The Swimmer (1968)
by Steve Habrat
At a quick glance, director Frank Perry’s surreal 1968 drama The Swimmer doesn’t jump out at you as a cult classic. When you watch the trailer, it swells with emotion as star Burt Lancaster proudly proclaims that he is going to swim home across a number of swimming pools that dot his scenic, upper class Connecticut suburb. Melodramatic music takes the wheel as the handsome Lancaster flirts with a number of beautiful socialite women, races a horse, and yellow on-screen text asks, “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of film that would fit into the cult classic mold—a mold that was constructed over time by B-movie cheapies, ultra-violent midnight movies, grindhouse filler, and quirky failures. In all honesty, it seems like the type of movie your mother would love. However, when you dive deep into The Swimmer, you realize that the film, which was based upon a shot story by John Cheever, is a haunting tragedy dressed up in studio-drama garb. Led by an unforgettable performance by Lancaster, this overlooked gem is a film unlike any other—a strange, moody experience that slowly evolves from a sunny daydream into a stormy nightmare.
The Swimmer introduces us to Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster), a charismatic and seemingly well-off advertising executive who unexpectedly appears in an old friend’s manicured back yard. Wearing nothing but a pair of navy blue swimming trunks, Ned is met with handshakes, smiles, and warm welcomes from all sitting around the pool. While peering out across the backyard, Ned realizes that there is a river of swimming pools that lead right to his own home, and he is suddenly compelled to swim the entire way home. Dubbing the river of swimming pools the “Lucinda River” after his often-mentioned but never-seen wife, Ned embarks on a journey that takes him to the homes of several old friends and acquaintances, all of which react to Ned’s sudden appearance in drastically different manners. Upon his journey, he reconnects with a young babysitter, Julie Ann Hooper (played by Janet Langard), who had developed a crush on Ned while watching his daughters, and Shirley Abbott (played by Janice Rule), a cold stage actress whom Ned had shared a brief fling with. Yet as Ned gets closer and closer to home, he realizes that several of his relationships and his lavish lifestyle may not be as sunny as they appear.
Early on, very little is overly strange or surreal about The Swimmer, the only peculiar things being Ned’s sudden appearance and his reluctance to reveal what he has recently been up to. He masks this unwillingness to speak about the present by offering up suave charms that tickle his old friends nursing hangovers by the pool. Upon getting the idea to swim home to his family, The Swimmer becomes increasingly moody, constantly bouncing between warm, sunny, charming, romantic, uncomfortable, psychedelic, and spontaneous before cowering down underneath gathering storm clouds in the final half hour. This constant shift in tone makes The Swimmer an incredibly unpredictable drama, as old friends and acquaintances welcome Ned with increasingly mixed reactions. Some people are icy and instantly order Ned off their property, while others are a bit uneasy with him dropping by. One encounter is fairly romantic, but it ends in squirm inducing rejection that leaves an emotionally wounded Ned limping off towards his next pool to dive into. One of the most stinging encounters comes when Ned meets up with Shirley Abbott, a woman Ned had a fling with many years earlier. Where once Ned’s playful flirtations were met with giggles and smiles, now they are met with put downs and the admittance that Shirley never enjoyed her intimate moments with Ned. Watching Shirley kill off what’s left of Ned’s cool optimism is immensely painful, ending with a venomous sting that leaves our bathing suit clad protagonist shivering in the dying sun. (This emotional encounter with Janice was actually ghost directed by newcomer Sydney Pollack.)
Aiding with The Swimmer’s shattering power is Burt Lancaster, who gives a mesmeric performance as Ned, the mystifying advertising executive on a mission to swim his way home. While Eleanor Perry’s script almost paints Ned as an apparition who just suddenly materializes from the nearby woods, Lancaster really pivots around all the emotions like the graceful professional that he was, using his massively expressive, baby-blue eyes to really emit Ned’s early wonder and his final soul-shaking trauma. He also draws from his career as an acrobat, leaping, jumping, and playing with Julie in a horse pen like a couple of invincible school children who believe they are capable of anything and everything. And then there are the small touches, especially near the end when Ned is growing weary on his journey. His face is drooping into exhaustion and emotional defeat as he begs his way in to a public pool and limps his way through the rusted gate that guards his mansion. In the supporting roles, Langard’s Julie is a young, naïve sunbeam who has yet to experience the sadness and disappointment that Ned has encountered. She rambles on about silly school girl crushes that she hid just years before, and sheepishly admits that she stole one of Ned’s shirts one evening while she babysat his daughters. Janice Rule’s Shirley is like a viper lying out in the sun, one that Ned tramples on with his bare feet and ends up with her venom pumping into his exposed ankles.
Since The Swimmer offers very little about Ned’s background, the viewer is left to piece together his rocky past through his swim across the “Lucinda River.” As far as one can tell, life started out great for Ned—a man with a great career, a loving family, a slew of friends, and a lavish lifestyle in the sun. Behind his wife’s back, he carried out flings and affairs that ended with broken hearts, and he wronged several of his friends, leaving them seething with bitter hatred. As relationships fizzled, so did Ned’s lavish lifestyle, as money problems struck the Merrill household, his daughters ran rampant through the neighborhood, and his wife’s elitist personality left many acquaintances sour. This all added up to tragedy and ruin for the swimmer, as he crawls his way through an early fall thunderstorm for a place to rest his aching bones. As far as the technical aspects of The Swimmer go, the film’s cinematography looks beautiful and radiant, and the score from Marvin Hamlisch is a rush of melodramatic strings that compliment Ned’s successes and failures in suburbia. Overall, The Swimmer is a unique work of art that can be interpreted many different ways. No matter how you choose to look at it, Perry’s film will haunt every inch of your brain long after you’ve walked away from it. It’s a true one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
The Swimmer is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)
by Steve Habrat
When it comes to diving into the realm of B-movies/drive-in flicks from the 1950s and 60s, one expects to see some major turkeys. These films usually had titles that were infinitely more exciting than the actual film and their colorful posters promised terror beyond your wildest imagination as scientific abominations duked it out with each other or carried off some bikini clad bombshell into the unknown. Despite these enormous promises, all they ever delivered were bottom-of-the-barrel performances, chintzy make-up effects, no-budget special effects, cheesy monsters, and confused plots that failed to fully explain crucial elements of the story. Occasionally, one of these dreadful B-movie/drive-in flicks would be so bad that they’d actually be, well, semi-entertaining. One of these straight-to-double-bill features that manages to actually hold your attention is director Robert Gaffney’s 1965 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, a stock-footage heavy science-fiction/horror film that has everything from girls in skimpy bikinis to hulking extraterrestrials from outer space to an Atomic Age Frankenstein monster with a melting mug. It’s like something straight out of a forgotten comic book.
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster begins with an endangered alien race led by Princess Marcuzan (played by Marilyn Hanold) and her right-hand man Dr. Nadir (played by Lou Cutell) arriving in Earth’s atmosphere. The aliens, who are the sole survivors of an atomic war that took place on Mars, have arrived in an attempt to kidnap Earth women to breed with. The aliens instantly start monitoring and shooting down NASA space shuttles that they believe to be missiles being fired at their ship. Meanwhile, NASA is preparing to launch a brand new shuttle crewed by Colonel Frank Saunders (played by Robert Reilly), a charismatic android created by Dr. Adam Steele (played by James Karen) and Karen Grant (played by Nancy Marshall). Princess Marcuzan and Dr. Nadir proceed to attack the space shuttle operated by Frank, but they fail to kill him. Frank ejects at the last second and he lands in Puerto Rico with the aliens hot on his trail. After a face-to-face encounter with the aliens, Frank is horribly injured and his circuit board is badly damaged, causing him to turn into an unstoppable killing machine. With Frank’s killing spree distracting the army, the aliens begin snatching up as many women as they can get, but they inadvertently grab the U.S.’s attention after they abduct Karen.
While most of these science-fiction/drive-in releases waited until the final moments of the film to show off their monsters, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster can’t wait to yank the sheet off its two main beasts. The bloodthirsty android Frank is all-American good looks until he is on the receiving end of an alien laser blast, which melts off part of his face to reveal a fried circuit board. He consistently turns his head to show off his grizzly wound, which is actually sort of creative if you’re willing to forgive the fact that it looks like a piece of rubber pasted to the side of his face. He’s given a bit more personality through his charred space suit and his confused shuffle. The other beast that Gaffney allows us to marvel at is Mull, a radioactive creature that is held captive aboard the alien ship. Mull is largely seen in extreme close ups, partially hidden behind bars as he swipes his massive claws at the camera. He is mostly concealed until the final ten minutes of the film, when Dr. Nadir and Princess Marcuzan unleash him to do battle with malfunctioning Frank. Their battle is brief, but it is thrilling in a kitschy way. The two monsters look like they’re locked in a bear hug but Gaffney fills the set with thick smoke and deafening growls that really set the mood for the brawl.
With so much emphasis placed on the cartoonish monsters, it is much easier to overlook the abysmally bad performances. Hanold is stiff and scripted as the evil Princess Marcuzan, the alien’s fearless leader who largely sits in a swivel chair and nods in approval at half-naked girls. Cutell is forced to wear some of the worst make-up effects you are ever likely to see but he doesn’t seem to be bothered, as his Dr. Nadir grins maniacally for the camera in extreme close ups. James Karen is given the heroic role as Dr. Adam Steele, who basically just rides a Vespa from place to place, looks worried, and reports to a bunch of lookalike army officials. Nancy Marshall barely registers as Dr. Steele’s pretty sidekick Karen, the only gal who seems to be afraid of the sinister aliens but she never challenges them. David Kerman is also present as General Bowers, but he blends in with all the other army officials. Reilly is the only one who does anything animated with his role as Frank, but his make-up does most of the work. Watching him wandering around the rocky landscape or trip and fall on the beach is vaguely sympathetic but with as many characters as this film has, it is difficult to really grow attached to him.
With such a busy plotline and a brief runtime, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t have a wasted moment. A good majority of the film is comprised of stock footage of space shuttles taking off or soldiers pouring out of helicopters. Without this stock footage, Gaffney wouldn’t have been able to make the movie, as it makes up over half the picture. With the dueling plotlines and condensed runtime, Gaffney has a difficult time keeping both plotlines focused, leaving many questions unanswered. As far as the sets and props go, they all resemble something that you would have seen in an Ed Wood movie, but the swinging rock n’ roll soundtrack really keeps things moving along nicely. It should also be noted that despite the name “Frankenstein” appearing in the title, the film has little in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Overall, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is undoubtedly a slapdash effort, lacking any form of suspense, terror, coherency, or social or political commentary. However, the film does pack a number of unintentional laughs and a slew of performances that will have you blushing in embarrassment for the actor or actress. And if there are any other positives to be pointed out, the film has plenty of monster action to keep B-movie fans coming back for seconds and thirds.
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is available on DVD.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
by Steve Habrat
Ever since I first laid eyes on the trailer for Panos Cosmatos’ science fiction head-trip Beyond the Black Rainbow, I was just dying to see it. Well, my friends, that day finally arrived and I have to tell you, if you consider yourself a fan of cult cinema and midnight movies, this is a film you have to see. It will be a dream come true. Heavily indebted to early David Cronenberg films, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch’s surreal horror, and blippy John Carpenter scores, Beyond of the Black Rainbow is a film that takes control of your senses and refuses to let them go. While you can’t even begin to pretend to know what the film is about, Beyond the Black Rainbow is something else to look at, a film that fills you with terror one minute and then guides you into ethereal tranquility the next, all in the matter of five minutes. Composed of haunted performances that look like holograms from Mars, a nerve frying analogue synth score, and quasi-futuristic visuals drenched in a neon glow, Cosmatos spews out a maddening and frightening nightmare that Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey may have if he dared to dream at all. I just warn those who are willing to approach the film, do so with an open mind and remember that none of this will truly add up in the end.
Set in an alternate 1983, there exists the Arboria Institute, a psychiatric complex that promises to fill its clients with pure happiness. This futuristic complex is run by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Played by Scott Hylands), a guru-esque figure that appears in a promotional video at the start of the film. It is here at the Arboria Institute that the orphaned Elena (Played by Eva Allan) has been imprisoned and heavily sedated by the perverted Dr. Barry Niles (Played by Michael Rogers), who seems to get sick enjoyment out of tormenting the young girl. As Barry begins to loose his grip on his sanity, Elena, who seems to posses certain mental powers, decides to try to escape the confines of her neon prison. As she wanders the seemingly deserted hallways of Arboria, she stumbles across a bizarre, bloodthirsty mutant and wandering alien-like Sentionauts. Soon, the deranged Barry learns of Elena’s escape and he sets out after his prized patient, willing to do anything to get her back.
While many may be turned off by the agonizingly slow pace of Beyond the Black Rainbow, those who have found enjoyment in Canadian body horror auteur David Cronenberg’s early work (Rabid, The Brood, Videodrome, and even Scanners) will be hooked right from the beginning. There are hints of Kubrick everywhere, from the visual symmetry of the futuristic architecture of Arboria to the unnerving score that could be a mash up of John Carpenter’s score from The Fog and the famous jingle from A Clockwork Orange. Cosmatos transitions from scene to scene in slow fade-outs and fade-ins, at times seeming almost abstractly poetic and lyrical but always smacking us with splashes of bright red, orange, and white. There were moments where I felt the film was intentionally trying to alienate itself from me, which in turn drew me even more to it, almost like a moth to blinding light. At times I would be hit with a wave of severe boredom to be suddenly steamrolled by a wave of traumatic terror and panic, yet I always felt paranoid right from the beginning. I felt like I was being forced to sit patiently until something really awful happened and soon enough, it does. Trust me, you won’t be ready for it but yet the awful events that play out do nothing to give us closure, meaning, or simple elucidation. Before the film slips into slasher mode at the end, Cosmatos confirms my paranoid shakes at the beginning with the face of Ronald Reagan taking to the television to warn of looming nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union, adding a backdrop of apocalyptic doom to the throbbing digital chill.
While the visuals take center stage in Beyond the Black Rainbow, there has been quite a bit made over the performances from the leads. The performances are incredibly contemplative and muted, especially Eva Allan as Elena. While Elena is mostly seen and only heard once, she gives a remarkable performance that marinates in emotion right before our eyes. When she wanders the landscape outside the Arboria Institute, Elena is so fragile and lost, she almost resembles a fallen angel that is trying to find her way in an alien world. She is the soothing calm of Beyond the Black Rainbow while Rogers, who looks a bit like Christian Bale, is the creeping wickedness in a bad wig. He is absolutely terrifying as Barry, a character that I just wanted to be away from with at least a hundred miles between us. The end of the film has him wandering about in a trance-like state with a hellish dagger that looks like a fang snatched from the Devil himself. While we know he has a screw loose when we first see him, the screw completely falls out when he suffers a trippy flashback to 1966 and hangs with his mentor, Dr. Arboria. Hylands is marvelous as the doped up guru who is rotting away in front of a giant television screen that is filled with serene images. There is also Marilyn Norry as Rosemary Nyle, Barry’s wife who always seems to be trying to shake herself out of a prescription med coma and Rondel Reynoldson as Margo, an Arboria Institute employee who seems to be completely oblivious to what is going on in the halls of Arboria.
While the film never made a lick of sense, I still can’t seem to shake Beyond the Black Rainbow from my mind. The film feels so much like a dream that you almost question whether you have actually seen it or if it was something you imaged. Funny enough, Cosmatos has said that the film stemmed from his childhood, when he would wander a local video store and study the covers of horror films. He was never allowed to see these horror films but he would imagine what they were like when he would go home. I could only imagine the warped film he would make if he had seen them. I can promise you that Beyond the Black Rainbow will terrify you, especially if you watch it in the dead of night with the volume cranked up to the max. For me, Beyond the Black Rainbow just missed unhinged genius by the abrupt ending that seems almost like a sick joke (maybe it was meant to be a sick joke). I will honestly say that the ten minute black and white flashback sequence scared the living hell out of me and I watched this sucker in broad daylight. Another touch I really liked where the scratches that can be found on the Blu-ray picture. They may have not been intentional but they definitely add to the abstract retro terror, making the film seem like an undiscovered relic from 1983. While it may not be everyone’s mind trip, Beyond the Black Rainbow certain makes an impression on those who choose to experience it. If you find yourself in the target audience, I highly recommend it. Just be warned, you are in for one hell of a freak-out that you won’t soon forget.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In all the years I have been seeking out and watching cult classics from years past, by far one of the most unusual is Jane Fonda’s kinky 1968 science-fiction film Barbarella. Based on the French comic books by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella certain does look like it stepped out of the pages of steamy pulp in intergalactic go-go boots. Directed by Roger Vadim, Barbarella is a carefree and trippy celebration of Fonda, who was married to Vadim at the time the film was made, and her bare naked body as it flits around sets that look like leftovers from Forbidden Planet. While it is certainly not a film you would seek out for an absorbing story, Barbarella comes up a half-winner due to the alien worlds it sends us off to and the tongue-and-check jibber jabber that is delivered through half-cracked smiles by each and every actor in front of the camera. While there are plenty of moments in this soft-core color explosion to like, there are plenty of moments where the extreme camp and bloodshot misadventures of Barbarella wear thin on the viewer. I certainly found myself struggling to stay on the line cast by Vadim, mostly because the initial thrill of the film’s flamboyant manifestation fades about half-way in and we are left with a goofy piece of pop art struggling to keep its head above the boiling cosmic goo.
In the distant future, sexy space traveler Barbarella (Played by Jane Fonda) is zooming through the galaxy when she receives a transmission from the President of Earth (Played by Claude Dauphin). The President asks Barbarella to travel to the planet of Tau Ceti and retrieve Dr. Durand-Durand (Played by Milo O’Shea), the inventor of a devastating weapon called the Positronic Ray, and return him and the weapon safely to Earth. As it turns out, Earth is now a peaceful place, where weapons are forbidden and sex has a man and woman taking exaltation transfer pills and pressing their palms together. Barbarella accepts the mission and as her adventure plays out, she hooks up with Catchman Mark Hand (Played by Ugo Tognazzi), blind angel Pygar (Played by John Phillip Law), kindly Professor Ping (Played by Marcel Marceau), and the evil Black Queen of Sogo (Played by Anita Pallenberg). Through these encounters, Barbarella is reintroduced to the joys of real sex and also finds herself partnering with resistance leader Dildano (Played by David Hemmings) to topple the Black Queen.
Barbarella is probably best remembered for the opening anti-gravity strip tease performed by the leggy Fonda, who sheds her stuffy spacesuit and bears it all for those who are interested. It is probably the most artfully photographed scene of the entire film as she dangles in her shag-carpeted spaceship. The rest of the film is just bursting with bottled sexuality that is dying to be uncorked. You’ll chuckle at suggestive set pieces and how the film pauses for one outrageous sex scene after another. The funniest is by far Barbarella’s encounter with Catchman Hand, who pulls off a big furry overcoat to reveal an equally hair chest that has him resembling a big drooling bear. The cosmic sex is complimented by a lounge jazz score that seems horrifically out of place and absolutely perfect at the same time. Things really hit a new level of crazy when a villainous character straps Barbarella into a devise called the Excessive Machine that, yes, pleasures you to death (I couldn’t make this up). Despite the heavy sexuality that will have even the most uptight viewer undoing one or two buttons, Barbarella is fairly tame for a film based on an adult comic strip. It walks a fine line between porn spoof and legitimate science fiction adventure that seems desperate to have a bit more depth. My guess is there is some uncharted lore here but Vadim can’t resist pausing for heavy kaleidoscope petting that becomes a bit stale by the time the film hits the hour mark.
And then there is Fonda’s performance, which thrust her into stardom and proved that she can wear the hell out of a pair of tights. Fonda is portrayed as a gee-whiz goofball with a heavy dash of gullibility and innocence in her big bedroom eyes. There are times where I fully believe she wants to burst into laughter, especially when she is attacked by a bunch of flesh-hungry dolls or answers the President’s transmission in her birthday suit, but she keeps it together. Barbarella also has to hold a record for the most costume changes caught on film. Throughout this hour and forty minute adventure, Fonda wears countless revealing getups that expose her unmentionables in some way, shape, or form. As far as the supporting players go, there is John Phillip Law’s Pygar, an eerie statuesque angel who I swear is a robot. Frankly, I thought he was the most bizarre character in all of Barbarella and he really creeped me out, especially when he stares blankly off screen and says an angel is “love.” Marcel Marceau gets kooky as Professor Ping, who slinks around a wasteland called the Labyrinth while munching on flowers. David Hemmings is the high note here as the bumbling Dildano, a resistant fighter who doesn’t appear to be capable of resisting much of anything. Anita Pallenberg is also a marvel as the lesbian Black Queen who is supposed to be evil but sometimes isn’t. She cackles gleefully through her dialogue that has her calling Barbarella her “Pretty, Pretty”. Milo O’Shea also gets to let his villain flag fly as Durand-Durand but he is never as much fun as the Black Queen.
To be honest, I’m sort of at a loss when it comes to truly evaluating Barbarella because the film almost defies criticism. It’s just such a strange film that you almost have to see for yourself to truly understand how anomalous it is. Part of me really enjoyed all the lava lamp kinkiness but part of me was simply appalled by how bad the film is at parts. I found myself impressed with the meretricious cosmic environment even if some look like they were painted on a giant canvas. I had fun with some of the characters while others just rubbed me the wrong way or freaked me out (Pygar is especially weird). As someone who adores cult cinema, it was easy for me to see why Barbarella has earned such a cult following but more often than not, Barbarella was just boring me rather than entertaining me in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Overall, Barbarella is a middling swirl of hallucinatory Technicolor that quickly wears out its welcome. At least Fonda makes for good eye candy.
Barbarella is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It is a damn shame that the double feature ode to exploitation trash of years past Grindhouse flopped at the box office. It is an even bigger shame that most audience members didn’t even try to comprehend what it was that directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were trying to sell to the audience. The flop turned Grindhouse into a cult classic that, in a way, I’m glad avoided the mainstream and has basically been forgotten by most average moviegoers. More fun for fans of cult cinema. Grindhouse is one of the coolest movies of recent memory, a slaphappy revelry filled with blood, guts, zombies, fast cars, hot chicks, nudity, fake trailers, werewolves, Thanksgiving killers, machete wielding Federales, and more. Can you really argue with any of that? I didn’t think so. The way I see it, Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with an incredibly original idea, harkening back to the grimy double features of the 70’s and 80’s, and in the process, they tried to make going to the movies an event again. How people missed the point of having a little fun at the movies is truly beyond me.
The first half of this bonanza belongs to Robert Rodriguez and his gooey zombie flick Planet Terror. After an opening Go-Go dance from Cherry Darling (Played by Rose McGowan), the rural Texas town that she calls home suddenly is overrun with a nasty virus that turns the citizens from normal people into “sickos”, who crave human flesh. Teaming up with her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Played by Freddy Rodriguez), the syringe shooting Dr. Dakota Block (Played by Marley Shelton), and a slew of others, the group attempts to escape the deadly outbreak but they end up stumbling upon more than safety from the “sickos”. The second half of Grindhouse belongs to Quentin Tarantino and his car chase film Death Proof, which follows a group of hip gals who are involved in the making of a movie. They soon find themselves being tormented by a deranged stunt car driver named Stuntman Mike (Played by Kurt Russell), who enjoys killing young girls with his “death proof” muscle car. Stuntman Mike meets his match when some of the girls begin to fight back against him, turning the tables on the maniac and forcing him into a fight for his own life.
Being a double feature, no portion of Grindhouse is ever a drag but the case could be made that Tarantino’s Death Proof slams on the breaks of this speed demon. The madness hits white-knuckle territory in Planet Terror, which goes for the throat right from the very beginning. It easily outshines Death Proof and is entertaining from the opening Go-Go dance right down to the melting penises at the climax. That does not mean that I dislike Death Proof. Oh no, I absolutely love Death Proof but I feel like it should have been the first film shown and followed up by Planet Terror, which cranks things up to the max. To be honest, I hate separating the two films but it is almost impossible to evaluate Grindhouse without evaluating the films as separate pieces. I do, however, view the entire film, complete with fake trailers, to be one whole movie. It drives me crazy that the films were split up upon their initial release to DVD. I don’t think they hold up well on their own and they desperately need each other for support.
Rodriguez and Tarantino go to great lengths to replicate a night in an old movie palace on 42nd Street. They both digitally went in and scratched the prints up, making them look like two films from the 70’s that were discovered in a filthy theater basement. Rodriguez throws in a gag with a missing reel, creating a massive jump in his film that is added at just the right time. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror brings to mind the Italian zombie films that were favorites among grind house theaters in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He has continuously said that he found inspiration in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and he throws in a nasty little nod to the film at the end. He also throws in nods to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, and more, none being left out of all the excitement. He also creates a new cult legend with Cherry, who ends up having one of her legs replaced with a machine gun. It is a nifty nod to Evil Dead’s Ash, who is also forced to replace a severed limb with a deadly weapon.
In Death Proof, things are a little more polished and clean, a bit strange when it set against the crude Planet Terror. Packing very few scratches but having chuckle worthy skips in the film; Death Proof is more of a slow build experience. It’s pure Tarantino, featuring tons of drawn out conversations while the camera circles the actors and actresses like a shark. Death Proof ends up a battlefield for Russell and costar Zoe Bell, who plays stunt girl Zoe. Bell, who was a stunt double for Uma Thruman in Kill Bill, shows off her acting skills and ends up almost stealing the show from Russell, who gets to radiate bad boy charisma every time that camera is turned on him. When Tarantino waves the checkered flags and begins the rough car chases, he proves himself to be a master when it comes to adrenaline pumping action sequences. Death Proof ends up borrowing from such films as Vanishing Point, the slasher genre, and is vaguely evocative of Faster, Pussycat… Kill! Kill! and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, allowing the film to morph into an exotic beast all its own.
Grindhouse would not be complete without the four spectacular fake trailers that have been tacked on and they end up surpassing the greatness of the two films. Tarantino and Rodriguez invited fellow exploitation enthusiasts Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel) to cook up some fake trailers and the results are sheer bliss for horror and exploitation fans. When I initially saw the film, my favorite was easily Roth’s Thanksgiving, which almost pushed the film into an NC-17 rating and it’s not hard to see why. It is so depraved and outrageous, it left me crossing my fingers that they would make it into an actual movie. In the multiple times that I have seen the film since seeing it at the local theater, I have grown like Wright’s Don’t the best. It is hectically comical and bizarre, actually turning out to be pretty frightening despite how weird it is. Zombie leaves his mark with the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Werewolf Women of the S.S., a nod to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie’s trailer does pack one hell of a big surprise so do not even think about underestimating it. Rodriguez also contributes to the madness with Machete, which opens Grindhouse with a bloody bang, letting us know that Machete “gets the women and kills the bad guys”. Keep your eyes peeled for an awesome cameo from Cheech Marin.
Grindhouse is without question one of my favorite movies of all time. It is the embodiment of why I go to the movies and why I dedicate myself to them. It was nonstop entertainment and lunacy for three fucking hours! I smiled the entire time and happily went back to the theater for seconds and heavily considered thirds. It is a shame the film flopped at the box office, poorly timed with its release (Easter weekend) and languidly marketed, many scratching their heads over the trailer. It didn’t reach a wide audience because mainstream viewers were not in on the joke, missing the point that it was a double feature and the film was purposely bad. As a whole, Grindhouse has a spark that cannot be duplicated and in its wake, there have been a lot of imitators and a minor spike in interest in cult classics and exploitation sleaze. With the spike in interest, it is hard to say that Grindhouse was a dud and hasn’t lived on past its release, rallying new fans everyday to the wonderful trash cinema of past years. The beauty doesn’t stop there, as Grindhouse can also serve as a learning tool, one that introduces viewers to a specific era in cinema and sheds light on an era that was largely forgotten when the movie palaces closed their doors and the drive-ins disappeared. Despite all the intentional mistakes and low budget cheese, Grindhouse is a rare modern film that is perfect, making it a must-see cult-classic.
Grindhouse is available of Blu-ray.
I Drink Your Blood (1970)
by Steve Habrat
What do you get when you throw LSD dropping devil worshippers, shotgun packing children and old men, rabid dogs, zombies, and heaping piles of severed limbs into a blender? You get the trashy I Drink Your Blood, a grind house picture with an ADD plot and bug eyed acting. This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink film is a fun flick to watch when you and your friends are looking for a good film to laugh at between sips of beer. Hell, getting a nice buzz may actually enhance the quality of I Drink Your Blood, a film that would be right at home on a double bill with Sugar Hill or Rabid. Made in 1970, the film follows the perspiring, claustrophobic, and granular aesthetic that was heavily popular during this specific era. At times it is reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre even though this came out way before Tobe Hooper’s nightmare was unleashed. And yet even though the film is absolutely awful, if you are like me and adore this strain of cinema, you will find yourself admitting that I Drink Your Blood is so bad it is almost, well, good!
A group of wacky Satanist hippies lead by the bloodthirsty Horace Bones (Played by Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury) roll into what appears to be a fairly conservative and largely abandoned small town. After the gang captures a local girl Sylvia (Played by Iris Brooks), who was watching the group perform a satanic ritual in the woods, they proceed to rape the poor girl. The next day, Sylvia stumbles from the woods, bloodied and rough up. She is discovered by Mildred (Played by Elizabeth Marner-Brooks), a woman who runs a local meat pie bakery, and Sylvia’s younger brother Pete (Played by Riley Mills). Mildred and Pete take Sylvia home to her grandfather Banner (Played by Richard Bowler), who swears he will get revenge on the group for what they have done to his granddaughter. Armed with a double barrel shotgun, he goes out to find the group, who has taken up shelter in an abandoned and supposedly haunted house. The group soon discovers Banner sneaking up on them and consequently he is the beaten, tortured, and force-fed LSD. Pete follows his grandfather to the house where he tries to rescue his grandfather and the two barely escape. While Banner recovers, Pete takes his grandfather’s shotgun and kills a rabid dog, taking its blood with a syringe and proceeds to inject it into a batch of meat pies. Pete then offers the meat pies to the hippies and soon after eating them, members of the group begin changing into rabid, infected psychos who just want to dismember anyone in their path.
Vaguely evocative of the Manson Family and part cautionary tale about the side effects of LSD, I Drink Your Blood is a repulsive gross out film with very little aptitude. It is never insinuating, as at one particular moment, the young and naïve Pete asks about LSD and a whole background is given on the drug. It doesn’t help that it packs the most outrageous plotline ever conceived. Yet it achieves cult status much like films like Burial Grounds, Zombie, Cannibal Holocaust, and I Spit on Your Grave. It has to be seen to be believed. That is if you can stomach it. Filled with pointless sex scenes (The film stops part way through to deliver for the nudity craving viewers) and graphic gore (In one scene, a leg is hacked off and it is a bit too real), it is no wonder this film was slapped with an X rating upon its release.
I Drink Your Blood is a film of memorable scenes rather than a substantial work of art. You will never forget a hoard of construction workers flailing through a field looking for someone to hack up. How about the moment with cult movie starlet Lyn Lowry (Of The Crazies fame) sawing off someone’s hand and carrying it around and examining it? How about the pregnant Satanist stabbing her own bulging, pregnant stomach? Or a mouth foaming psycho carrying a severed head around showing it to terrified citizens? Pretty sick stuff, huh? There are moments that have been influential (I’m fairly certain that Rob Zombie was inspired by the final firefight and added a nod to it in The Devil’s Rejects. He also samples a bit of the synthy score in his song “Feel So Numb”) and some that are harrowing (The final shot of the film sticks with you).
Unable to evaluate the film on intellectual terms (The film sparks no intellectual thought at all), I Drink Your Blood knows its target audience and everyone else can go to Hell. It is a sour concoction that manages to offend in almost every way imaginable and I’m convinced that is the only reason it was made. If you are deeply disturbed by animal cruelty, I’d stay far away from this (And Cannibal Holocaust). I found myself chuckling at some of the lunacy but I suppose I take these films on their own turf and the more extreme they are, the more the burrow their way into the soft spot I have for them. Yet I would never consider I Drink Your Blood a good film or recommend it to anyone looking for a movie to watch on a Friday night. The craftsmanship is amateur, the score is repetitive, and the acting cartoonish, I Drink Your Blood is for fans of this genre only and especially ones who understand how to approach this material. If your mission is to seek out the most extreme forms of cinema and try to see as many of these films as you can, I Drink Your Blood will rank among some of the most twisted you will see. If there was ever a film that leaves the viewer thinking they need a shower, I Drink Your Blood is the one.