Wednesday, July 15, 2020

NIGHTMARE USA: 10 Wild, Weird Gems of Off-Brand 70s Horror Americana (via Stephen Thrower)

I've found a fine and massive tome for the summer's reading (and accompanying viewing) in British author Stephen Thrower's NIGHTMARE USA, a mammoth look at the locally-made independent horror cinema that flourished on drive-in and inner-city screens in the 70s and early-80s. Much of it forgotten, maligned, or long-buried in obscurity, even with so much of it out on DVD and, best of all, Prime! He's already curated two volumes of the American Horror Project via Arrow, each with three films, commentaries and documentaries. The second volume has two great surreal gems (The Child, Dream No Evil) and one interesting Vermont-filmed witchcraft tale that has lovely scenery but is slow, vaguely irritating, and empty (not unlike Vermont itself), Dark August. The first volume is OOP but two of the three titles in it are on Prime! So that's pretty cool. 

And so, I have collected, as is my wont, 11 cool films Thrower writes about. Several of them I never would have watched without Thrower's enthusiasm to inspire me. So I have included copious, random quotes from the fast-becoming-indispensable Nightmare USA.

Now, one place Thrower and I differ is in the taste for the hard stuff - the downbeat brutality of sexual assault and slasher films, the blunt force trauma of 'classics' like Last House on the Left and Maniac (neither of which I have yet seen, fearing the PTS). As I've often written, as a sensitive child of the 70s just seeing the TV spots and previews for a lot of these movies left me feeling deeply disturbed and unsafe for weeks.

But the 70s also was rife with fairy tale-style supernatural-based horror, the ones that look to dreams and surrealism, ala Suspiria, and The Beyond. To me, that is all different. Even things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I Drink Your Blood are different enough, as the violence is more across the board and less misogynist. A a kid I developed a deep fascination with secondhand descriptions from babysitters (who looked like Lynn Lowry in I drink your Blood or Suzanna Ling in Kiss of the Tarantula) and their cool dangerous boyfriends who could go to the drive-ins, and my own imagination of their dangerous, sexy lives, of which these movies were a part. Going to see an R-film the first time in the 70s was like a right of passage; after VCR and cable boom, the R-movie met nothing.. Gradually, the surge of gory horrible misogyny on display at video stores began to be quite warping and upsetting; it happened (to me, anyway) so slowly it took me awhile to notice, but eventually leaving me so soured on my own gender it took finally reading Carol Clover and Camille Paglia in the early 90s to lift me out of my guilty ashen miasma. 

Time has mellowed it all somewhat, and so forth, the violence is contextualized, and ---in the all forgiving lens of nostalgia - made safe and fun. Kinda. Maybe. 

Luckily, there are really two sides to Thrower's 70s horror lens. Oneiric shiver films include things like Lemora: A Child's Tale of the SupernaturalLets Scare Jessica to Death, and Messiah of Evil, The Child, and Phantasm. At least a good half or more of the films Thrower mentions in Nightmare USA are sexual misogyny-free (unless the girl gets to be the killer) and available on Prime. Here are 11 I found there that I can either heartily, or perhaps cautiously, recommend! 

(British Title: Death-Trap)
(1976) Dir. Tobe Hooper
*** / Amazon Image - A+

This used to be one ugly, loud full frame downer, but thanks to Thrower's appreciation I realized I had to see it again, via Prime's gorgeous print in HD anamorphic widescreen, wherein the reds and oranges of its color gel-emblazoned mise-en-scene glow like the magnificent Louisiana swampland back alley cousin of Suspiria and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Trying to recapture Chainsaw magic, Hooper tells the tale of 24 hours or so of a deranged hotel owner (played here by a terrific, muttering, shaggy-wigged Neville Brand) who tends to feed disgruntled guests (and girls, if he finds out they're postitutes) to the giant crocodile that lives under the front veranda (his big tourist attraction). From the very beginning, Hooper creates elegant tension and a kind of surreal fairy tale ambience as Brand's entire two-story  hotel is indoors on a set, with jungle swamps bathed in pink, red, and rose, the mist like some beguiling R-rated Disney haunted house ride. The opening finds a terribly-wigged first-time prostitute (Roberta Collins) fleeing the coarse come-ons of future-Freddy Robert Englund and winding up booted from her brothel, seeking a room at Brand's pink-light-bathed Starlite, then unwisely tipping him off that she's one of 'those' gals. Marilyn Burns (the heroine from Texas) arrives the next day with her super insane, twisted-up  husband (William Phantom of the Paradise Finley!) and their young daughter who unwisely lets her puppy get too close to the crocodile pen. The husband decides to shoot the crocodile and that's not smart. The child ends up spending the bulk of the movie hiding in the crawlspace under the hotel, trying to dodge Brand's scythe and the crocodile while hoping someone hears her screams above the cacophony of swamp noises; meanwhile her mom screams the night away, tied to a bed up on the second floor. And more people arrive, including Mel Ferrer and his daughter Crystin (Hustler Squad) Sinclaire looking for daughter/sister Collins, and Englund with another prostitute. 

Apparently Hooper was never too happy about the final result of all this mayhem, but Thrower is, and his fondness is contagious, especially now that it's all remastered, widescreen and with those gorgeous red and pink Suspiria gels. It's like some sick interactive ride, from the lower crawlspace with crocodile and Night of the Hunter-style bogeyman chases), to the hotel exterior with cars coming and going and the croc ever-hungry, to the second floor with sex and bondage (in different rooms, and the sex being consensual--Brand doesn't molest Burns - he ties her up mainly to buy time). Ingeniously, her yells for help fade imperceptibly into the din of cricket, animal cries, splashes and leaf rustling (as does her daughter's under the porch), so would-be rescuers (like sheriff Stu Whitman!) can't tell if they just imagined the sound of someone under the floorboards, wailing for help, or if the rocking noise in the other room is just a couple having wild sex or someone's desperate attempts to escape. The musical score, meanwhile, is all over the place in the best possible way (the book includes a great interview with composer Wayne Bell). Thrower notes:
"It's true that compared to its perfect sibling (Texas) it suffers from a limp and a stoop and a crooked gait, but in all its malformed glory it still commands respect for its unrelenting weirdness, its vicious hysteria, and Neville Brand's wonderful performance." (p. 441)

(1976) Dir. Robert Allen Schnitzer
*** / Amazon Image - A

It's a gorgeous print of a fine, weird film that's filled with stunningly weird moments, including every moment the foxy Ellen Barber is onscreen. Acting crazy but looking irresistible in a red dress and black cameo choker and long stunning black hair (above), we totally get why a weird looking clown like Jude (Richard Lynch) her buddy from the sanitarium, would be so smitten with her he'd let her obsession (to kidnap the child taken from her and given up for adoption when she was first committed to the sanitarium) become his, to the point of losing his own mind even further than he had previously. There's a lot to admire in this unique and marvelous film, but it's Barber's beauty and Lynch's insanity that stand out. If you're not a fan of Lynch's burn-ravaged face and eerily calming voice, what's wrong with you? Here he adds a great touch of moaning insanely when driven to violence (if you've ever lost consciousness in a rage-based white-out you can really relate. As Thrower notes:
"Twice during the film, Jude loses control and Lynch's performance makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. He summons a pressurized, resonant tone from deep in his chest, one that sounds virtually electronic (think Tim Buckley circa Starsailor): it will haunt you long after the film is over. The cry ascends like a nuclear warning, from inhuman oscillation to frenzied shriek. Normally he'd be the villain, pure and simple. Instead, even he is shown with love; indeed, love is what motivates him. He adores Andrea so much that he donates his ever waking moment to her obsession. He only snaps when Andrea settles for less. Clutching a mere doll, she sinks into her own delusion and Jude, having staked all on their joint venture, is left high and dry: a psychotic who's bet his heart and lost. Richard Lynch is the sort of actor that David Lynch ought to seek out, and after seeing The Premonition I found it hard to watch him in less demanding roles (for instance Delta Fox or Deathsport): in their mundanity they seem disrespectful." (p.324)
He also adds that "like Thom Eberhardt's Sole Survivor or Willard Hyuck's Messiah of Evil, it deserves a far greater genre profile. " That he goes to them, two lesser-known gems I personally love, as examples of undersung brilliance, lets me know I'd like this film, and I did, though not enough. It's marred by yet another squaresville husband (the adopted dad) who studies parapsychology with a smirk and almost lets his masculine logocentric pride keep him from trying all sorts of crazy shit in order to be reunited with his daughter, and there's no satisfaction of seeing him realize the truth. As a result, all the best stuff happens in the first half, when Lynch and Barber are closer to center stage, providing a dark mirror to the adopted parents in their little world bubble. Overall, a beautiful, unique film.

(1976) Dir. Matt Climber
**** / Amazon Image - A

I love this film and wrote about it, some would say 'at length,' here. Thrower included it in the first volume of his curated American Horror Project (along with the previous film on this list), and Prime's copy reflects no doubt the hand of a qualified, loving restorer. 
"(it) turns out to be one of the strangest and most perversely beautiful horror films of the seventies. (....) The movie changes the metabolism of its genre; the scares are oblique, the overall tone languid...  The Witch Who Came from the Sea is in another league; a genre masterpiece deserving of a much higher profile..." (p. 514-515)

Dir. Marc Lawrence 
*** / Amazon Image - B+
"It's a personal favourite of mine, one of an initial handful of titles that inspired me to embark on this book (Nightmare USA). Alright, so there's a lack of action, but the absence of a forward-driving narrative is an essential part of the fun: Pigs doesn't fly; it floats. There's a muted, psychedelic feel to the film ---you feel kind of stoned watching it, a sensation that's cued up by Charles Bernstein's wonderful 60s theme song (...) and his often startling score, which employs lots of Jew's harp (a neglected psychedelic instrument in my opinion)." (Thrower- p. 489)
Me too, bro, and it was definitely great being able to que this up on Prime immediately after reading about it. It goes down easy, but I'm not sure director Lawrence is right as the pig farmer / diner owner. With his brooding gangster brow and acne-scarred face and New York sass, he's livened up everything Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum to Diamonds are Forever, always playing basically the same doomed thug. Here we have to buy him as a reticent grave robbing pig farmer / diner owner / former circus persona, whose property lies at the tail end cul-de-sac of dusty desert nowhere. Watching this with the subtitles on, it takes forever for him to actually read his own visible lines so we have to guess if he forgot them or is just registering fear and evasiveness as he dodges sheriff Jesse Vint's patient probing into who he's been feeding to them pigs. We'd love to see some of his long-patented tough guy moxy, but instead he depends too much on the 'trying to hide something' shyness trope, where reticence is mistaken for method. Luckily, his (real life) daughter Toni Lawrence, shows up, with a mysterious past, and a need for a job and a place to stay. She is truly unhinged and they make a great pair, even if he makes a few mistakes in cleaning up her mess, like leaving a spare hand outside of the pen. Also, who keeps pigs right behind a diner? The smell alone would keep the diners from ordering.

Anyway, with its sombre mix of grit, ennui, and psychosis it must seem uniquely Nightmare USA grade-A prime, and that it's one of Thrower's favorites probably has to do with his being British, hence he's more easily enamored of the American southwest. Maybe England is too small, old, foggy and green to really have ass-end of nowhere, sun-bleached style cul-de-sacs like the town that holds Lawrence's pig ranch/diner. Maybe only Australia, with its vast empty outback, really understands that there's nothing romantic about it.

Me, there are a few things I don't like about Pigs, for instance the cover art (which looks like some dreary Scholastic paperback) and the title --it's not sexy. I think of obese cannibalistic slobs eating people with all the finesse of a high school cafeteria wiseass in a badly-lit 80s slasher movie. BUT I have a soft spot for girl schizophrenic killers and Toni Lawrence's glee in killing, her delirious, almost post-coital level of relaxation afterwards, her face and hands all bloody, is unforgettable. I like movies where female killers don't need to be violated before dicing up any stray idiot male.

(1977) Dir. George Barry
**2/3 / Amazon Image - B+

My appreciation of this super strange film stems 100% from soaking up Thrower's loving appreciation before hitting the 'play' button. Thrower even mentions the director George Barry learning about his long-lost film (never released anywhere) turning up on videotape via the Scarlet Street message forums (my old alma mater)! I've tried to get through Death Bed in the past, but found it incoherent, insufferably twee, and overly winky.  After reading Thrower's prose, I found the tools to love it for these things:
"Death Bed deals in transcendental mysteries (the impossible geometry of the bed, bigger on the inside than the outside; the occult means by which it is created and destroyed), but Barry summons his demons from a fantasy world disconnected from religious tradition, telling a story of demonic seduction that has nothing to do with the Church...

"Throughout the film, poetic images allow the slender narrative to take a back seat (...) We see blood blossom from the eye-socket of a skull in the bed's fluid interior; roses blooming from the same skull, now magically buried in the soil outside; a shattered mirror fragmenting into a kaleidoscopic collage; and the pages of a book turning into mirrors that capture the flames of a fire. Such imagery suggests the Romantic tradition, as befits the Artist behind the glass, like a fey whisper caught halfway between English Gothic and the Scandinavian Symbolists..." (375)
Full of great lines, strange characters, a totally unique (non)plot and place, there's almost no through line of narrative style, veering from Romantic-era farce to gloomy 70s hippie doom rock, and into comedic art history asides. It all centers around a small building in the middle of some vast, overgrown country estate, Inside is a giant bed, surrounded by black walls covered with strange surrealist drawings. And an eternally-lit fireplace! Who could resist taking a nap? Great lines ("Flowers? You brought flowers to the country?" and, my favorite, "What have you been reading that we couldn't find you?")  Weird voiceovers and a haunting elegant synth melody make it all seem so polite and unclassifiable. If I didn't like it the first time it's because I was expecting some conventional so-bad-it's-good style chomp-fest, with some Quint-like mattress deliveryman coming to the rescue of a besieged group of teens trapped in a haunted furniture store. Coming to Death Bed with any expectation, is to be flummoxed and--yes--flabbergasted.

Not exactly subtle, are you, Death Bed?
What you do get is the kind of proto-emo kid art project 16mm edginess you expect and hope for when serving as a member of the jury for a student film festival. As Thrower notes, it's a true original, not afraid to cut away mid-plot development to long dead people in coffins, or to move recklessly from one person's inner monologue to another's. Narrated in the form of a one-way dialogue between a Gothic art student trapped behind one of his 'paintings' and the demon bed ("it's been such a long time since your last meal") and/or the room's unlucky visitors ("you gaze upon me as a painting on the wall, I gaze on you a serving upon some monster's silver platter."), we learn the bed is hurt only through the narrator's almost empathic observations. ("your insides are bleeding, why?") We see blood enter the urine-sea that is the bed interior; the book of glossy mirror page reflecting the fire; some strange object that like a peyote bud sticks out of the severed mouth of a coppherhead; worse--people sleep in bed with their sandals still on. Yes, this bed has seen it all. And Barry isn't afraid to really stretch a long scene to and past the breaking point, such as the struggle of one of the near-digested victims, climbing out of the bed, legs bloodied and useless, dragging herself, inch-by-inch, to the door outside, for a gag that would make Tarkovsky choke with laughter, probably for the very first time.

The best scene finds a young hippie pulling his hands out of the bed and seeing they are now completely skeletal ("it's almost like a surgical operation," he notes, dryly.) As his phalanges and metacarpals fall off one by one, he comments "great." Even then, he and his sister don't move from the room of their own accord, but just wait there ("til your appetite returns?" wonders the artist). No one freaks out or asks what the hell is going on, no matter how weird things get, they're too cool for that. They just burn their skeleton hands in the fire and wait for the demon to sleep, so the artist can finally reach out from beyond his painting to tell them the secret: "Young lady, I will wake you halfway," he says, sounding like Herbert Marshall,  instructing her to "find the remnants of the fingers of your brother; take a strand of your friend's hair." When she cuts a magic circle around the bed, the floor bleeds!

With typically British modesty, Thrower doesn't mention his own band, Cyclobe, composed new music for the film's DVD release (Barry was unhappy with the original composer). "It's a movie where dreams and reality are interchangably bizarre," Thrower notes, "where humour, horror and surreal imagination are tucked so tightly together they've merged into a single, unique night-beast... There's nothing else like it, and if you love it there is nowhere else to turn: you have to go back to the bed." (384) Amen, I'm getting sleepy already. (The best time to see this? 4 AM.)

(1978) Dir. Don Coscarelli
***1/2 / (Amazon Image - A+)
(From my The Tick-Tock Inititation)

When hack directors rushed to imitate Halloween, ushering in the slasher boom, only one or two filmmakers looked carefully at the structure of shots Carpenter used, or recognized the power of the score, and that Goblin's Suspiria and Carpenter's Halloween scores were 60% of what made them so instantly iconic. Coscarelli was just such a one. He also recognized the power of using actual night, the deep darkness, with its pitch-black corners. But then he goes way, way deeper. He gets at the core of 'older brother horror' - where we see things from the eyes of a fatherless boy in the thrall of his cool older brother, who at one point gives the kid a shotgun, and at another, gives him a beer, and an another, throws the kid the keys to his gorgeous Plymouth Barracuda. Gotta love a kid who just straps a knife to his ankle then goes out to break into a funeral parlor in the dead of night, It's definitely one of those 'wild child' films that made kids in the 70s (like me!) so much cooler than the over-protected kids of decades to come. Hearing "We gotta snag that tall, dude and we got to kick the shit out of him," from a cool older brother is like paradise for any red-blooded 70s American boy, permission from authority, sort of, to commit serious mischief, with a cool fairy tale plot hinging on a totally original metaphysical / ancient alien theory, 
"Phantasm mixes genres with such smart but unselfconscious verve that it's only later you realize you've been watching a sci-fi horror film about grave robbers from another world. That's right, the same plot as Plan Nine from Outer Space. Could this be the film Edward D. Wood was seeing in his mind's eyes? Certainly nothing could be further from Wood's ineptitude than this assured and constantly inventive movie." (487)

I don't agree with the 'ineptitude' part - Wood's Plan Nine is a favorite of mine, on par, perhaps with this minor key gem. For different reasons though. Nine is the quintessential outsider horror/sci-fi accidental Brecht masterpieces, while Phantasm may be sane, but it's got so many cool brotherly moments it's like some sacred 70s drive-in biblical text. 

(1971) Dir. Bruce Kessler
*** / Amazon Image - B
"Simon, King of the witches is an intelligent, warm and witty addition to the early 70s witchcraft subgenre, starring the ever-wonderful Andrew Prine... (the theme is not satanism and there's no dilly-dallying with the trappings of inverted Christianity)" (p. 503) 
I remember this one as having a fairly big push, as I saw TV spots as well as coming attractions; remember wondering why on earth we'd care about a male witch who seemed more like leader of some sewer-bred tribe of step dancing Seven Brothers gypsies (2). Turns out, it's pretty cool thanks to a typically laconic turn by the great Andrew Pine and a serious, non-goofy respect for actual magic ritual. This is the film to play for the white magician in your life, the Wiccans, the magically inclined, or anyone with a Tarot deck. You got to love a movie wherein our cool laid back magus does a big 'cosmic working' to get the DA arrested for planting evidence against him (as reprisal for dating his daughter!) and then sacrifices the narc who orchestrated it. But then somewhere along the line somewhere, someone or some things messed up! He has to go rescue his druggy chick (the DA's daughter) by leaving the time/space continuum and venturing inside a cosmic mirror, zooming deeper and deeper into the finesse abyss to rescue her from a... what? .... an acid overdose freakout??? Maybe asking her to stay clean during the period of the 'working' wasn't so smart. 

The Prime print is only in full screen and kind of on the soft side but hey, it's still worth checking out. For the longest time it just wasn't available at all, so this is a godsend to patrons of the 70s occult films, the sort that are clearly knowledgable on the subject rather than just hacks throwing Ernest Borgnine or Shelly Winters into a black robe, lighting a few candles, and then burning down the set. (see also this older Occult Prime list, from 2016)

(1973) Dir/writers - Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz
**** / Amazon Image - D+

The quality of the image of Messiah on Prime is pretty poor but if you don't know whether you want to shell out the bucks for a decent transfer/copy of the OOP Code Red DVD or Bly-ray--you can watch this version to acquaint yourself with it, like a glitching Zoom pre-date. Thrower's review is, as always, both insightful and poetic:
"Hyuck captures a sense of unease that you sometimes get in our mechanized society when the fever of daily traffic is subdued by nightfall. If you've ever hitch-hiked and found yourself stuck for hours beside motorway slip roads near industrial estates, with their giant arc-lit loading bays, you'll have some idea of the picture I'm trying to draw --inhuman, hostile places, emerging after dark from behind the facade of banality (...) that hard-edged frigidaire ambience in from the periphery and onto the city streets, turning unremarkable shopping areas into glittering consumerist cemeteries." (p. 238)
Note the way Thrower masterfully fills you in on some interesting experiences of his youth, but only in this unique context. How he could hitchhike after watching so many psycho movies, I confess I do not know. I do know he's put off by the narration, but I'm not. For me the unbearable narration comes in Dream No Evil, but that's a tale of a different color.

(1977) Dir. Brianne Murphy
*** / Aazon Image - C-

This sporadically amusing witchcraft pastorale would fit perfectly at the late night end of a double feature with the Esperanto language Shatner-starring Incubus, and/or Corman's The Terror. Like them it's a mostly outdoors tale of evil women seducing a disillusioned--lost or AWOL--soldier (Vietnam this time) as he wanders the countryside. 

This time, the soldier is aided--in grand Jungian archetypal style--by a seemingly benign old sage who takes him 'in' (so to speak) after his heart is broken by one of the foxy witches. But the sage has his own weird relationship to the coven: he provides them with a child sacrifice every year, donated by the simple peasant locals. Yikes! Don't let the soldier know!

When the soldier visits a bar where the locals celebrate the harvest (one of the few indoor scenes) he overhears a moth-eaten dipsomaniac priest mention the sage's habit of sacrificing a child every year. Surprisingly, we don't get the expected freaking out on the part of the solider at the news: we get a flashback to his unintentionally killing VC kids. Then he ends up telling the priest he wants to lose his soul! Even better, the priest's voice shoots up an octave while rising to a tone of hysteria. Actually, the first two times he does it--this slow measured actorly build to an upper octave FREAK OUT--it's superb; then he does it several more times, kinda diminishing its power. He seems drunk, as an actor as well as a character, and like most drunks, he's both hilarious and irritating. Later that night, this dipso-priest drops by the coven, to bitch about the witches' sacrificial habit and do the slow upper register FREAK OUT a few more times. We learn that the coven has a 'no molestar' agreement with the priest. He leaves them alone and gets a girl once in awhile, and not killed. The head witch (Ilsa star Dyanne Thorne) offers him choice her women as a kind of Manson prostitute chaser: "You've kept your part of the bargain and I've kept mine!" But that's about to end. Our drunk priest wants no more sacrifices and the soldier wants to lose his soul. That's about the plot.

One would love to see this film in a decent print, a nice HD restoration instead of this murky VHS transfer because this is one groovy movie. When the soldier finally does lose his soul, he goes nutzoid, trashing everything and shouting "Yylaa!!!!!" before running off after his long-since-flown lover witch. His voice shoots up three octaves, putting the priest's octave rising to shame, until he sounds like he just finished a set with his black metal band.  But then he finds her and the run around (clothed!) in a field of all white flowers, perhaps indicating their latent purity. His hair is still terrible but her wig is worse. She's got a great jawline and nose combination though, that evokes Claudia Jennings if she liked wearing giant platinum wigs and couldn't act. 

Anyway its pretty cool how amoral it all is - the villagers are cool with the sacrifice (it means regular good harvests) and only the priest is a whining hypocrite. Meanwhile our vet goes from being all self-righteous and haunted to acting like a grinning Hyde-monster jackanapes. Overall though, what we really get is a lot outdoor dancing, featuring what I can only guess are strippers asked to put some pagan oomph into their usual routines. It's not unlike what Manson's hippie commune might might have made if venturing into horror film production (instead of music), with the sage as Manson and the priest as old man Spahn. When you wonder where else it could go to achieve some closure, the vet is chased around a field by a hippie van and run over (sorta). Maybe the folksy theme song heard in the beginning and end can explain: "The wise are not so very wise / they never seem quite sure / there seems to be conflicting views." So true. So very true. Or is it? 

Thrower notes of the star Geary, 
"... he looks like he'd have trouble fighting off a persistent moth, let alone the Vietcong. Blood Sabbath draws much of its amusement from such miscalculations" before confessing "If you simply have to watch an early 70s witchcraft tale, this one is probably the most fun." (424)

(1976) Dir. Chris Munger
** / Amazon Image - A+

A kind of Tarkovsky-slow fusion of Spider Baby and Axe, this tale of a socially dysfunctional, but very pretty, blonde girl who lives in a mortuary and loves spiders (but hates her mother and her cop uncle) moves tarantula slow. See it and wonder: was the director on 'ludes? Well, whatever your state of biorhythm, Mad Man Munger's Willard-scavenging qua-hit is now in perfect HD and beautifully, forlornly-lit in prime regional horror small town In Cold Blood-style. As a result, the quintessentially 70s babysitter beauty of Suzanna Ling and the echo-tripping electronic score of Philian Bishop aren't Kiss's sole redeeming features. The photography is now so wintry desolate the leafless landscape is like the main character. Sure it's hard to pay attention to all the way through, so slow does it move, but the film has good sense to let sweet sad Susan (Ling) keep center stage and have everything fall neatly in place, except for logistical sense.

One keeps remembering a few basic principles of realty: 1) tarantula bites are no more deadly than bee stings; 2) Ling can somehow not lose a single of her pets even as they create spastic heart attacks and panic-induced accidents when released into closed quarters with her thrashing foes. These scenes of tarantulas crawling on screaming people as they try to seem like they're struggling to remove them without actually harming them, or being bitten by then, are so slow, the tarantula scene in The Beyond seems on triple speed by comparison. But hey, if you're really zonked and really love Spider Baby but wish it was longer and not funny or great, and if you find tarantulas crawling on people endlessly fascinating, maybe you'll stick around long enough for the great climax where SPOILER we watch Susan very carefully lift (via straps and a crank) her paralyzed (after falling down the stairs)--but still alive--lecherous cop uncle up on an elaborate crank/strap system up off the floor and into a dead girl's coffin and before covering him up with a cloth wrap, as her father drives home in cross/cut, and then replacing the girl back in the coffin on top of him, dad getting ever closer, closing the top to cover his muffled screams!  As the girl's body and the ruffles and then the lid muffle his panicked cries, the suspense comes not from identifying with him but worrying her dad might arrive home in time to spoil the show. A weird spot to be in, but weird is why we're here, and why 70s regional horror is so very worth preserving. 

Thrower is a fan of the film but wisely points out Ling is far too pretty to be a wallflower and too intelligent to think she'd get even for the crushing of one of her pets by releasing the rest of them into tight, confined spaces with thrashing adult offenders. For all the terror, the humans are very careful not to damage any of the no-doubt expensive arachnids. 
"Kiss of the Tarantula has a morbid setting (much of the action takes place around a marvelously Gothic funeral home, set in the wintry woods redolent of Fulci's House by the Cemetery); the-girl-and-her-spiders concept is so weirdly charming it can survive the glaring inconsistencies; and the death scenes, though slightly silly, are actually quite bizarre and memorable. (...) The naive electronic score by Phillian Bishop, who also did the score for Willard Hyuck's Messiah of Evil and Thomas Alderman's The Severed Arrm- ... is memorably cheesy and Moogalicious and there is one great sequence...."  
I shan't spoil it, but let's just say there is a very happy ending. In this day and age, that and the Moog alone are worth the slow crawl slog.

See also:

(1973) Dir. Bill Gunn
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

It's kind of a shame Thrower didn't sling props at this rough and ready, shocking, moving, uniquely African American masterpiece; it's not only uniquely its decade, it provides perhaps the trippiest metaphysical soundtrack in the history of film, exploring the ever-intensifying nature of addiction/withdrawal as with a beautifully widening gyre of sonic feedback. If you only know Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead, his majestic, fluent French-speaking Dr. Hess, living the high life, with a son in boarding school, and a suicidal vampire house guest, will have you stoned in awe. His relationship with Ganja, who shows up later on, is one of the most beautiful love stories of the decade. It belongs in the top ten of any category but is so strange, ephemeral, and on its wavelength it's easy to exclude, as if it's beyond all labels.

2. On second thought, I think I'm mixing this up in my Count Chocula-added childhood nostalgic mind with 1978s's King of the Gypsies. 


  1. Anonymous17 July, 2020

    If only Nightmare USA wasn't $60 I would cop. If you can, check out "Shock Value"by Jason Zinoman, which focuses on the exploitation stuff that ended up mainstream.

  2. I know it's expensive, but you can just imagine it as three $20 books ordered at the same time. With its glossy pages and ample color pages of posters and photos, it's like a massive college textbook... from Hell.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...