciphering ancient text on a plaque found down on the ocean floor by a sunken Russian submarine triggers the rising of a domed Atlantis. Then there's that strange reaction in a certain percentage of the population, turning them all into marauding savages on a nearby island (maybe the world, who knows?) driving around in their pimped out bikes and ride slaughtering everyone who's not infected with their strange madness. Decked out like a glam Humongous (Bruce Baron) in a translucent skull bubble helmet (above), their leader calls his gang 'The Interceptors' and announces the return of the Atlanteans and that all others "but one" must die. Time to get the molotov cocktails lined up, and--luckily--find a warehouse full of guns and ammo.

I wonder if John Carpenter ever saw this film as it bears striking resemblance to his last great film: 2001's Ghosts of Mars. In both films a violent genocidal ancient race is accidentally awakened from its timeless sleep and able to possess normal humans and convince them to dress up like metal mutants, wiping out all non-infected human life in preparation for the original inhabitant's return (2). It's the same movie!!

Naturally with the word Raiders in the alternate title one expects a certain amount of tomb robbing (a lot of films in the 1982-3 era had to have ancient treasures laying on altars deep within booby-trap filled tombs and pyramids), but that's towards the end, during the big super-weird climax. Mostly there's a lot of molotov cocktails being thrown and great real time stunts, like people jumping out of a helicopter onto a speeding bus, or vice versa. The whole thing leaps around giddily from one scrape to the next. We can always figure out what's going on but never what's going to happen next, making it 90 minutes of action packed awesomeness to file next to Ghost of Mars, The Expendables 2, and Nightmare City in your goofy inner 16 year-olds dream cue.

(1983) Dir. Giuliano Carnimeo
** - (Amazon Image - B-)

I shy off films where a kid is in the lead (too sentimental) but this kid has literal tricks up his sleeve and he drinks a beer! Once again we're in the wasteland, but instead of petrol being the number one commodity it's water. There hasn't been any rainfall in years! The result is terrible 80s-style curly hair (with headband) on hunky antihero "Alien" (Robert Ianucci) who drives around in a tricked-up (stolen) car, being pursued by its rightful owner, a bald maniac. The kid goes along on a mission to get water for his thirsty colony of ragtag survivors, but the driver of the truck is slaughtered and the kid is left in the middle of nowhere as the only survivor, so he recruits Alien to help him. Alicia Munroe is a sexier, nicer road wanderer, and her hair has a nice post-Farrah blonde Meg Ryan kind of feathering (above) that puts her far ahead of most action babes of the year 1983. There may not be water, but damn there must be dry shampoo.

Actually, the coolest character doesn't have hair at all. Fernando Bilbao as the main bad guy (ala Wes in ROAD WARRIOR- below) eagerly pursuing Alien --who stole his car (it's got a TV camera so you don't have to look through the windshield, an accessory even more useless than Scorpion's bubble roof in WARRIORS OF WASTELAND) We're supposed to root for Alien even though it's rightfully Bilbao's car. Talk about shallow. BOOOM!

 Those Italians... You can call this a derivative piece of shit but you miss the point: it moves zippily and never wastes time with dull conversations. Like the best Italian imitations, it reeks of the joy of on-the-fly creativity and momentum. Just look at that crazy car design up there! Those alterations are totally superfluous, just bits of nutty madness zipping by so fast you barely clock them before Boom! Up in flames.  Surely I can forgive the presence of tacky curly hair in the lead and the presence of a child and the scenes of thirsty settlers passively watching their plants die of dehydration! When this many cars explode one must be charitable. 

Some SPOLER debits: why does Alien think he can sell out the settlers to "make a fortune" with the purloined water. What kind of fortune even exists in the wasteland? What, are you going to fill a bucket and drive to the city? Money is only as good as long as the country that issues it has a viable economy, "Alien." But you can't think twice about those kind of plot inconsistencies unless you're really obsessive and possibly older than the target demographic. Better maybe to ponder the question of whether Alien and the girl show any kind of honor by bringing the water to the passive settlers. Considering Alien and company got it by killing its previous owners, all moral compasses seem cracked and spinning. The answer? Since the original reservoir-minders are ugly and wear strange suits, they must die, just as Bilbao must for being bald and uncouth. (nowhere is there the idea the settlers should move where the water is. Instead the aquifer must be blown up and the water currently stored there relocated to them, who have done nothing to earn it. Such is morality: the cleanest haired rovers and meekest of benefactors are always in the right when they steal from grungier, uglier people.

Filipino Bonus: WHEELS OF FIRE
(1985) Dir Crio Santiago
** / Amazon Image - B

OK, so this one ain't Italian. Fuggedabout it. Shot in the Philippines for New World/Concorde with a pretty impressive large cast (thee local army being employed as extras), and many many vehicles, all of which are so dirt-caked you feel the desert grit under your fingernails and on your tongue while watching.  The Mad Max (Gary Watkins) this time is named Trace, as in 'they traced Mel Gibson's outline' --same leather pants and utility belt dragging him to a cocked hip and a disposition that says "no chicks or smiles or fun for me thanks, just give me the wild open road and the suspension of disbelief that its possible to drive for even half a day in a world with no gas stations."

Crio Santiago directed with an international cast and set it in an Outback-style wasteland (really a quarry that's the Filipino equivalent of Bronson Canyon). One should point out there are key differences between Trace and Mad Max. The most obvious being Trace has a super cool flamethrower. He has one for his car, too. Lots of guys wind up on fire as a result (3). There are lots of guys on fire, actually, in all the movies on this list. And they did name it Wheels of Fire - well, honey that's truth in advertising. As Cool-Ass Cinema notes "WHEELS are constantly spinning; and rarely does the FIRE diminish."

Alas, Trace can't wander as freely as the original Max because he has a sexually precocious kid sister, Arlie (Playboy playmate Linda Weismeir, above). Wild, ill-bred and liable to run off with the first pit fighter who flashes his beady eyes her way, she won't listen to Trace's advice to keep a low profile. Meanwhile, a band of skuzzy outlaws led by Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana - one of the cast's few native Filipino leads) runs around killing, siphoning, and abducting women for much lurid abuse. Naturally, the sister winds up in their hands and that's why the film gets a low rating from me. Despire her acting tough, spitting and clawing. seeing Arlie spread eagled and topless bouncing around on the dirty hood of Scourge's car, etc, is not fun, or cool. We admire her resilience and toughness, and that her breasts are natural, but then the nights pass and Santiago rubs our noses in the whole gang bang / punked-out whore thing, as Arlie is thrown to the crew after Scourge is 'finished with her' and winds up housed in a dirty tent and all the dirty ass dudes take their turns, snickering etc. We're spared the seeing of it all (we just hear about it; Santiago wants us to know for sure what's going on) but her continued subjugation sits uneasily over the rest of the film. Though she does get a mildly satisfying revenge, it still leaves a skuzzy residue, like the dirt-caked oil that flecks the tanned skin of the cast, giving an extra grubby, oily sheen to everyone's make-up.

Meanwhile, Trace runs across a girl road warrior named Stinger (Laura Banks, above), who demonstrates that - 1) the Pat Benatar look must have still been big in 1985 and 2) now matter how dire things get, a girl can still find cheap 80s eye shadow. Luckily, the rather weather-beaten Stinger has other assets, like a hawk who can warn her of danger -like when she's abducted by underground mutants in the dead of night). Stinger and Trace rescue other Scourge survivors too, like a cute civilian with psychic powers named Spike (Linda Grovenor) whose make-up is way less oily; and a spunky little person in a Civl War uniform.

Many stunts, crashes, explosions, big sets (some old guns placements left behind by the Japanese, maybe?) and a vast underground cave system for mutant burning follow. The whole thing becomes a war movie at the end, with the late plot addition of a big outfit of 'good guy' civilization proponents that Trace used to be a member of (now he tells us?). There are climactic raids, a group of civilians building a rocket out of sheet metal and gumption (just like in Warriors of the Wasteland!), and a final battle with Arlie as a kind of hot mess Gunga Din.  The final shootouts as all the mean jerks from Scourge's outfit die painful deaths are very nicely gratifying.

Other strong points: Christopher Young's sweeping score, which taps into the Brian May-style pumping Road Warrior original, adding orchestral grandeur like what might happen if the Jaws theme was widened and Wagner climbed down in between the notes like a spelunker on too many Pervatin. As with most Santiago films, it may be shitty but it's never dull. The Amazon Print is not quite at the level of Warriors of the Wastelend, but probably looking as good as it ever did on the drive-in screen.

Cool-Ass Cinema also points out that Wheels was one of the films caught in the tussle when Corman sold New World and the new owners betrayed him by ignoring his drive-in fare in favor of their own bigger releases. So Santiago's film wound up being one of the first releases of Corman's own new distribution company Concorde, instead. Alas, just as he gave up directing when he left AIP to form New World, Corman gave up producing, for the most part, when he left New World to form Concorde. It being the dawn of the drive-in's demise in favor of the endless made-for-VHS sloggery-doggery, sexual imbecility began to reign. Until that is, the arrival of DEATH RACE 2050. Hurrah for that badass movie!

And that's about it for part 4 of Acidemic's Drive-in on Prime series. Next time will be the concluding entry, the post-CONAN sword and sorcery kick of the 1981-88 era. That's not to say this amazing and endless series will stop, because someone has to keep track of the wild, never-ending flow of great shit floating amidst the ocean of dross that is Prime. Now that these films are safely preserved, we must preserve the sanity of their future viewers by guiding the unfamiliar away from the interest-killing dreck surrounding these watchable gems. (PS - if you know of any other great weird underseen movies from the drive-in era on Prime, let me know!)

And don't forget these other Drive-in on Prime Roundups:




1. some sharp-eyed fellow critics have pointed out it's war footage borrowed from another Santiago film, Equalizer 3000)
2. Not accusing JC of plagiarism, if anything it would be a homage, as much as it is to Howard Hawks. 
3. Stuntmen must love to fall off ledges while on fire. Think about it: ultimately guys on fire is not the kind of thing anyone cares about, yet time and again they burn and scream and burn, maybe because they know how to do it without getting hurt, so it's like skydiving or crowdsurfing for them. For us, it's like the cole slaw garnish. We're okay with it being there, but it's hardly we we came.

Monday, February 11, 2019

New World Rebel Girls on Prime: 7 Must-Sees from the 70s

On my recent New World kick (thanks to so much of it being on Prime), I went too far, and saw the savage self-parodying weirdness of Dante's and Arkush's Hollywood Boulevard (not on Prime but I had an old copy) which, though funny, is a harbinger of the grungier wave to come, and in its crassness implies New World films are just rapey packages of breasts, vintage car stunt footage borrowed from Big Bad Mama, and gunfire, all farmed artlessly out to drive-ins for bottom of the billings. Well, I don't think that's necessarily fair, boys! Maybe when it all got moved into 80s video tape players instead of drive-ins, and snarky humor and silicone breasts that-- even as a horny 13 year-old--made us wish for more clothes. Suddenly ashamed that somehow our own hormones had indirectly wreaked such sad gaudy damage, we suddenly found a lot to love about the decade before all that started, the smokin' 70s. 

That was New World's golden era, with natural breasts, wry wit, deadpan nonchalance, crazy stunts, social urgency, cool, compassion and something I call 'libsploitation'. New World capo Roger Corman's habit of hiring young, unproven talent fresh from film school paid off all over the place beyond just Scorsese and Coppola, with kids who knew these cheap fast and out-of-control films could hit the marks and still resonate with goofy full-steam ahead cut-the-crap energy.

Here are seven films I recommend-- all but two of them looking great in remastered HD prints streaming free on Prime. They may not be Gone with the Wind, but they're way shorter and are more integrated. They come to you with good pedigrees (John Sayles, Lewis Teague, Angie Dickinson, George Armitage, Jack Hill), are over in under 90 minutes and--most importantly-- they don't take themselves too seriously nor too lightly. Funny, sure, but not in a hokey, campy self-aware (i.e. Troma) way, these films are (mostly) from the pre-Jaws / Star Wars era, the time when the drive-in was aimed at adults. They might be driving around in shag carpeted vans, but they were still (relatively) mature.

From what I could tell as a kid in them, to be an adult in the 70s was to understand the superiority of actual car crashes, seeing movies on the big screen, not being so repressed (no one went to the shrink unless they were dying). actual, natural curves. They understood the need to hear the crunch of steel, they knew where where the nipple naturally occurs on a human breast, and that pubic hair wasn't gross, but sending pictures of your penis around was. In the 70s a man could be laid enough to not wind up a skeevy troll. In the 70s a woman could be the aggressor in sex without it indicating repressed childhood trauma. Sex wasn't 'problematic.'


Yes, maybe it turned out to be problematic, but no one knew it at the time. There's more than just bliss in ignorance, sometimes, there's virility.

And now you don't even have to hide in the trunk to escape paying your bloody and just-dessert dues. The screen has widened once more. All the shit shot on video for square screens can hit the curb! The 70s even junk movies were shot on 35mm and widescreen. That quality is now restored, HD New World 70s seven... begin now!

(1971) Dir. Jack Hill
*** / Amazon Image - A+

One of the first films made by Corman's new label, New World, and a home run right out of the gate courtesy the great Jack Hill. Filmed it in the Filipino jungles with a brigade of hot American starlets, and Sid Haig as a fruit vendor/smuggler, it's the quintessential Women in Prison movie. Pam Grier in her feature debut sings the title song ("99 Years"), her signature swirl of raw toughness and empathic vulnerability is already in full effect; Brook Mills is her junky squeeze; Pat Woodell is a political prisoner, teaching her cellmates how to shoot machine guns; Roberta Collins is the tough blonde who's only looking out for herself, and advises the newbie (Judy Brown) to do the same. It's Collins who gets the movie's best line ("you'll either get it up or I'll cut it off!") as she's so sexually frustrated she even tries to rape Sid Haig's nervous assistant Fred (Jerry Franks).

Naturally warden Dietrich (Christiane Schmitmer) and her sadistic head guard Kathryn Loder won't tolerate such flagrant breaking of house rules. So while the mysterious figure in a black hood watches from behind some black netting, Loder lets her hair down and goes to work. The new (male) doctor protests all the bruises on the patients but Dietrich dismisses the inmate's complaints as a lot of gossip and imagination. Who's the doctor going to report these abuses to in a country so corrupt? There's no choice but to revolt!

Even if you despise WIP genre, Big Doll House earns its freedom from condemnation. It's filmed largely on cool sets (or at any rate indoors) with great lighting and camerawork and far fewer tedious slogs in showers, mud and torture rooms than the films that came after.  Calling it a WIP film is like calling Corman's Wild Angels (1966) a biker film. There was no such thing as a 'biker film' before Wild Angels. Everything that came after Corman's huge surprise hit was an imitation, i.e. part of the biker movie cycle, including--if you'll forgive me for saying so--Easy Rider.  They poured them into the drive-ins so fast we're still trying to figure out which one is which even today.

It's the same with Doll House, it's not following any markers. The girls are looking at classic Warner Bros. movies like Each Dawn I Die and 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing for their cues, and shrugging off their welts like Cagney or Bogart, see? These chicks are tough!

Highlight include the Collins 'seduction' of Fred; with great pinkish lighting illuminating her heaving pink jailhouse frock, she makes the best use of her full-throated, nearly Meyer-esque lines and sends the whole thing up to another level. I also like Mills' crazy dance around the cell after Grier gets her high (and her anguished withdrawal when Grier runs out of supply) and Woodall's tough performance under torture and later with machine guns in both arms - she underplays so tough you get chills. . Hill delivers a great long tracking shot following the girls as they leave the yard and go into the cane rushes so Grier and Collins can have their big mud fight, all walking slow and Wild Bunch-evoking badass nonchalant. And when in their shared cell the girls are all lovingly framed in wide medium shots - their brushed long hair and luxuriant limbs (it's the tropics so they're always in shorts) displayed with languid sultry (non-leering) cool. Loder is genuinely spooky as the torturer head of the guards, with just enough Nurse Ratchet surface warmth to chill the blood all the more when she takes off her cap and lets down her wild long hair (underlit with a green eerie horror movie glow).

On the down side: Sid Haig is way too jokey and over the top, overdoing a hammy southern accent and shouting his lines rather than following the deadpan approach of all his comely co-stars.

The new HD transfer on Prime makes the Philippines, finally, look livable. Color grading has been done with such loving care (take close notes of the rose hues in Collins' skin hues vs. the pink prison uniform above -poetry) that it seems like a cool, breezy paradise rather than the sweaty, waxy humid hell it always looked like on VHS.

(1973) Dir. Steve Carver
*** / Amazon Image - A-

 Angie Dickinson stars as a good-hearted, sexually voracious Depression-era backwater widow who brings her two nubile daughters on the road for a life crime, hooking up with various outlaw lovers and sexy hostages. The sisters are played by Switchblade SistersRobbie Lee and Candy Snatchers' Susan Sennett. Dick Miller is the increasingly frustrated FBI man in dogged pursuit (wild period car chases and crashes galore).  Machine gun-waving desperado Tom Skerritt hooks up with the girls, fall first for Angie, but winds up bedding both the sisters instead when gentlemanly sharpie William Shatner (with an unconvincing antebellum accent) joins up, takes over Angie's conjugal duties, and helps the gang move into high society, i.e crashing tony social events and robbing everyone at gunpoint.

A big rollicking hit, Corman followed this up with a slew of imitations, none of which measure up (with one exception, Lady in Red -below). Unlike Demme's dated Crazy Mama, this doesn't confuse 'rollicking' with goofy - there's no sped-up car chases with cartoon sound effects and ragtime music--something AIP for example relied on all too often. Here the characters may be having a blast but the movie never forgets they're playing for keeps --people die- in fact nearly everyone does by the end. The cars might be old Model-Ts, but that just means they flip over easier- they just don't explode as fast as the ones in the 70s. But it's still cool!

Good as that all sounds, what made this huge hit for New World was Angie Dickinson doing nude scenes --in an R-rated movie! Shhh! This was back when things like that were big news: Playboy used to offer celebrities a million dollars and if the said yes, the world took a deep collective breath of anticipation. Angie was neither a prude nor a fool; she did the film for a percentage, smart enough to get rich on her assets, and everyone made out like interstate bandits. This was when girls could be sexy into their forties and all their body parts were real and therefore all the sexier. In fact her sex scenes here but most other sex scenes to shame. We totally get why both Shat and Skerritt would be gaga over her. We sure are.

Most sex on TV and movies now is either rapey (HBO) or this kind of joyless 'smash cut rut' (my term for this habit of cutting from some innocuous greeting right to the middle of some mutually demeaning rutting). But what made sex under Corman's watch so fun is its naturalism: there's goofy laughter and awkward jumping around. Lee and Sennett jump around on the bed and leap on top of Skerritt like he's a big bean bag chair; they're innocents following their bliss without phony bourgeois limitations. I think a lot of patriarchal studio heads today would be threatened by that kind of uninhibited female enjoyment. There's no violence or tired soft focus close-up shots of random body parts. We always know who's in the bed, and who's sulking outside it. Not only are the tasteful they're important to the narrative. Sex is how Mama keeps both men under her spell, and these things have consequences, as when Robbie Lee gets pregnant the first time out losing her virginity.

I'd never really heard of Steve Carver before watching this recently for this post, and then I noticed he also did the The Arena (below) and Lone Wolf McQuade! In other words, he's the type of journeyman that somehow never stuck out for notice the way, say, Arthur Marks and John Flynn have recently stuck out, thanks to post-Tarantino crime revivalism. Shall his time too, not come? Ask anyone and they'll agree: Big Bad Mama is one of the quintessential New World pictures-- it has all its good parts and none of its bad, and the same goes for the lovely Amazon Streaming Image quality (the colors seem a little faded but it's possible it was intended that way to lend an old timey sepia tinge).
On the downside, Shatner's southern gentleman accent is awful. And PS - Jim Wynorski's sequel BIG BAD MAMA 2 is also on Prime, albeit in full frame VHS dupe style, which is clearly all it deserves. Angie is in that one too, and--ever the trouper--she still gives it a good god-damn go, even though the care and love that went into the original is replaced by a kind of bachelor party costume theme tawdriness (the boys have that terrible mousse-sculpted hair of 80s porn stars). AVOID AVOID

(1973) - Dir Jack Hill
**** / Amazon Image - A+

Grier rocketed to deserved exploitation stardom as the queen of blaxploitation films with this big cult hit-- capably stepping out from her ensemble work in the Philippine prisons of New World and into starring roles back in Los Angels at AIP, which had then gone full blaxploitation (I thought this was New World which is why it made this list, but I wouldn't dare disrespect her by taking it out). Here she stars as a hardworking nurse out to avenge her smack-addicted 11-year-old sister by waging a one-woman war on LA's drug/prostitution racket. First she poses as a strung-out junky willing to do "anything" to get a fix (then blows the dealer away with a shotgun); she threatens to carve up the face of the excellent Carol Locatell as a hungover call girl (pay close attention to her subtle shifts in demeanor once she takes a morning hit from her stash), and finally sets up upscale pimp King George (Robert Doqui) for a great fall. Then shit gets pretty hairy, but she works it out and... well. In between all this, keeps her job as a nurse at the night shift of a downtown hospital.

What makes Grier's performance here so indelible is the unique mixture of raw anger, sensitivity, unflappable cool, seductive brio, and dauntless courage on the one side, and the obvious emotional toll on the other as she screws and shoots her way up the pusher food chain. Her towering strength always comes with back-end weariness, though a cup of coffee or a Sunday drive with a good man can help. Her "why not?" when her cop friend Carter tells her she can't just run around killing people, is priceless. It's clear Tarantino was trying to capture that mellow openness, the weary but kittenish honesty, during Grier's early scenes with Robert Forster in Jackie Brown. 

I know I've written on this before (see Jills of Jack Hill) but that viewing was over Xmas in AZ, when I was in bad shape, hallucinating, junk sick, twitchy, and seeing triple (so it looked like Pam had seven heads) Now, thanks to Prime's excellent HD transfer (nicer than the waxy Blue-ray from Olive) and my own 'straight' headspace, it looks totally different; it breathes and glows and you can feel the slight chill in the salty Pacific coast air. Instead of looking like it's all going down a moldy set slowly collapsing on its sweaty inhabitants, the mise-en-scene now glows and breathes and evokes sets in earlier AIP freak-out films like Psych-Out and The Trip. In this new air it's clear this is the best of all the Hill-Grier collaborations, and maybe the best blaxploitation film, maybe the best Hill film too. The writing and acting are superb in their innocuous subtlety: consider scenes like the post-coital vacation plan-making by Coffy and politician boyfriend (Booker Bradshaw) up at his swanky pad by the fireplace. Their discussion is filmed with her leaning back on him as they both stare into the fire, both are naked, comfortable around each other, the colors of the apartment and the flames of the fire all perfectly complimenting their black skin; they both look into the fire as they talk, in low real person voices. It's such a simple little scene but it's startling how rare scenes like this are in movies: Hill Grier and Bradshaw have made a real moment that enchants in its simplicity. We all remember the catfight at King George's loft party, but there's so much more to savor, so many little bits, the great use Sid Haig makes of an ordinary thug/henchman role, his genuinely chilling sadistic laugh as he drags King George around a junkyard tied to the back of his own car, and his warm regret --he wants her to know it's nothing personal--while driving Coffy to her death.

But the main takeaway is the power a woman might yield when she uses her sex appeal rather than letting it use her. The men Coffy messes with may be bad but they are all constantly in danger of losing themselves to desire for her; her body gives her power over them. It's mind control. And yet, the kind of sex we see in Coffy is practically foreplay compared to the demeaning rutting on TV these days. Maybe in a way that's why Coffy is almost more adult. For Hill's film postulates that maybe casual sex can be mutually rewarding, even on an emotional level, even between mortal enemies.

On the downside Pam's Jamaican accent is awful, mon.

(1974) Dir. Steve Carver
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

Beautifully shot at Cinecittà Studios Studios in Rome, there's enough vivid tactile detail in this saga of female slaves forced to fight each other as gladiators that you can practically feel the roughness of the catacomb floor underneath your sandals. The fantastic cinematography is, believe it or not, by Joe D'Amato (under the alias Aristide Massaccesi) and it's produced, clearly with great care, by Mark Damon (the hero in Corman's Fall of the House of Usher). Though the mood is ultimately downbeat, one can't argue with the fury of Pam Grier and her cool chemistry with dynamic Margaret Markov as the two best fighters, and partners in an ultimate revolt. Markov and Grier were by now a proven fighting team, having been in The Hot Box and Black Mama White Mama before this. It must have seemed they were forever enduring abuse in Filipino prisons and gladiator pens before wreaking cathartic vengeance in their violent dashes to freedom. (This would be Markov's last, as she married Damon and went over to the business side). Though the whole thing is a bit rote in its round the 'debauched ancient Roman bend', there's a mincing gay character, a gluttonous arena owner, the contrasting innocence of the girls' pre-abduction rituals (Celtic for Markov, African tribal for Grier), demeaning slave auctions, light shaft-lit steam rooms, food fights, etc, we get what pleasures we may such as Grier getting to do her funky African war dance, twice! Familiar faces like Marie Louise and Rosalba Neri help us feel like we're not too far from home.

I don't want to go into detail of plot but will tell you that their climactic catacomb escape is tense, violent (the ladies really do know how to fight), and the final outcome always questionable. There are attack dogs, there are jumps, there are deaths. In New World WIP-style films, the rebels are never guaranteed any measure of success. They can easily both die or get sent back. Besides, where does one go when the whole civilized world is run by Rome? Ah well, maybe they'll make it. And in the meantime, while they may be slaves but at least the girls are eating well, have access to wine (Lucretia Love plays a slave who develops into quite a lush - now that's a successful escape), and no one goes to sleep sexually frustrated or forced to tame their wild lovely 70s hair (this ain't goddamned Handmaid's Tale.) The Roman audiences may be too close to modern TV watchers for the average TV watchers' comfort--but hey, deal with it.

The main reason I include it this in this list however is what it doesn't have: the terrible bangs and the stilted 'Roman' speech patterns that equate pontification and leather sandals with importance. What it does have: action! thrills! Pre-Christian morality! Grier and Markov together again and sticking it to the patriarchy! Brevity! And with Prime's HD upgrade, the blackness of those catacombs is so deep it's like the screen becomes 3D (at least on my groovy Sony Bravia, the best TV ever made!)

On the downside: is Markov dubbed by a different actress? 

(1974) Dir. Cirio H. Santiago
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Filipino actor/director/producer Cirio Santiago was a great find for Corman's New World: he could be both producer and director when needed and he knew the New World secret like only a handful of others: if you can't make it good, make it fast. That's certainly true with TNT Jackson - it zips by. If you can get past the first few 'missed-him-by-a-mile with your fake-ass kick and he fell anyway' fights (Santiago doesn't seem one for stunt doubles), this gets pretty slam-bang, and the quality of the image on Prime is terrific. If you've tried to watch this on past VHS versions and given up after five minutes (guilty, your honor), you'll swear it's not even the same movie!

Fresh off the plane, American girl TNT (Jamie Bell) cabs it over to Manilla's drug section to find her fiancee (or brother?) who sent her a strange letter. Within minutes of crossing into this bad area, Jackson gets into about 80 fights. Luckily her lack of karate skills don't get in the way of her wild kung fu hand gestures. We know she's enjoying herself with these crazy, fluid, Bruce Lee-ish hand movements because, frankly, she's not a good enough actor to hide it. Luckily she doesn't enjoy herself to the point she cracks an actual smile, instead rarely departing from her one-note button-nosed pouty frown, refusing all outside aid, refusing even be cordial to the big drug kingpin of the neighborhood, even though there's no immediate evidence he killed her brother, or fiancee (or whatever). There's also a mysterious white lady (sultry Pat Anderson) who also seems to have an agenda concerning all the recently hijacked heroin shipments; it almost becomes her film as much as Jackson's --they fight each other and fight with each other as the shit goes down, and both are awesome. Anderson is a real stealth asset (and can be seen in Santiago's Fly Me if you really want to raid New World's Filipino larder.)

The real scene stealer though is Stan Shaw (left) as the sartorially splendid kung fu heavy, who Jackson beds, bothers, bewilders, and then beats to a pulp. He's terrific, even if he's pretty dumb in refusing to believe Jackson could cause any trouble since she's such a fine sister in a place where there are almost no other black people. But why is she in Manila anyway, really? His thinking is cloudy, but who can blame him? Jackson uses his desire against him as smoothly as Coffy did the year before against old King George.

Little clues let you know Enter the Dragon had come out the year before, too, and was probably still in theaters. But Jackson has nothing to worry about in comparison, especially once she does her famous topless kung fu fight. Zipping around her bedroom, flipping off the light to run to and fro around her hotel room and the outer hallway--her assailants ever-dwindling in number and fighting stamina as she slowly gets dressed--this tiny little lady earns our loving respect for being both sexy and playful (with all the 'around and on beds' battling it reminds me of my brother and friends and I chasing each other around the upstairs beds as kids - our kung fu almost as fake looking).

As it does with Big Doll House, Amazon's recently upgraded streaming print makes the Philippines look far less clammy and claustrophobic than in its countless past editions. So if you've been waiting, now's the time.

And what about that badass super intense final fade out? One in a million.

(1979) Dir. Lewis Teague
*** / Amazon Image - C

This fast moving tale of a young farm girl led into a life of crime, prostitution, communism, love and finally, bloody machine gun vengeance has everything an alienated teenager trapped in suburbia could want in a movie, rolled up tight into a lean 90 minutes. Star Pamela Sue Martin is gorgeous beyond description in the lead. Produced by Julie Corman, directed by Lewis Teague and written by John Sayles (hence the Communist subtext), it’s like one of those high pedigreed rich brainy cool chicks that ruin your life then jet back to Dartmouth while you die in the gutter! And you regret nothing! So much time and attention (relatively speaking, this is Corman after all) is poured int into Sayle’s pinko screenplay and the crafty editing that it zips along at the speed of one of those post-Goodfellas stream-of-narration biopics, (only Lady, see, don’t need no narration). We watch farm waif Polly (Martin) grows up into a machine gun-toting badass believably! There's well modulated character development!. Scenes and situations flow like cheap but tasty wine down an alabaster neck with a black velvet choker, from Polly’s gullible virgin surrender to a fast-talking sleazeball, through taking it on the lam with gangsters, working in a sweat shop and standing by her communist agitator roommate, to being jailed and then farmed off to a house of ill repute where she shacks up with, amongst others, Robert Forster!

And that’s all before she becomes “The Lady in Red” who was with Dillinger the night they shot him down. And after that, the real fun begins. In addition to the cathartic vengeance and valuable socialist lessons, subtextually it’s a big middle finger to the petty morality of the post-1934 production code gangster movies, and yet throughout its mayhem and amoral glee, Lady tells an absorbing story, rich in period detail, with a large cast of characters, all deftly sketched, complexly (for this sort of film) motivated and interesting.In addition to Martin, there familiar faces are Christopher Loyd as a sadistic gangster, Louise Fletcher as the madame, (she gets in a searing monologue toward the end)…and Corman regulars like Dick Miller. Robert Conrad is Dillinger and the only guy in the cast who can’t seem to get the TV out of his blood, but that’s okay; he dies quick.

So, good lord, with so much talent and beauty and sexy camp flowing through this (great editing too), why isn’t it recognized more widely as a cult classic? Google or remember the words “Lady in Red” and what do you get? That smoov Chris De Burgh song and its shady affiliations with the Gene Wilder comedy, The Woman in Red (1984). Right there it gets confusing. Then, trying to correct the damage, it was re-released as Touch Me and Die and Guns, Sin and Bathtub Gin. Neither one gives the film a good patina – one seems like a morose rape-revenge thriller and the other a lame attempt at 'rollicking' prohibition comedy.  I would have renamed it Polly wants a Tommy Gun. But it’s probably too late, it’s already dead by Wilder-De Burgh association… except of course for us few, hard, proud, pipe-hittin’ revivalist hoods like me! 

Alas - the Amazon version seems uploaded from the old Corman DVD rather than the newer Shout version: it’s presented in full frame, blurry. Maybe it will inspire you to get the Shout DVD where it comes coupled to the eminently forgettable Jonathan Demme jukebox movie Crazy Mama. 

(1975) Dir William Witney
*** / Amazon Image - C-

Produced for New World by Roger Corman's cool brother Gene, directed by old Republic serial journeyman William Witney and written by the great George Armitage (Gas-s-s-s, Miami Blues), here's a real find for the lovers of the weird. If you mesh something like Beach Blanket Bingo with Duck Soup and Shelly Duvall's Mother Goose's Rockin Rhymes, and a Bugs Bunny cartoon if Elmer was a cop (played by Dick Miller, of course, but then made it all uniquely and totally black fantabulous (ala The Wiz, then the rage on Broadway), you'd get--exactly--this urban satire fairy tale set in what I think is supposed to Watts (actually Tennessee, according to imdb) or just of a surreal Monkees-meet-Parliament on Electric Company alterna-reality. Ether way, it's dynamite stuff. The loose plot has Syreena (Trina Parks), member of a superhero-like gang of decked-out 'trikers', trying to find her abortionist mom, Cinderella, who has disappeared, possibly the result of a dastardly white man plot (lots of upstanding young black men are missing too).

Pursued along the way by KKK members on dirt bikes and inept cops with a giant siren on their car (that makes UFO noises), Syreena encounters bizarre characters like the 'Pot-Sicle' man, who sells drug-infused ice cream (I really wanted the 50/50 LSD peyote bar, but couldn't get my money through the screen), and tries to recruit a super cool detective who's feeling left out since no one has abducted him yet. ("Maybe it's like rape," Syreena says with a gyrating movement, "you have to ask for it.") Armitage's script (probably heavily improvised with the cast, knowing his style) is full of wild lines that fly fast you can't even cognize their greatness. And though Roger wasn't involved you know this is from the Corman school of moviemaking: constant movement during dialogue scenes keeps the eye busy. This is a movie where no one ever sits still. If they do, a strolling band of sweet harmony singing brothers materializes out of the park and the whole thing hits another level.

Darktown's far-out vibe, hipster madcap pace and DIY school play-style props takes some adjusting to, but if you can lock onto its goofy kinetic pace, its mix of surreal WTF-ing around and jet black social satire becomes a truly sublime trip. A climactic dirt bike chase between Syreena and the Klan can rivet us, for example, but then we don't get irritated if Syreena stops her foe's evil plantation dungeon escape in order to groove with the soulful band the Dramatics, who serenade her from behind bars with their big number, "Whatcha See is Watcha Get." Musicians are supplied by Stax Records. Uncredited soulful serenaders sing film-specific soul groove greek chorus-style commentary, adding to the homespun but so-sweet madness. 

Commander Cross, aka Sky Hog
(any resemblance to a white devil purely...)
It's more than a single viewing can take in, and it would maybe not be worth it if not for the great comedic timing of Trina Parks. Whether disguising herself as a traffic cop, or a nun to get a inside the evil Colonel Cross's (Norman Bartold) southern-fried plantation mansion, she surfs the madness with a wry shrug and deadpan groove that sets a mighty fine tempo and mood. If she played it too straight it would be as much of a drag as if she did it too campy, instead she finds the exact right tenor and rides it all the way. The rest of the cast jive on her energy and each other and the whole thing seems like a wild, fun party that, by the strength of her performance, never devolves into an incoherent fracas.

Seeing this on Prime and recognizing genius in it, well your mileage may vary especially if you have a hard time with 'jive' slang as written by white people (or, like in a Russ Meyer script, made-up slang no one really says in real life, but damned if they shouldn't) layered improv dialogue and action not always decipherable in the mucky mix; luckily-- on Prime--you can access subtitles.

And coolest of all, as with Armitage's Gas-s-s-s, one is free to wonder if the non-sequiturs and tripped-out combo slang are what was in the script or just jumbled together on the spot by the 'game for improv' cast  (Corman and Armitage are both heavy proponents of improv and in-the-moment variation) Either way, no matter how much of it is accidentally offensive (as a straight white male I'm recused from making judgments thereto), accidentally brilliant, or just plain inept, you can't very well argue that it's unique, and oftentimes WTF-level hilarious, stirring, and divine. Maybe that's why it's so rare - god damn it needs remastering! The quote picked up by Prime for their description (both Michael Weldon and Ebert say it in their reference books) is that the costumes alone are "worth the price of admission alone." I say they're worth bugging Shout or Olive to do a Blu-ray version for, too. Someone rattle the chains and set this Cinderella free upon the world.

Remember when everything looked this bad (i.e. VHS)?
As you might guess, Tarantino is also a fan of Darktown Strutters. I'd never heard of it before last week (or if I did I got it confused with the song "Darktown Strutter's Ball," and then imagined boring biker movie / hustler convention-style documentaries so stayed away) but now I've already seen it twice and can't wait until I see it again. I only hope Shout or Olive release a remastered Blu-ray soon (I'm dubious about the Cohen disc) Meanwhile, who knows what weirdness might bubble up from Prime's fathomless basement next!!

Currently Suffering in No-DVD limbo!
Most of Darktown's crazier sisters and brothers--the ones that cross over any genre they want without losing their deadpan cool or getting too campy- aren't on even DVD. Is this because they're too weird for the powers that be to categorize? Something like the gonzo adventure of the 1984 Sandahl Bergman-starring She for example, is ostensibly based on the H Rider Haggard novel but throws in every trick in the book, including a hilarious guard who looks like a blonde Paul Thomas and runs through a head-spinning gamut of obscure old radio show impressions; then there's 1978's Get Crazy and Shelly Duvall's Mother Goose's Rockin' Rhymes (1990). None are available. So weird and so wondrous. What are they so scared of, Mary Joe? Rockin' Rhymes was a cable kids' movie. Surely it's safe for modern consumption? 

Luckily we can still find these gems on youtube, albeit in worse quality even than the Prime print of Strutters. (There is a DVD-R Strutters version though I'm afraid the quality is the same - anyone seen it?). 

(1982) Dir Avi Nesher

(1983) Dir. Allan Arkush

(1990) Dir. Shelly Duvall


See also on avail on Prime in good condition
(but not New World... or even AIP):


Other Recommended 70s New World Hits avail on DVD (but not Prime):

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