The ultimate in strange wretched hypocrisy, jacked past the point of Russ Meyer's satirical sermons, Ed's last two films as a director would, fittingly, be an anti-smut manifesto slathered in cheesecake, rape/murder, soda shop brawls, and elaborate blackmail schemes in 1961, and a smut film slathered in Laugh-in-style sight gags, and cop show witness slap-down improvs. Today we'll look at both, as well as a groovy film he wrote and was directed by his long-time pre-XXX smut collaborator Apostloff, FUGITIVE GIRLS.
THE SINISTER URGE (1960)
If you've ever read Ed's THE RAT RACE you know he had a gift for capturing the sad tawdry desperation that lurked deep inside the casting couch system. He writes vividly of innocent midwestern girls blindly accepting invitations from so-called casting agents haunting Hollywood's cheaper rental office buildings. Dreaming of stardom, these naive lovelies either hand over a few hundred dollars for never-arriving glossies, and/or offer their virginity for a nonexistent part, only to find the office 'for rent' sign replaced on the door when they visit the following week, having not heard back. If the glossies do arrive, and it's a legit photo studio, how can you pay for them? Take a few risque shots, for the studio's use as 'art'. All the girls are doing it. Then use the photos as a tool for blackmail (threatening to send copies home to mama) to get them to take more, and on and on.
We get enough of an impression of all this--from the photo shoots to the extortion and blackmail to the slavering rapist enforcer who kills any girl who decides to squeal--in SINISTER URGE, Ed's last black-and-white film as a director. The film's big showpiece is a long chase through the park, including desperate phone booth cry for help and near-rescue as passing motorists just miss seeing her; we get the whole shady setup front to back, so similar to the walk through of Timothy Farrell's drug pusher set-up in Girl Gang it's not hard to make the leap and think Ed may have written all or part of that movie too (its ending is also quite similar to his own script for The Violent Years).
The main issue is that I think they just ran out of money to pay the actors or to finish the film as they wanted, so it wound up that a whole 1/3 of the film seems to be just Ed's drinking buddies Kenne Duncan and Duke Moore, hanging out at their desk in his beloved police station setting, there to, as with Violent Years and Jail Bait, loudly and lengthily lament the sad fate of our misled youth of today, the evils of the smut racket, and the corruption of innocence (the dirty pictures are sold on playgrounds, like drugs). Meanwhile the "smut" we see is so tame it makes the J. Crew catalogue seem like Hustler. And then, the unthinkable happens. Initially just an enforcer for the pornography syndicate, the incited-to-sexual-violence Dino Fantini--he of the insane pompadour, Reid Fleming proboscis and flickering switch--starts rape/murdering all the girls, not just the ones who try to escape or threaten to rat out the organization.
This is the way it was in the late-50s. Lots of lip service to placate the censors = the height of hypocrisy considering the way Wood's career was headed.
But --as if heralding the start of Wood's decline into tawdry softcore -- Urge deigns to offer plenty of gratuitous sleaze on the side (it's not at the photo studio, that we can see - though who knows with scissor happy projectionists and regional censors), and I don't think Wood ever can quite bring us or himself to the 'good' side of the argument, no matter how many minutes he fills with anti-pornography rhetoric. Anyway, depsite all that, he has a point. As the anti-porn activists worried, the shit does need to keep getting amped up to reach the same fever pitch, just watch any episode of any HBO series. That kind of shit is too strong even for me, a lad raised on the mellow good-natured moaning of Ginger Lynn and Nina Hartley.
It doesn't end, so much as run out of money - as anticlimactic as you can get. This story has no End, as Sam Fuller's Steel Helmet sang.
It is gratifying to think Wood was around, still making things like this, however low rent, while Plan Nine and Bride of the Monster played on regular TV across the country. In the days before VCRs I managed to see Bride of the Monster at least three times just from finding it on via afternoon Dr. Shock or Creature Features screenings (depending on if my UHF antenna was tuning in NY or Philadelphia stations). It must have been a bit gratifying for old Ed to turn on his TV during some boozy reverie and see them playing, even if he wasn't getting any royalties. Ed, you were rocking my little childhood world! Take comfort in my giddy rapture. Mixing gothic horror and science fiction- Bela Lugosi AND giant octopi? Vampires AND aliens? I could hardly contain myself. (As a kid watching monster movies I could understand very little of the dialogue--I wanted monsters and mayhem. I'd sometimes slog through a whole hour and a half of talking head tedium just to get to a mad scientist vs. assistant-turned-monster. It was a gyp, but what are ya gonna do? Sometimes I'd get Brides of Dracula or Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, so it all evened out.
Now of course I have everything on disc. And I often think about what a vast library of titles we'd have from Ed if there has been video cameras back then -- but would they have any value? And what kind of movies would he have made, freed from the demands of producers and distributors, with just an iPhone and a bunch of his willing weird pals? Would he even have done any sex films? Can you imagine if he made a dozen more horror films? Bringing back Criswell and company again and again, but would they still have the same charm? The Cult of Ed can play what-if til the cows come home. In the end, we're grateful for what we have. And you never know what's around the next bend. I'm still praying for The Night the Banshee Cried, the second episode of Ed's proposed anthology TV series (the first being the recently unearthed Final Curtain).
But for now, we have the sex films, the best of which are directed by Apostloff, such as Fugitive Girls which looks so good via its Vinegar Syndrom clean-up it shines like brand new.
The five women consist of a bickering redneck and black girl ala The Defiant Ones, who alternately respect and then hate each other; there's the innocent who got arrested after her boyfriend robbed a liquor store with her in the car, and then there's the tough butch leader (Tallie Cochrane) and her innocent girlfriend.
I like their gradual intense bonding - the Argento-esque lighting inside the car; and their constant onslaught against the males who try to either rat them out or hit on them.
Wood does a pretty good job as both a local sheriff and also the garage attendant who notes of his gas supply: "This here gas is for the big equipment." He doesn't ham it up too much or mince or prance or fall down drunk or anything unseemly. He is a bit of a dottering drunk hick as the gas station attendant but he radiates real calm assertive energy as the sheriff towards the end. In fact, it's hard to believe it's even him (left). And the climax involves a thrilling final chase with a bag full of recovered loot over and through a construction site and/or a working mine, going up long chutes, swinging and falling down big sand hills, the final two bad girls really go at it and for a sexy film it's surprisingly physical. It's what Manny Farber would call termite art: with no delusions of anyone ever appreciating it or watching that far, these girls really give it their all like a bunch of kids with a super 8mm camera who stumbled on the construction site on the worker's day off and ran around improvising things based on the set up, with no thought to personal safety. You can tell it's the ladies themselves doing all the running and fighting and not cutaways to stuntmen as it's all filmed in long takes. With someone like HG Lewis those long takes might be badly blocked with a nailed in place camera, but not here. Apostloff and his DP know what they're doing--they pick up the camera and follow the action--and if previous versions made it look washed out and shitty, but its day is finally due in spiffy violent colors. Cue psychedelic credits!
Special shout out to Renee Bond as Toni, Talli's dumbstruck girlfriend!
TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE (1970)
I tried to get into it, for Ed's sake but it's the worst, really - a meaningless collage of softcore scenes cut up with a leering chipmunk-like detective peeping out of bushes in the style of The Immoral Mr. Teas and endless shots of girls walking up and down carpeted stairs. Imagine the worst of the nudist camp era with the worst of the sofctore era and you're halfway there.
As Joe Blevins points out, the narration sounds like it could be from Wood himself, but it actually Michael Donovan O'Donnell as detective "Mac" Magregor, hired to find a missing girl (20 years old so legal to do what she wants) by her parents, one of whom is Ed regular Duke Moore. Mac talks almost constantly throughout the movie which is then endless shots of him sticking his big chipmunk face out of bushes with a patented horny voyeur having a ball grin - in order for Ed to use some stock footage of a passenger plane taking off and landing - followed by surreally short and shoddy scenes meant to represent that country (i.e. Paris is represented by sidewalk cafe table with a baguette in front of a poster of the Eiffel Tower). This gaiety is offset by a series of scenes--the only real reasons to watch the film, actually--with Mcgregor dropping in on various boozed-up lowlifes in their various pads, slapping them around for information on the girl's current whereabouts, even if they've already told them all they know. There's a nice boozy improv feeling of all this stuff being shot on weekends while downing fifths of Scotch but some of the scenes, such as Macgregor slapping around a very gay aesthete, leave a bad taste. The lad seems to be gay but acting up a gay stereotype at the same time, but we're clearly meant to root for him as as Macgregor barges in, starts trashing the place and slapping him around, presuming he'll know where the girl is. We're reminded of all these sad little scenes in movies from this period, where gay people are freaks who endure and probably secretly like getting slapped around by 'straight' men, as if they deserve it, they have it coming, for messing with God's grand plan and impugning masculinity as a whole, or something.