Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Southern Comforts

Arguably director Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1964 MOONSHINE MOUNTAIN gave birth to a whole new type of exploitation film—"hixploitation."

The typical hixploitation movie was filled with inbred, wild-eyed hillbillies, horny farmers' daughters, corrupt big-bellied cops, and chainsaw wielding maniacs wreaking havoc over "normal" citizens unfortunate enough to head south across the Mason Dixon Line.

During the 1970s, the drive-in was bursting with a whole heap of hixploitation, which tackled violence, sex, and comedy with plenty of bar brawlin’, ass whuppin’, car crashin’, and barnyard screwin’.

It wasn’t hard to find local passion pits running double features like MIDNIGHT PLOWBOY (1971) and COUNTRY CUZZINS (1970); SOUTHERN COMFORTS (1971) and TOBACCO ROODY (1970); or THE PIGKEEPER’S DAUGHTER (1972) and SASSY SUE (1972) – southern-fried sex/comedy flicks that made the drive-in rounds throughout the wanton 1970s.

The problem with these movies (all of which are available via Something Weird Video), is that when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to avoid these hee-haw humdingers – it’s just that the cornpone gags squeezed between the copious pulchritude has the same numbing effect as drinking kerosene-spiked moonshine from an old fruit jar.

In other words, there’s better hixploitation out there. Good films bypassed by indoor theaters that were busy making their dimes on legitimate movies like STAR WARS. The notes that follow analyze some of the best movies that have transcended their dubious place in the hixploitation subgenre.

Directed by Phil Karlson

WALKING TALL brings us into the nightmare world of the Deep South with non-corruptible sheriff Buford Pusser (played by Joe Don Baker) continually getting his ass whupped by the praetorian local yokels.

They don’t cater to Pusser’s conviction that running moonshine, managing whorehouses and operating gambling dens are not activities conducive to the basic tenets of southern hospitality. Because Pusser busts stills with a big stick, the corrupt powers-that-be decide to make the sheriff’s life as miserable as possible. Pusser shies away from physical violent retaliation – that is until his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) is murdered, sending the baseball bat-wielding sheriff over the edge, cracking skulls instead of stills.

What makes WALKING TALL so great is its over-the-top reactionary stand making DIRTY HARRY (1972) seem outrageously liberal in comparison. WALKING TALL reeks of Old Testament stuff and vengeance is the platter du jour – especially relevant during the early '70s when the "system” was seen as totally corrupt thanks to Richard Nixon's White House follies.

At that time, everybody felt a little like Buford—abused by those in power, helpless in the wake of violence (think Vietnam) and looking for good old frontier justice.

WALKING TALL, based on a true story, was so successful that it spawned two sequels—WALKING TALL PART II (1975), and THE FINAL CHAPTER – WALKING TALL (1977), and a TV show called WALKING TALL (1981). The sequels and the show starred Bo Svenson as Pusser but Baker's strong performance in the original attributed to that film's long lasting legend.

WALKING TALL was remade in 2004 and starred The Rock – not as Buford Pusser but as a character named Chris Vaughan! The remake – directed by Kevin Bray – tanked at the box office most likely because its anti-authoritarian disposition didn’t ring true like it did in the original. The 1973 film tapped into a burgeoning social breakdown that gripped the U.S. citizenry fed up with an impending governmental crush. Its sentiment still holds today.

Directed by Richard Compton

Remember back in 1999 when people actually thought THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was real? Even folks who copped to the film's phoniness whispered a conversation ending caveat, "But you never know..."

The Blair Witch myth, first introduced via the Internet (the site's still live, by the way), was a major marketing coup. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT became a moneymaking event. And the film itself, despite its detractors, turned out to be a tidy piece of indie film work—atmospheric, claustrophobic, and psychologically twisted.

But in 1974, all it took to get the buzz going on MACON COUNTY LINE was a clich├ęd but ominous teaser line splashed across the screen before the movie started — "This story is true. Only the names and places have been changed."

No Facebook. No Twitter. No Internet.

MACON COUNTY LINE is pretty simple—two brothers, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real life brothers Alan and Jesse Vint), get violently mixed up with a psychotic Southern sheriff (played to the hilt by Max "Jethro Bodine" Baer, Jr.) resulting in plenty of bloodshed and a pretty effective shock ending. The film's deliberate pacing and sharp juxtaposition from comedy to horror are still fairly unsettling. The acting throughout is natural and director Richard Compton utilizes a documentary feel to the film, which is shot under all-natural lighting.

In 1974, on the outdoor screen, the grainy images became an extension of the surrounding landscape adding to the movie's stark quality. On DVD, the film is a visual revelation—almost painterly.

According to Compton, when MACON COUNTY LINE played to test audiences, nobody liked it. Then, when producer and star Baer, Jr. decided to put the teaser at the start of the film, MACON COUNTY LINE box office broke wide open. The film's final production budget was $225,000. It brought in a remarkable $18.7 million playing almost exclusively at Midwest and Southern drive-in theaters. The key to its resonant success was the perpetuated myth—people believed the events in the movie really happened. And nothing spreads the word quicker than a duped audience.

Directed by Monte Hellman

Writer Charles Willeford – known as the “pope of psychopulp” – wrote one of the best little-known novels ever about filmmaking obsession. “The Woman Chaser” was down and dirty, Southern California sleaze with dialog that bristled better than David Mamet.

Willeford was also responsible for the screenplay of one of the best drive-in movies of the early ‘70s – COCKFIGHTER, which was based on Willeford’s novel of the same name and directed by underrated filmmaker Monte Hellman (THE SHOOTING; TWO LANE BLACKTOP; CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37) . Even though the script to COCKFIGHTER has its share of salacious down home spun nuggets, the lead character, Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) doesn’t speak.

Mansfield, a veteran cockfighter, rambling from hick town to hick town, rooster in hand, makes his living battling chickens. In fact, he’s the Minnesota Fats of cockfighting, with every two-bit rooster rounder wanting a piece of his action. Mansfield’s reputation precedes itself and, because he threw a career-making fight, he takes a vow of silence until he can come out on top again. But the only way for Mansfield to do so is with roosters armed with spurs tearing up some of the most blood-soaked cockfighting pits in the south.

Hellman didn’t care for Willeford’s screenplay, which emphasized the sheer brutality of the “sport,” while coming up short on the redemptive aspects of the story and Mansfield’s obsessive character. Hellman wanted COCKFIGHTER to be more lyrical – a rumination on living in this depraved world of animal cruelty while finding nobility by trying to be a winner in life. Hellman didn’t have a lot of time to rewrite the script and producer Roger Corman wanted to make sure the movie had plenty of money-making action and skin.

Subsequently, COCKFIGHTER plays like a poetic cross between the meditative cinematic explorations of BADLANDS-era Terrence Malick and the contemplative yet alcohol-soaked bloodbath of Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. With COCKFIGHTER, Hellman almost seemed heir apparent to Peckinpah. If you ran COCKFIGHTER, ALFREDO GARCIA, and JUNIOR BONNER on a triple bill, you might think that they were all directed by Peckinpah, particularly when the camera slowed down to emphasize the brutality of two roosters ripping each other apart.

Yet Hellman was able to transcend Peckinpah with COCKFIGHTER by its overt romanticism especially as seen in the relationship between Mansfield and his lost love Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Where Peckinpah seemed uncomfortable exploring a loving connection between a man and woman, Hellman seemed at home with the idea even though it’s inevitable that the love will quickly shatter.

Hellman shot the film in 23 days with a keen eye on the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement of the 1960s, with cinematographer Nestor Almendros (who shot Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN) inspired by the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and, to a certain extent, the emotional, unblinking lens of Eric Rohmer. Almendros used natural lighting outdoors as well as indoors, giving the film a spontaneous feel with long shots languid while bird fights were cut with whiplash precision by Lewis Teague.

As poetic as Hellman’s intents may have been, Corman wanted a slam-bang drive-in film and when the movie was ready for release, the producer had no idea how to promote it. He had the film recut, inserting a car chase and some T&A, and ran those segments exclusively in the film’s trailers. Struggling to attract an audience, the film was released with three different titles at different times: BORN TO KILL, GAMBLIN’ MAN and WILD DRIFTER. None of this helped and COCKFIGHTER faded into relative obscurity.That is, until it was released in Europe, where film critics lauded it as a masterpiece in American cinema. Except, that is, for England, where COCKFIGHTER was banned for its depiction of animal cruelty.

Directed by John Flynn

The late '70s boasted a long list of fucked-up-from-the-war Vietnam Vet flicks including, but not limited to, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), Jeremy Paul Kagan's HEROES (1977), Hal Ashby's COMING HOME (1978), and Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER (1978). All eventually culminating with Francis Ford Coppola's napalm-cum-acid drenched opus – APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

But one heavy vet-on-a-rampage flick called ROLLING THUNDER somehow, sadly, slipped through the cracks after it finished the rounds on the drive-in circuit in 1977. In retrospect, ROLLING THUNDER—written by Paul Schrader, not long after he and Scorsese blew cinema apart with TAXI DRIVER—is just as incendiary as the Scorsese flick but not nearly as complex.

Where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) was constructed with an almost impenetrable degree of motivational ambiguity in TAXI DRIVER, Schrader, with ROLLING THUNDER, writes the character of Charles Rane (William Devane) in wholly black and white terms.

Returning from Vietnam after 2,500 days in a POW camp, Rane and his friend, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), have a difficult time adjusting to life in the "world." When Rane's family is shot up by a bunch of hick thugs (psychotically spearheaded by James "Roscoe P. Coltrane" Best), the vets head down to Mexico on a bloodletting spree of murderous revenge. Pretty straightforward, pretty simple. But that doesn't lessen the film's power. While certainly not a dumbed-down version of TAXI DRIVER, ROLLING THUNDER, with its linear plot and minimal dialogue, was definitely written for the drive-in masses.

Director John Flynn shoots the scenes in Mexican brothels with grainy film stock that glows with bleeding reds and oranges. His south-of-the-border saloons are stocked with boozed up gringos and slippery Pancho Villa types—not unlike the festering chili dumps prowled by Warren Oates in Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974).

Flynn's cathartic violence is operatic yet less extreme than the slow-motion styling of Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH or the final hallucinatory tabloid nightmare of TAXI DRIVER. But that doesn't make the explosive finale of ROLLING THUNDER any less potent. While Flynn's overall direction is relatively static, the impact of Schrader's minimalist words has the power to permeate and haunt long after the final credits roll.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

And my favorite Cronenberg is...

There are at least two North American DVDs of David Cronenberg's 1976 film RABID floating around out there and its a tough call to say which disc is a "must own" because both have their flaws.

Hopefully, someday, we'll get the definitive version (Blu-ray) of this overlooked - yet great film - in the Cronenberg canon. But, until then, we have to make do with either the New Concorde Home Video DVD or the 2004 released Ventura Distribution disc.

The New Concorde Home Video version was released in October of 2000 (and was my first DVD purchase), is full screen with image cropped on the sides and includes hefty headspace. New Concorde's colors are slightly muted giving the film a greenish cold appearance, which works nicely within the film's chilly context. This version was part of a series of DVDs released under the auspices of "Roger Corman Presents." The New Concorde version runs 91 minutes, includes no extras except for a trailer and very limited bios - but it is out of print, making it desirable for DVD obsessives and collectors.

The Ventura Distribution (Sommerville House Releasing label) DVD is, for better or worse, presented in a matted widescreen format, which would be great except the image has headspace problems - it simply looks cropped - but you do get some nifty image information on the sides that are missing in the New Concorde edition. Coloration is brighter, autumnal but, at times, fuzzy. I'm not sure of the print's source material - but its almost certainly not the same as the New Concorde. Happily, the cloudy imagery gives the film a nice, sleazy vibe and accentuates its odd pacing. By no means definitive, the Ventura runs 88 minutes, three minutes shorter than the New Concorde.

The bonus of the Ventura release is the inclusion of a Cronenberg commentary, which is heady, deadpan and, mosty, serious. In fact, Cronenberg takes all of his works seriously. Each one of his films is a piece of a vast puzzle, addressing bodily dysfunction and its effect on the psyche (SPIDER probes the dissolution of the psyche and its effect on the body) - and RABID is prime bodily dysfunction despite its drive-in, B-movie roots, which (especially during the 70s) typically signified dopey teen sex flicks or nonsensical splatter films. Simply put, horror with brains was a rarity at the drive-in back "in the day." (If you were lucky, you saw RABID as a double feature with Larry Cohen's excellent GOD TOLD ME TO - another smart B-grader from the latter 1970s).

The Ventura DVD also includes a lengthy interview with Cronenberg about the film, which was actually included at the tail end of a Canadian VHS release of RABID probably dated from the late 80s or early 90s. Subsequently, the commentary and interview make the Ventura release preferred but, using image as a basis, fans of this film may be disappointed with its wonky presentation. Either way, both DVD versions are superior to any tape release of RABID, which are smeared and cropped.

Although the film follows Rose (Marilyn Chambers) from a motorcycle accident to a harrowing skin graft operation from an ethically dubious doctor that causes a vampiric infection that makes Rose crave blood and, subsequently, violently draw blood from victims with a protrusion from her armpit to the rapid spread of rabies that leaves her victims slobbering and on the attack like manic zombies, RABID is really about losing control of the body and the inevitable lonliness of a victim who's been termed a "monster" - a term Rose uses about herself when she realizes that it is her that is spreading a sort of venereal disease that devastates Montreal.

But what I especially like about RABID is the film's sequence of events that lead to a totally expected conclusion, which, despite its predictability, still shocks even if you've seen the movie dozens of times (which I have). The beauty, of course, is the film's crazy-seeming logic but, in fact, events happen that make total sense (within this universe).
Spoilers ahead...
  • Hart and Rose are involved in a firey motorcycle accident
  • Rose is rushed to, not a hospital, but to the Kelloid Center for plastic surgery
  • Dr. Dan Kelloid is about to embark on franchising his business yet is leary about becoming the "Colonel Sanders" of plastic surgery.
  • The motorcycle accident interrupts his business decision.
  • He operates on Rose using an untried technique where he grafts skin from her thighs to mend her extensive internal injuries.
  • The operation is a success, only something happens inside of Rose and she grows a dual phallus/vaginal appendage under her arm, which is a piercing receptacle for blood - much like a stinger.
  • Rose awakens confused, leaves the hospital and seduces and infects everybody she runs into.
  • The infection leaves her victims rabid - they, in turn, attack other humans, leaving them infected, spreading the disease like "wildfire."
  • Rose wanders the streets of Montreal, alienated and unaware that it is she who is spreading the disease even as sanitation trucks carrying lifeless and diseased corpses rumble by.
  • When she realizes that she's the one passing the infection, she acknowledges she's a "monster."
  • When she dies, she, too, is dumped into a garbage truck. Nobody knows she's the disease's "host" so there's little chance of finding a cure.
Terrifically bleak and intelligent, RABID is my favorite of all Cronenberg's films. From the bizarre static shots, the musical score (which is somber and eerie floating under images like a haunted Theramin), the bloodletting and green ooze, RABID plays as a sister film to Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER, which also delves into the mind of someone who is fractured and alone. In fact, Rose, like Travis Bickle, wanders city streets looking to connect with someone - anyone - to sate an unquenchable thirst. Porno theaters provide, for Rose and Travis, a comfortable (for them, at least) environment to find that connection, although Travis never succeeds whereas Rose finds a willing victim.

Rene Verzier's desolate cinematography is chilly, autumnal and evokes a kind of longing in the viewer, a nostalgic creepiness that's both strange and beautiful. Freeze frame almost any shot from the film - Rose's lonely walk down a deserted, rain soaked country road - and you have an image that's nothing short of impressionistic.

Cronenberg's obsession with the dissolution of body and the mind's ability to comprehend the termination, stems from his father's lucidity while riddled with tissue eating cancer. Cronenberg watched - in horror-filled wonder - as his father's body changed into something else under the ravages of the disease.
Almost every one of Cronenberg's films deals in metamorphisis and many, including RABID, FAST COMPANY, SHIVERS, THE BROOD, eXistenZ, THE FLY, SPIDER, NAKED LUNCH, allude to insectile metamorphisis, referencing, of course, a Kafkaesque dilemma of nature where you, once of sound body and mind, wake up a starving insect looking for fuel (blood, flesh) to survive. Like cancer, the change comes quickly and, naturally, too late.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Hotel Chelsea pt. II

In June, when I made the long walk from my 5th Avenue hotel down to 23rd St. to vibe on the Chelsea, little did I know they were getting ready to shut the place down. I'm glad I snapped a handful of pics and got to walk under the infamous marquee.

Supposedly the hotel will be undergoing renovations and it is landmarked so it will probably retain its look but one never knows.

The Chelsea website remarks that the hotel is "currently closed." But what's interesting is the link called "Production Inquiries," which takes you to a page describing why its such a great place to shoot film and video. Not only does it provide atmospheric backdrop but has room enough for "hair and make-up or craft services."

They use a photo of actress Kate Winslet referring to a recent photo shoot she did at the hotel. But, historically, I'd like to see a listing of all the movies shot there: CHELSEA GIRLS, SID AND NANCY, 9 1/2 WEEKS, CHELSEA name a few. I'm sure there are more.

Maybe include a couple stills from each to show the possible ambiance. I'm not sure the shot of Kate Winslet does the joint justice. Patti Smith wasn't available?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Say hello to my little friend

Releasing Brian De Palma's SCARFACE on Blu-ray is good news. But this is absolutely crazy. The SCARFACE Limited Edition Humidor lists for $999 (or $699 at Amazon), is handcrafted by humidor designer Daniel Marshall, and includes all kinds of collectible extras.

While I know that Tony Montana smoked cigars in the movie, I don't think that was his premier vice of choice. So the digital accouterments are somewhat misplaced in conjunction with a film that explores the depravity of a completely debased (if not charming...and, let's face it, he is charming) sub-human being. Cocaine and guns meant more to Montana than cigars (albeit his favorites were, no doubt, Cuban). So this very expensive DVD set packaged in a humidor - while cute - is all wrong.

If I'm going to pay a buck shy of a grand on this set, it better include a gold plated coke spoon, a ticket to Bolivia and a get out of jail free card...and the best image money can buy. I'd prefer Montana's uber-cool suit that he's wearing when he gets peppered at the end of the film.

I don't know if writer Oliver Stone meant for SCARFACE to be anti-violent, anti-drug, anti-Castro, anti-anything and I don't know if Stone (and De Palma) meant to glorify this exceedingly excessive lifestye, which still influences thug-of-all-creeds anti-social behavior, but the film is still a major kick in the ass.

I saw it on initial release in 1983 at the Arcada Theater in St. Charles, Illinois and remember walking out stunned and thrilled. It was one of the first films I saw that made me want to study the art of filmmaking even deeper. I was entranced by De Palma's use of the camera and its movement. While watching the film, I became aware of the way it was edited, how it was framed and how the music (Giorgio Moroder) played a role as large as Al Pacino. I also discovered that a truly horrific subject matter can be out loud funny. Tony Montana really is a funny guy - as long as you don't cross him.

So, yes, I'm glad they're releasing this masterpiece on Blu-ray. But I won't be splurging on the humidor. I'll just have to settle for this.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

July 28, 1978

I was finished with school - done - and lost. Yet, on July 28, 1978, I was found.
I was working dead-end nowheresville in a grocery store - Franks' Finer Foods - stocking shelves. The afterglow of my recent high school graduation dulled. College - or the prospect of it - loomed.

By the time I graduated high school, I was fond of three things: beer, drive-in movies and chicks (sorry - I'm not intentionally being sexist but when I was 17 chicks were, well, chicks) - in that order.
And I liked the money I was earning as a grocery store stock boy. I bought a 1978 Camaro that year, sparkling maroon with a V-6 and a chassis rattling stereo system (that I installed myself: Alpine receiver, DLK speakers).

College, though, was this thing that hovered in the back of my addled brain and the thought of it literally freaked me out - a fear almost dibilitating. My friends were going away and seemed to be looking forward to it. I couldn't understand that. I didn't want to leave.

July 28, 1978, changed my point of view. While I didn't "go away" to college in the classic sense (I stayed home and went to a local University), July 28, 1978 gave me reason to push forward and, frankly, a reason to live.

On July 28, 1978, this was released:

...and my future - though not on Delta House levels - was written.

Thank you John Landis - for the inspiration you gave me to further my education.