Bite Size: The Playbirds (1978)

If you were going to make a hazard index for genre cinema occupations, models would definitely be near the top of the list, right alongside sex workers, camp counselors and babysitters. There is a certain amount of practical logic in this, as most audiences will read “model” as a shortcut to glamour and glitter, and it’s an occupation that requires little budgetary strain to convey onscreen. Some white backing paper, a few hot lights, and someone to announce “Beautiful!” or “Good!” while the shutter loudly snaps on the soundtrack is usually enough to establish the basic idea.

Additionally, there’s plenty of tried and true storyline possibilities for everything from sweet country girls corrupted by the big city, to catty backstage melodrama, or obsessive stalk and slashers of a wide variety of stripes. It’s also pretty easy to dial up the level of skin, sin and sleaze depending on if the model in question is a high fashion catwalker, a pin up, or an adult industry star. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the actress can actually pose, as the goal is not the still images anyway. It’s an easy win for all parties concerned.

This movie’s titular magazine (gifted with its own disco lounge theme song playing over the opening credits) is your typical sort of mainstream nudes, a touch naughtier than Playboy, but nowhere near as explicit as Hustler. It is the crown jewel of Harry Dougan’s (Alan Lake) smut empire, who uses the fortune he’s made from the skin business to live a leisurely life of casting couches, champagne, and horse racing. His idle rich routine gets interrupted when Playbirds centerfolds start turning up dead.

Grizzled Inspector Holbourne (Glenn Edwards), and his less cynical younger partner Inspector Morgan (Gavin Campbell) are assigned to the case, but the elusive killer leaves no clues aside from a rising body count. Desperate to find a solution before the case gets taken off their docket, the pair sends in Lucy (70s adult film queen Mary Millington) to pose as a centerfold, hoping the female officer can act as a deep cover honey trap to draw out the killer.

If The Playbirds rips more than a few of its plot beats from 1958’s The Cover Girl Killer, in practice it also has a lot of surface similarities to 1973’s Massage Parlor Murders!. There’s the disgruntled older cop not terribly receptive to his partner’s ideas. The fresh faced younger partner gets romantically involved with a lovely young lady important to the investigation. Tons of (likely permitless) footage provides a time capsule tour of sleaze epicenters gone by (London’s Soho instead of New York City’s Deuce), and the utilization of both a massage parlor and the pool at a swingers’ party to squeeze in some additional nudity.

If only the film had continued in Massage Parlor Murders!‘ cheerfully cheap vein, with Morgan blithely blathering about “the unholy trinity: sex, witchcraft and horses” and the choice of undercover cop being determined via superior officer sanctioned striptease. The procedural elements are pretty flat, with a sex offender jockey and a prone to temper photographer with a fondness for shooting occult themed spreads providing the required red herrings.

Yet for all of the familiar British television actors dotting the cast, the movie never manages to muster much energy, the celebrity names all clearly watching the clock. Mary Millington struggles valiantly to bring some life to her line readings as Lucy, but it is glaringly apparent her skills lie elsewhere.

In fact, it tends to play the giallo-lite contours of its plot for sex farce style comedy. The women in this film are perpetually naked, dead or both, and no one seems much bothered by it. The cops can barely bring themselves to grab printouts from their insanely retro wall of computers “lab”, and Dougan finds the whole thing a damper on his moneyed fuckboy antics. In fact, the film likes nothing better than to cut from the killer’s latest victim to Dougan’s endless runtime padding days at the Newmarket races (supplied by stock footage).

While never as violent or explicit as something like The New York Ripper or Giallo In Venice, The Playbirds coats itself in an oily sheen of sleazy misogyny that could easily rival either. Victims worry about turning the kettle off before being strangled to death, or in the film’s absolute nadir, cheerfully announce they’ve never been sexually assaulted before, as if it was just another experience to check off on a Bingo card.

What elevates The Playbirds from gross ineptitude to something truly baffling is that the entire film is basically product placement for a girlie mag. Producer David Sullivan had made a fortune in various pornographic endeavors, and Playbirds was one of the magazines he was publishing at the time. Alan Lake as Harry Dougan, smut peddling boy king, was basically a self insert. The character of Dougan is clearly written to suit what Sullivan thought was the height of suave swinger cool, but in actual effect comes across as the sort of self interested perfect suspect that likely would knock off his models for the sake of tawdry publicity and a bump in sales.

The fact that this portrayal was certainly approved by Sullivan to make the final cut hints at a startling level of narcissism. If that perhaps isn’t quite convincing enough, the pointless cruelty of the downbeat ending becomes even more vicious in light of the knowledge that David Sullivan and star Mary Millington were once lovers.

Sullivan had more than enough cash to throw around to fill his cast with well known actors who likely wouldn’t otherwise touch this sort of fare, if not for the need for a paycheck in a fallow period of their careers. Distributor Tigon Studios, once a respected producer of UK genre fare (Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan’s Claw), was also in its twilight years. The in house film production had ceased some half decade earlier, and they had taken to distributing sex films and quickie schlock to keep the lights on a while longer.

As for Mary Millington, police raids on her sex shops and persecution related to her time as a porn star took their toll. Addicted to drugs and deeply in debt, she took her own life in August of 1979, roughly a year after the film’s release. Co star Alan Lake wasn’t far behind her. Relapsed in his alcoholism and still grieving the loss of his wife, screen actress Diana Dors, he also took his own life in the fall of 1984.

As for David Sullivan, he continued to profit off of Mary Millington, producing 1980’s Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions, a morbid Frankenstein of a film pieced together from interviews, archive footage and unseen sex scenes she had completed before her untimely death. After a 1982 conviction for living off immoral earnings of prostitutes, he began to transition out of porn to more “legitimate” businesses, eventually becoming a billionaire.

The Playbirds isn’t particularly notable as a police procedural or as a sex film, but is one of the more readily available examples of an exploitation picture in both senses of the word. The meta aspects catapult what would be a forgettable bit of scuzz into far more disquieting territory, and not just because this depressingly cynical film is often listed as a comedy in online databases or when it pops up on mainstream streaming services. The Playbirds is a 94 minute testimonial to the shallowness of the personal freedom and anti censorship talking points that so many pornographers and exploitationeers make part and parcel with their public images. When it’s time to pay the crew what they’re owed, or when the women in those centerfolds part their lips to speak of desires that aren’t as easily commodified, it’s strictly business as usual. Silence is preferable to anything that might have an adverse effect on the bottom line.

Bite Size: Fangs (1974)

Fangs/Holy Wednesday (1974) Movie Review

For most people, midweek isn’t a particularly notable time. Whatever responsibilities Monday brings are already in progress, and it is a touch too early to anticipate the pleasures the weekend might bring. However, Jim “Snakey” Bender (40s radio star and B movie regular Les Tremayne) isn’t most people. On Wednesdays, Snakey leaves the comfort of his rural reptile farm for a trip into town. Amongst the hustle and bustle, he’s got errands to run, supplies to buy, and both a best friend and a pretty schoolteacher to visit.

This regional California drive in cheapie was the sole directorial credit for Art A. Names. He’s probably best known for his long career as a sound mixer for a variety of exploitation fare (The Corpse Grinders, Savage Streets, H.O.T.S.), and a pair of writing credits on lesser Ted V. Mikels movies. Visually, Fangs is exactly what you would expect in regard to both the director’s experience level and budgetary limitations. The movie is indifferently framed, edited like a car braking in traffic, and features a rather flat color palette that reads even muddier on home video. Slightly less expectedly, the sound levels are also all over the place, with blaring stock music and tinny dialog. What separates Fangs from the pack is all in the left field nature of its small town cast of characters.

Snakey himself is hillbilly caricature imported in from a hicksploitation flick, a pork and beans eating, dirty coverall wearing misanthrope who clearly prefers the company of his reptile pets to people. In fact, he keeps a few of his slithery friends in the car, even on his trips into town. He pays local schoolchildren to hunt rats and mice to feed them, and harasses the owners of the local general store to ship exotic snakes in on their delivery truck (food safety standards be damned). He also claims to be part snake himself. Snakey is just as fanatical as his nickname would imply, and the only other interest he has is an equally zealous passion for the bombastic marches of John Philip Sousa. Snakey has a standing appointment each week with his best buddy Burt (Richard Kennedy), where they bond over beer fueled march alongs to the greatest hits of 1896.

It’s clear that at least a few residents of the town are less than thrilled with his visits, in particular a literalist Bible thumper named Brother Joy (Marvin Kaplan) who feels serpents are the Devil’s work, and that old Snakey is leading the local kids into sins against God’s more innocent prey animals. Luckily Burt has enough clout around town to override Brother Joy’s objections in regards to his eccentric BFF. Local schoolteacher Cynthia (Bebe Kelly) is also oddly tolerant of Mr. Bender, encouraging her class to hunt for suitable feed, and inviting old Snakey’s menagerie to show and tell.

All of this changes when Burt decides to marry Ivy (Janet Wood), a showgirl he’s brought back from the big city. Her nude go go dancing sure beats broom carrying marches, and the days of Wednesday night band concerts are clearly numbered. Snakey, already threatened by a change to his precious weekly routine, makes a rash decision that further tears his well ordered schedule to shreds. Soon every warm blooded creature in his life seems to be turning against him.

Fangs takes a long time setting up its cast of characters, and there is a certain hypnotic rubbernecking quality to watching it edge its way into Willard territory despite lacking much, if any, handle on anything that even superficially resembles actual human behavior. It turns out that Cynthia, seemingly sweet schoolteacher, has a serious snake fetish. She’s been forcibly enlisting the school children on Snakey’s behalf to keep the conjugal visits with his prize pets coming (thankfully, this is only ever shown in puppet show style silhouette). Meanwhile, the sibling owners of the general store have had a share and share alike crush on Cynthia for months. When dim witted Bud (Bruce Kimball) and his butch lesbian Lothario sister Sis (Alice Nunn, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) get wind of Cynthia’s big secret, they blackmail her. Not wanting to lose her job, Cynthia is forced into both indulging the pair’s whims and accelerating the pace of old Snakey’s no good very bad day exponentially by cutting off his child labor snake food supply.

Why is Snakey such an outcast when every single character in town is transfixed by snakes as much as he is? What the hell was the onus of the weekly worship of marching bands? How did absolutely no one on the school board notice how much time Cynthia Williams spent rhapsodizing with her class about snakes?

Fangs is both oddly coy (there is little gore or nudity to speak of, despite the abundantly sleazy contours of the plot), and entirely committed to the weird world it has created in a way that is both accidentally hilarious and utterly disorienting. By the time Snakey starts creating overly elaborate reptile-centric Bond villain traps to punish his enemies and pushing cars off a cliff with the frenetic regularity of those headache remedy ads’ admonishment to “APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD!“……it’s rather pedestrian by comparison to everything that preceded it.

Fangs wasn’t much of a box office draw, despite a spate of retitlings that ranged from the generic (Snakes) to the blandly accurate (Holy Wednesday) to the most blatant sort of bait and switch (Snakelust). The film’s failure to launch isn’t surprising, as it doesn’t really venture far enough into grisly horror or forbidden lust to have satisfied the bulk of the grindhouse/drive in crowd. What Fangs excels at is a quality that is likely best appreciated in retrospect. Fangs is a jolt of shambling, oddly specific eccentricity. The film is basically the cinematic equivalent of those misshapen fish that are only found in the deeper reaches of the ocean, where all of the working parts are seemingly assembled in the wrong order. If you’re looking for sex, style, or shock you’d be better served elsewhere. However, if you’re looking for a genuinely inexplicable curio of the 70s indie genre film fringes, you might find Fangs fascinating in spite of itself.

The Shame Of Patty Smith (1962)

In 1959, an unidentified caller alerted the staff of a California hospital to a body lying on the well manicured grass of the grounds. She was pronounced dead immediately, but the body was still warm, her handbag and the labels inside of her clothing having been carefully removed. The only clues to her life (and subsequent untimely death) were a distinctive locket, a delicate wedding ring on her left hand, and two mysterious needle marks.

The story was front page news, and the media attention brought forward family members who were able to identify the young woman as 16 year old Brenda Blonder Emerson. The headstrong daughter of a well to do family, she had recently eloped against her parents’ wishes. The official cause of death was an overdose of sodium pentothal. The subsequent investigation revealed a shady network of fly by night “clinics” and nebulously qualified “doctors” promising desperate young women the bodily agency the law denied them.

While underground abortions had long been reported by hospitals tasked with dealing with the terrible after effects, the high profile death of a wealthy white woman brought a new mainstream attention to the dangerous gauntlet long run by the poor and people of color in seeking reproductive choice. The manhunt and trial for those responsible for Brenda’s death was still enough of a hot topic that her story was used as the lede on a Saturday Evening Post expose on illicit abortion published in the spring of 1961.

The expose was the likely inspiration for Patty (later retitled as both The Case Of Patty Smith and The Shame Of Patty Smith). Filmed in the summer of 1961, but released in 1962, the basic beats are obviously ripped straight from the headlines of the period, in both the grand exploitation tradition and the “timely, topical, not typical” ethos of major studio dramas of the 30s and 40s.

Patty Smith (Dani Lynn, If a Man Answers) is fresh off of the bus from Kansas, having moved out to the coast just five months prior. In that time, she’s found a friend in her roommate, Mary (Merry Anders, Young Jesse James), a job as a secretary for a real estate agency, and a budding romance with the square-ish and square jawed Alan (Carleton Crane).

The pair are out on a date when Alan gets into a fender bender with three leather jacketed miscreants straight out of juvenile delinquency film Central Casting. The young punks mock both Alan’s straight laced nature, and his annoyance at the damage to his fancy car. Patty guides Alan away from further confrontation, reminding him that “there’s no winning with that kind”. Unfortunately, even the mildest form of a woman standing up for herself further angers the crew.

The gang follows the couple to a remote spot on the beach, doubly determined to show that mouthy Patty just what kind they are. What began as a minor mishap turns much darker, as the trio sexually assault Patty and force Alan to watch while held at knife point. Traumatized and shaken, Patty begins apologizing to Alan as they escape to their car. Despite being the victim of unimaginable trauma, the poor woman blames herself for both the assault and Alan’s own cowardice, helping him rationalize his inaction. Knowing she’s too ashamed to report the crime to police, Alan drops Patty at her door with a selfish admonishment to forget the whole thing, and an empty promise to call her later.

Six weeks later, Patty discovers she’s pregnant. Alan is studiously avoiding her phone calls and she’s lost her job in a mistake laden, trauma fueled fog. Patty doesn’t want to give birth to a product of assault, and she and Mary begin searching for a solution to her tragic predicament. Patty’s general practitioner lectures her on legality, and attempts to ship her off to a home for unwed mothers when she reveals that her conservative immigrant father would never accept her condition. Mary finds a doctor willing to break the law, but the pair don’t have his $600 fee (roughly $5000 in 2021 dollars), and the recently unemployed Patty is unlikely to receive a bank loan. Patty appeals to the mercy of her parish priest for the cash, but he condemns her to eternal damnation when he discovers the nature of her needed operation.

While the the topic at hand is firmly in the wheelhouse of roadshow style fare, The Case Of Patty Smith is a somber drama forced to wear the white coater trappings of an exploitation film by virtue of its subject and era. This was writer/producer Leo A. Handel’s only stint in the director’s chair on a feature, but he had a successful business producing 16mm classroom films, which is likely why the bursts of voiceover narration and factoid filled expositional scenes amongst the film’s authority figures carry a much more genuinely educational bent than the usual censorship evading veneer, in a very bold push to reconsider public policy and its side effects (a full 11 years before the landmark decision of Roe vs. Wade).

The film carefully avoids sensationalism, and while individual characters victim blame Patty, the movie itself is very clearly on her side, never castigating her for being a career girl, abandoning small town life or dating before marriage. This is underlined in the opening minutes of the film, when the narrator informs us Patty is “the average American girl, with average hopes and average problems”.

There’s no screeching moralism or lurid camp in the performances, and Dani Lynn is near instantly sympathetic as Patty. Initially determined even in the face of the nightmare she’s endured, it is heartbreaking as she makes herself sweet and small, full of apologies and earnest pleas to be heard and believed. Instead, everyone she turns to hides behind the performance of kindliness and earnest assistance, following the letter of the law (both secular and religious) to avoid addressing the intent of those same principles. So dedicated to the idea of preserving life, none of the men in the film give adequate weight to the actual life consequences for the innocent victim begging for help sitting in front of them, even as they privately acknowledge the horrors of the choices their inaction pushes her toward.

Unsurprisingly, it is Merry Anders’ Mary that is the only person in the film who truly hears and supports Patty, and the genuine warmth of their friendship is one of the few bright spots in a rather dark film. There’s no cattiness or competition in their interactions, only an almost maternal empathy and the sort of steely, sassy protectionism that Patty is too fragile to conjure up for herself in the face of the endless parade of emptily moralizing male authority. There but for the grace of luck or better sexual health education goes Mary, and she treats Patty just as kindly as she would want her fellow women to regard her if the roles were reversed.

Unfortunately, this is still 1962, and by the time the cowardly Alan finally emerges to hand Patty $60 and the address of a bar owner named Colbert (long working character actor Bruno VeSota) who has some very questionable “connections”, the audience knows exactly where the film is headed. Patty’s strength and Mary’s support are no match for the thunderous indifference toward female suffering that would make access to a fly by night underground clinic a profitable addition to the portfolio of shady services a man like Colbert provides in the backroom of a seedy bar.

In the final third, Patty‘s competent, but generally unobtrusive aesthetic takes a turn toward the terror this all is. Colbert spews smoke and casually suggests the already fallen Patty turn a trick or two to raise the $200 for her appointment. A pawn shop is lit like a jail cell, the diamond cross Patty pawns just another dingy trinket. Her journey to the floating “clinic” is full of shadowy corners and twisting staircases. By the time a chain smoking “nurse” pulls a filthy thermometer out of her pocket, leering at how pretty Patty is like the lecherous warden of a b movie women’s prison, what was already heart breaking has become a full on nightmare, all low lit terrors and the creeping dread of the inevitable. Because the bulk of the runtime is played appealingly straight, this sequence is more effective than many of the actual horror films of the same period. As Patty makes her doomed walk into the “doctor’s” (actually an unemployed pharmacist) makeshift surgery, I found myself biting my nails to the quick, stifling the urge to shout a warning at the screen.

When discussing vintage exploitation and horror films, there is often a certain comfortable remove from both the more harrowing aspects of the subject matter, and the retrograde ideas that often drive the narrative. There’s little real danger of atomic mutants, rabid hippies, or cannibals stalking the streets of urban centers. The ongoing work of multiple social justice movements, while far from done, have made notable strides toward a more progressive and inclusive society than the ones that produced these films.

What makes Patty so oddly affecting is how far we haven’t come in the nearly six decades since its release. Abortion is legal in the US, but both that status and actual access to the surgery itself (or non abortion related reproductive health services) are under perpetual attack. Sexual assaults remain under reported, and under prosecuted, when a victim does go forward with charges. The rationales espoused by various characters in the film for denying Patty assistance, both religious and secular, can be found nearly verbatim in recent conservative media thinkpieces (which I’m choosing not to hotlink so as not to heighten engagement for ideologies I’d prefer not to signal boost).

The real shame of Patty Smith is what an enduring stand in she is, not only for young women demographically like her, but as a signpost pointing towards the thousands of women who died needlessly for similar reasons. Those who weren’t deemed acceptable as tragic figures, or found worthy of front page headlines and thinly fictionalized films, who died alone on dirty kitchen tables or anonymously in hospitals from back alley butchery complications. For those born after 1973, it can be a bit too easy to take Patty’s fate for granted as a sad, melodramatic relic of an earlier era, secure in the knowledge that abortion can be safely performed in hospital settings. The sorrowful reality is that without vigilance regarding those protections, the dangerous consequences in the rearview mirror are much closer than they appear.

Bite Size: Alabama’s Ghost (1973)

Of all of the fly by night indie filmmakers who snatched up a handful of genre credits in the wild and wooly 70s, Fredric Hobbs might have one of the most unusually highbrow pedigrees. An Ivy League educated former Air Force officer, he had a long career as both a sculptor and a painter, with his work still in the holdings of several large museums. In addition to traditional fine art, he experimented with self created forms such as his proto Burning Man “parade sculptures”, which reinvented cars as rolling installations covered in elaborate detail. In 1969 he began his experimentation with film, the (comparatively) best known of which is likely his 1973 cinematic swan song, Godmonster Of Indian Flats. Alabama’s Ghost was the second to last of Hobbs’ quartet of feature efforts, and had a limited theatrical release earlier that same year, before vanishing with little fanfare. The film briefly resurfaced on VHS in 1985, as part of Elvira’s Chiller Theater series, before disappearing a second time.

Within the first 3 minutes of viewing Alabama’s Ghost, it is very easy to see why this film quickly joined the ranks of the cinematic mole people. The opening narration is a god tier dump of exposition that reeks of being added in post production to even begin to make sense of the insanely complex plot.

A Nazi doctor of robotics named Dr. Houston Caligula was tasked with hunting down a stage magician named “The Great Carter”, who had gone on a deep sabbatical in the slums of Calcutta. He had discovered a magical substance called Raw Zeta. While bearing a surface resemblance to the “Cartoon Khaki” strain of hashish, Raw Zeta could be combined with acupuncture to create Deadly Zeta. Deadly Zeta is so called because it is a powerful tool of mass mind control. Before Dr. Caligula could locate Carter and his mysterious substance, the magician vanished. He was given a spirit funeral in the mid 1930s, as he was assumed to be dead.

Are you confused yet? Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time to be perplexed, as we cut to the modern day and the main plot, where an old fashioned Dixie band is playing a bleating song (ever so cleverly titled “Alabama’s Ghost”) that provides even MORE plot details.

“Who’s the ghostest with the mostest? Who’s the best from coast to coastest?”

“Carter’s come back to Frisco land, He’s the ghost from Alabam.”

Now that we’ve added a haunting to the 453657567 other plot elements, we finally meet the titular Alabama (Christopher Brooks, The Mack), an aspiring musician working at the club to make ends meet. When he accidentally crashes a forklift into the cellar, he discovers all of Carter’s magical gear, including the Raw Zeta, which Alabama assumes is vintage hashish and smokes. Locating Carter’s aged sister (Ken Grantham) and grand niece Zoerae (Peggy Browne) from an address on one of the treasures, he convinces them to let him learn Carter’s tricks. With the additional help of Carter’s former assistant Moxie (Ken Grantham, again) and a cellar’s worth of magic gear, he begins to transform himself into “Alabama, Ruler Of The Cosmos”.

Despite his nightclub act consisting of shuffling animals about in a cabinet and making a young Spanish boy cry over his dead grandpa, Alabama is successful enough to warrant a personal manager named Otto (Steven Kent Browne), a dizzying array of tricorn hats and lamé turbans, and a car that looks like what Fred Flintstone would drive in a monster truck rally (one of the director’s art pieces).

Otto suggests a psychedelic concert tour of open air rock festivals with a pile of hippie groupies that mostly serve as an excuse to pad the runtime with generic groovy music and the sort of wild bohemian dancing featured in pretty much every exploitation film that even mentions the word “hippie”. Lots of arm waving, hips on the 1 and 3.

As his success grows, Alabama is haunted by Carter’s ghost, warning him not to use the magic with greed in his heart, or else he risks being attacked by vampires, who he has unwittingly already met. Carter’s sister/Moxie is actually Gaunt (Ken Grantham, once more with feeling) the vampire king, whom the audience sees remove “her” wig and bare fangs early in the film. Gaunt then positions himself as a TV producer, offering a big payday if Alabama will do his disappearing elephant trick at a massive music festival, which will be broadcast worldwide. Alabama also has to reveal how the trick is done, another big magical no no, which causes Carter’s ghost to haunt him even harder.

This is more than enough plot for any movie to have, and I commend all of you for reading this far. Needless to say, the TV special is a ploy to unleash Deadly Zeta mind control, and the film has another pile of narrative elements to add to the Jenga stack. The Nazi doctor finally makes an appearance, there’s an entire witchdoctor sub plot, an Alabama doppelganger that is either a robot or a “twin Frankenstein”, and an actual live elephant. The animal is credited by name in the print I watched (Neena), and is as adorable as a creature that large can be. She does not, in fact, disappear.

This sounds like there’s a ton going on, but Alabama’s Ghost is oddly static, with a lot of idly talky sequences and boatloads of music based padding. Fredric Hobbs also wrote the screenplay, and just keeps tossing story elements at the wall in the hopes something sticks, and each new wrinkle is given a ton of exposition that is descriptive, but not in the least bit informative. The story grinds to a halt for every little thing, without ever really painting a clear picture of how any of this mystical flippity flopping actually works.

There is an epic final free for all of magic wand pew pew lasers, greasepaint vampires on motorbikes, and one very bored looking elephant, but the rest of the film takes its sweet ass time to get there. It’s all too silly to be scary, but the scarce bits that are actually funny get buried in the constant barrage of story devices. I genuinely giggled at Alabama ignoring Carter’s dire warnings, not because he’s skeptical of ghosts, but because Carter is a racist ghost who is jealous at a Black man taking over as the world’s greatest magician, so fuck him and his salt fueled warnings. Alabama even advises other characters to ignore the ghost for this reason. There’s also a silly little visual joke of the Nazi vampires making a hippie victim assembly line for more efficient feeding of their gaggle of bloodsuckers.

The few modern outlets that have covered this film at all tend to characterize this as some surrealist Blaxploitation flick, but that’s more reflective of the marketing than the actual film. Christopher Brooks’ Alabama is a jazzy stoner sort, rather than any of that subgenre’s hard edged archetypes. His dialog is written in a dated hep cat affect that makes me wonder if this film sat on a shelf for a year or two, or if Fredric Hobbs just had a tin ear for the slang that was actually hip at the time. At the very least, Brooks puts a lot of energy into his performance, trying to put this jumbled slice of psychedelica over the hump.

Alabama’s Ghost is a unique viewing experience, and cinema rarely gets more textbook definition psychotronic than this. That said, this lacks the aesthetic consistency or daffy energy to really be as much of a bizarre boffo good time as it sounds like on paper. Alabama’s Ghost is certainly a trip, but even the film itself isn’t too sure where in the hell it was supposed to be going.

Bite Size: All The Sins Of Sodom (1968)

Joe Sarno was a pioneer of sexploitation cinema, and his best works are engaging tightrope acts between the arthouse and the grindhouse, combining the forbidden content the sticky seat masses desired with a distinct minimalist aesthetic that those supposedly too highbrow for such lurid fare could use as the tailor made excuse to buy themselves a ticket.

After shooting proto softcore hit Inga in Sweden, Sarno returned to his native New York to lens his next few films. All The Sins Of Sodom was shot back to back with Vibrations, with both movies released in 1968. While the US was in the midst of the roughie boomlet, All The Sins Of Sodom‘s influences lean more toward European cinema of the same approximate period, with a protagonist and setting reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, and a bit of Ingmar Bergman’s (of whom Sarno was an admitted admirer) constant questioning of the complex mechanics of identity and desire. Livening up the cross continental reference mix is some biting dialog and a pulpy fixation on the creative professions as only a half step from vice dens, full of damaged, wanton seekers.

Henning (credited by IMDB as Dan Machuen, but uncredited on the print I saw, so proceed with caution) is a relatively successful (enough to go by surname only) photographer of cheesecake prints and art nudes, happy to live in his studio and draw from his models as single serving bed partners when the mood strikes. A fantastic session (in both senses) with the charmingly gamine Leslie (Maria Lease, see above) breaks the usual pattern, and the two begin what might be an actual love affair. However, his new muse is slowing his pace on paid assignments, and Leslie can’t quite emote what’s needed for Henning’s next project.

Protecting her 10%, Henning’s agent (Peggy Steffans, who was married to Sarno at the time, and fills in several roles behind the scenes) sends him a sultry brunette waif named Joyce (Marianne Provost, supposedly) who might better suit the brief. Henning is a preacher’s son, and full of the standard issue Madonna/whore complexes and sexual repression such an upbringing usually implies. He wants a model who can be the ultimate temptress, a Jezebel in high heels who embodies lust in its darkest forms. Joyce, with her jaded affect and free wheeling ways, has a dark carnality that Leslie lacks, and soon she’s making her home in Henning’s spare storage room and acting as his personal muse.

Deep in the throes of artistic obsession, Henning is the only one who doesn’t notice that Joyce’s libido fueled cunning goes farther than the photo series she’s posing for. Soon she’s woven herself into his personal life, driving a wedge between Henning and Leslie in the guise of assisting him in capturing his vision. Not content with her machinations, she also carries on a clandestine affair with one of Henning’s best models, a closeted (and obviously conflicted) lesbian.

It’s clear Joyce’s end goal is eventually to seduce Henning himself, and the closing in of a doomed love triangle is reflected in the sparse, claustrophobic nature of the production. There’s just a hint of ambient noise from the street below, the only music cue a rattling, rising heart of a drumbeat when things get steamy. Henning’s single mindedness in regards to his art, is capably echoed by set dressing that shows a living space that would better suit a monk than a swinging photographer.

Nearly the entire film takes placed in the cramped environs of Henning’s apartment/studio. Yet the tiny spaces feel distinct, with the studio lit hot and bright white, an empty canvas for Henning to fill with the models who act out the tableaux he conjures up. The photo shoots are expertly framed, and its one of the few instances in cinema (exploitation or mainstream) where you can see how the session as depicted would produce beautiful stills.

Meanwhile, Joyce’s storage room domain is an inky black underworld, like some shadow dwelling succubus for whom dragging someone into bed is only the first step in dragging them down, period. While there is a slight tentativeness in the sex scenes, it’s likely no coincidence that the stark lighting is focused on the faces, contorted in ecstasy that could also be agony, the literal translation of le petit mort made visual reality.

Despite the title, this isn’t as sinful or as overtly sexual as one might expect, with the sex scenes well integrated into the larger plot. There’s plenty of time to let each character expose their traumas and insecurities before all of these hurt people, hurt people. Sex is just another tool in the arsenal. While the ending of the film is predictable, the journey to that forgone conclusion is consistently engaging.

While there are definite moments of overacting from the less than experienced cast, all of them are far more capable than expected with oft barbed dialog. It’s Maria Lease’s Leslie who steals the show, full of spry sunshine followed by lovelorn fragility as she loses hold on Henning. In the film’s strongest scene, Henning directs Joyce to sexually stimulate Leslie as they shoot, and Leslie’s combination of arousal at the physical touch at odds with her revulsion for the conniving interloper is about as strong a performance as you are ever likely to see in this era of sexploitation film.

All The Sins Of Sodom, while not one of Sarno’s best known features, is probably one of the best arguments for his work being placed alongside with Radley Metzger’s in terms of erotica with ambition and style to spare, overdue for more mainstream reassessment and acclaim. Beautifully photographed in black and white, its a meditation on shades of gray, between love and hate, dedication and obsession, pleasure and pain. One definition of erotic is “to arouse desire”, and All The Sins Of Sodom is a tense, effective character study of the frustration it is to be driven by unquenchable need, sexual or otherwise.

Bite Size: Legacy Of Satan (1974)

It’s possible that every porno director has some frustrated ambition towards the cinematic mainstream. It’s also possible that producer Louis Peraino (a scion of the Mafia’s Colombo crime family) needed to launder some mob money with a movie production, and a porn director was standing in the right place at the time. In any case, Legacy Of Satan was infamous porn director Gerard Damiano’s only attempt at a more conventional film.

While shot in 1972, the movie didn’t see release until 1974, a clear attempt to capitalize on the massive success of Damiano’s seminal hardcore hits Deep Throat and The Devil In Miss Jones. Briefly playing double bills with both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Andy Milligan’s Blood (the latter the much more logical pairing), the film quickly vanished into obscurity. Multiple online outlets report that the picture was originally conceived as a porno, and the choppy editing is the excision scars from the removed sex scenes. However, there is no definitive/firsthand source I can find that confirms this, and if a hardcore version ever existed, it’s long lost.

The plot is certainly as thin as most narrative hardcore features. Mysterious astrological phenomena have finally aligned correctly for Dr. Muldavo (John Francis) and his cult of demon worshippers to anoint a new queen, an event that only happens every 1000 years. Arthur (James Procter) is a set adrift former architect who found his way to the cult in his spiritual wanderings. Wanting to impress Muldavo, he suggests the lovely Maya (Lisa Christian). Shy, sweet and sexually frustrated, she is the perfect choice. The only complication is that Maya is already married, to Arthur’s best friend George (Paul Barry). She’s also not a Satanist, but the cult seems unconcerned with the conversion, happy to have found a woman who suits their bizarre prophecy.

This sort of fare litters the 70s like trash on a movie theater floor, and Legacy Of Satan certainly doesn’t break much new ground, aside from the entity the cult worships being inexplicably named Rakeesh. Black masses abound, petty jealousies flare amongst the cultists, and occult sexual satisfaction is the key to luring Lisa into Muldavo’s dark clutches.

The film barely merits its listed R rating, and both the blood letting and the skin shown are both pretty minimal, grading on the curve of its similar subject matter contemporaries. Line readings are across the board flat, and the editing is indeed choppier than a stormy sea. There’s too little plot for even a 68 minute runtime, and none of these actors are the sorts you want delivering a ton of expository dialog. Most of them never made another film, but Last House On The Left’s Sandra Peabody and doomed television ingenue Christa Helm have small parts as cuties in thrall to the cult’s dark magic.

Yet, for all its flaws, Legacy Of Satan has a fantastic trash visual flair that the French would likely term jolie laide, and that I personally would characterize as “Anton LeVey goes to a key party”. The synth score drones loud enough to drown out the dialog in most scenes, as the characters drift through settings filled with weird metallic wallpaper, sickly decor schemes involving way too much lilac and puce, and all occasion elaborate swirls of eyeliner. Paintings bleed, glowing swords pop up out of nowhere, and even the cultists are all big hair and miles of polyester satin cut into flowing caftans and slinky dresses. It’s all so utterly gauche and grimy that it becomes kind of gorgeous.

Lisa Christian is very lovely, and looks great in a procession of time capsule worthy, eye poppingly 70s fashions. Maya’s gradual possession is quite fun, and the film’s best scene sees her snap from mousy housewife to a witchy, bitchy Domme with a fondness for blood play and cherry pie. The cult rituals are delightfully camp, particularly when they pull out their super secret orgasm magic and cause Maya some very vivid dreams via chants, an orgiastically writhing cultist and a photo set aflame. The combination of drugged wine and a masked ball in a creepy mansion even lends the film a few fine moments of Jess Franco style sexual psychedelica.

Legacy Of Satan parcels out its more psychotronic moments sparingly, and it likely would have benefitted from some hardcore inserts or a more visceral slant to its horror elements to really attract a wider audience. As it stands, your view of this particular cult curio as a freaky fever dream or as a no narrative nightmare will directly depend on your taste for its garish version of grindhouse aesthetics.

Bite Size: Moonshiner’s Woman (1968)

No matter what illicit substance you’re selling, it’s never wise to start tapping into your own supply. Claude (Bill Crisp) drinks as much moonshine as he sells, and only puts the jug down long enough to scream at his pretty girlfriend Loralee (Linda Lee) for daring to disturb his libations by taking a walk.

Claude’s alcoholism and his judgement are both at rock bottom. When his big city business partner Mr. Jarvis (director Donn Davidson) notices that Claude’s been skimming off the top, he’s is quickly disposed of. Claude hasn’t even finished his excuse before he’s lying dead in the mountain dust. Mr. Jarvis considers Loralee partial payment for what he’s owed, and takes her away to the big city.

Exploitation was full of slick talking salesman, and director Donn Davidson was one of the hardest hustling fixtures of the deep south. A former stage magician and Yo Yo champion, he had long perfected his pitch in the carny like atmosphere of roadshows and spookshows. His first brush with film directing was in service of same, when he created a cheap set of creature feature like inserts for an unauthorized print of David Friedman’s She Freak, and took it out on the road as Asylum Of The Insane.

Moonshiner’s Woman was his first swing at a (just barely) full length feature, and is a film that was most certainly created in reverse. What plot there is was clearly bolted together after he had taken inventory of the footage he had the resources to shoot. Only a few scenes even attempt to poorly sync sound, and pretty much all of the narrative is delivered via voiceover. At least one music cue is clearly someone idly tapping their fingers on a table, and a meeting of the gangsters is backgrounded by library music that sounds like it was stolen from a spaghetti commercial. Because they’re Italian.

If you give up on the hopes of something that makes any linear storyline sense, Moonshiner’s Woman manages to hit a some tried and true exploitation beats, in its own meandering way. In addition to having a blast hamming it up as Mr. Jarvis, Donn Davidson provides narration that is full of overheated audience warnings, fatherly asides to his own creations, and clucking chastisements to himself for almost providing spoilers. The overall effect is charmingly odd, like a rambling story from a favorite uncle who may have had a few too many drinks.

As for protagonist Loralee, she seems to take the bizarre series of events that tore her away from her mountain home in surprising stride. Mr. Jarvis is initially quite charming, and his suggestion she try on “showgirl” costumes allows the film to show a touch of skin. Loralee seems to understand Jarvis’ offer of a showbiz job as a front for something far less upright, but she doesn’t refuse his demands. Instead, Loralee is dazzled by the big city ways of cosmopolitan Daytona Beach, with a stolen shot travelogue of the races providing the background for her doomed love affair with Mitch (Roy Huston), one of Jarvis’ lackeys tasked with keeping an eye on her.

Soon, all traces of the mousy country gal are gone. Loralee much prefers pretty dresses and plane flights to burlap sacks and bare feet. With dangling earrings and heavy eyeliner, she’s gleefully smoking weed and dropping LSD, with her drug trip a swirl of the camera across landscapes and a patterned floor that seems ripped right out of the Andy Milligan playbook. Things escalate from a “simple country girl is corrupted by the big city” riff to catfights, death by magician’s cabinet and revenge. As this happens rather late in the film, its easier to be in sync with the movie’s jerky rhythm in regards to story.

Moonshiner’s Woman is certainly a dismal failure as a narrative feature. The highly dramatic voiceover account of the plot is never quite at the same tone or pace as the rather inert visual events on screen. Nor do most of those events connect in any satisfying way. Almost in spite of itself, what Moonshiner’s Woman does have is a leisurely, folksy charm. Donn Davidson is clearly aware of how little he’s working with, but everyone involved seems to be having a lot of fun. There’s something to be said for his earnestness in attempting to put on the best show he can with the minimal resources available, a refreshingly less cynical take on the old adage about sizzles and steak.

Bite Size: Mad Youth (1939)

By 1939, the Hays Code had cracked down on Hollywood. High profile scandals had been making front page news since the 20s (from the death of Virgina Rappe to the murder of director William Desmond Taylor) , and the dawning of a new decade did little to diminish the moviegoing public’s appetites for racy material, from Mae West’s bawdy wisecracks to overheated Cecil DeMille historical epics full of some rather scantily clad starlets. When religious groups and the moral majority grew increasingly loud regarding the perceived “immorality” of mainstream films, Hollywood instituted a campaign of self censoring production guidelines that would hold for the next three decades.

As always, this left exploitation cinema to pick up the slack in the celluloid sins department. 1939’s Mad Youth is chock full of the snappy innuendo, daring peeks of skin and (comparative) sexual frankness of its bigger budget pre Code cousins, with just enough of a “moral” for plausible deniability of prurient interests. Like many other exploitation films before and since, it was cut to suit local markets by both state censor boards and local projectionists more familiar with the amount of scandal their localities could bear.

Lucy Morgan (Oscar nominated silent/early sound star Betty Compson) is a high living divorcee who spends more time with her social calendar than she does with her daughter, Marian (Mary Ainslee). Mrs. Morgan hires handsome young escorts from a local agency to accompany her to this parade of bridge games and club nights. To add brass to bad parenting, she even asks her daughter to loan her the cash to pay for her companions once her alimony check is all spent.

Marian, being a clever girl, uses the loan as a bargaining chip for permission to throw parties while her mother is otherwise engaged. While Mrs. Morgan is playing bridge and negotiating the price of “necking” with the handsome “Count” DeHoven (Willy Castello, a mainstay in many similar vice pictures), Miriam is tossing a rager full of booze, some pretty impressive jitterbugging, majorette routines(!?) and strip poker.

When Mrs. Morgan attempts to bargain for a freebie by inviting the Count to the house for a nightcap, he meets the lovely Marian, pretending to have fallen asleep waiting up for her mother. Their introductions are quite adversarial, given DeHoven realizes Miriam is just covering up her partying, and Miriam knows that he’s just another paid staffer for Mrs. Morgan. Despite the sparring, and Miriam’s idle dismissal of the gigolo, the chemistry between the two is obvious. Before long, DeHoven is secretly calling on Miriam free of charge, and avoiding Mrs. Morgan’s requests for paid assignments.

It’s almost comical how obsessed with sex nearly every character in Mad Youth is, apart from from the gigolo angle. It’s all very coded, but its a code you could crack with a ring from a cereal box. When Marian’s friends are parked down the block awaiting her to signal the start of the party, two are making out in the back seat. A cop comes to roust them out from making “googly eyes” ……only because it disturbs HIS necking with a young woman on a nearby park bench. This odd plot swerve is explained only with the following, retroactively hilarious, line:

“When a man wants to goo, he wants to goo, and I don’t want any lovebirds perched that close when I’m goo-ing!”

Cutting to Mrs. Morgan’s bridge game/bargaining session, even the gossip around the table is who’s zooming who, and exactly what sort of rides you might receive on a date with a car salesman. Mad Youth‘s adults are just as perpetually sexually frustrated as the teens. The principle difference is that the teens’ drinking, panty flashing dance routines and naked card games seem way more fun than bridge. As does the cafe where DeHoven joins Marian for an actual date, where the runtime padding includes more dancing and an ersatz bullfight.

This being 1939, all of this free floating horniness can’t possibly end well. Mrs. Morgan snoops through Marian’s diary, and discovers where the Count’s actual affections lie. This leads to a rather well acted standoff between the two women. Mrs. Morgan is both the worst kind of parent and the worst kind of trick. She truly believed Count DeHoven was going to marry her if she paid for enough of his time.

Mrs. Morgan then admits that she openly resents Marian, and never wanted her, blaming her daughter for her own lost youth and loveless former marriage. Marian, correctly pegging her mother as delusional, opts to move out. Rather than surprise her father and his new wife, she heads to Pittsburgh to join her best friend Helen.

Helen had written Marian about her unexpected wedding, to an unseen dreamboat from a correspondence club. However, when Marian arrives at the provided address, its a white slavery ring/brothel. The madam now has two beautiful young girls in her slimy clutches, and an unnecessarily racist caricature to help her keep them there.

White slavery panic was one of the most common scare tactics in early exploitation, but Mad Youth deserves credit for using some some fresh calculations to get to very common final answer. It also makes a sex worker the late in the game moral center of the film, and lets him be the hero of the day as he saves the girls. Sure, Count DeHoven renounces his former occupation, but just when you think the moralists have won the day, Mad Youth pulls one last cheeky reversal of the “immorality must be punished” ethos right as the credits fade.

While both statically shot and heavily padded as was typical of its budget and era, Mad Youth brings some fresh twists to a pile of early exploitation tropes, complete with a late career grand dame to class up the proceedings. For those unfamiliar with pre 1960/”classical” exploitation, this film would be a solid place to start. Director Melville Shyer was a veteran of the very early days of Hollywood (eventually helping found the Screen Directors’ Guild), and worked alongside some very established names. Accordingly, Mad Youth is livelier than many of its contemporaries, with a nice mix of mainstream style melodrama and exploitation’s censor evading obsession with sleaze smuggled into scare tactics.

Bite Size: The Baron (1977)

All Jason (Calvin Lockhart, Cotton Comes To Harlem) wants to do is make a movie. In a lifetime of bullshit artistry and constant hustle, he’s finally hit on something that works. Everyone who has seen the completed portion of his film very much enjoys it, a family friendly adventure about a well to do race car driver named Baron Wolfgang Von Tripps. Unfortunately, he is running out of money to finish the film.

Desperate to see his creation on screen, he borrows a large sum from a local drug dealer known only as The Cokeman (Charles McGregor). What Jason doesn’t realize is that The Cokeman borrowed that money from the mob. Heading to the coast to negotiate for a negative pick up deal, Jason finds out backers are only interested in the film if he replaces himself and his all Black cast and crew with white actors. Heading back to New York defeated, Jason is left with an unfinished film and one very pissed off mobster (Richard Lynch, God Told Me To) looking to recoup his $300,000 by any means necessary.

The Baron was written and directed by Phillip Fenty (writer of 1972 smash hit Superfly), and was released toward the end of the Blaxploitation boom, with a leading man easily recognizable to fans of the genre. Yet for all of its crime procedural elements, moviegoers looking for a high stakes actioner full of gun fights, karate chops and dramatic comeuppance were likely to be sorely disappointed. The Baron plays the bulk of its runtime in more drama fueled territory, with an interesting meta element regarding the perils of making an indie film likely drawn from the director’s own experience.

For all of the shaggy, scattershot plot beats and distinctly flat visuals, The Baron is never less than watchable, due to a herd of better than average performances, and a mellow score by jazz/spoken word legend Gil Scott-Heron. Calvin Lockheart’s Jason is by alternating turns a believable charming trickster and tunnel visioned dreamer. Even when the silliness of the plot demands he do something incredibly selfish, incredibly stupid or both, he never manages to become entirely unsympathetic. Here is a man so incredibly desperate to succeed at something, he’ll do just about anything to be a hero, even if it is only on celluloid.

Jason doesn’t have the constitution for violent robbery or dealing drugs, even when The Cokeman strongly suggests he do so by virtue of some well trained attack dogs. Instead, Jason leaves his loving wife Caroline (Marlene Clark, Night Of The Cobra Woman, as usual turning in some fine moments in an underwritten role), and becomes a gigolo for the wealthy white jet set who are ever so eager to exoticize him. With his breezy charm and elegant lines in a sharp cut suit, he’s soon being kept by the very old and very rich Mama Lou (1930s Hollywood queen Joan Blondell, doing a rather fun oversexed dowager). She may refer to him as her “hot dog”, but she also pays all of the bills.

However, The Cokeman is dead, and it isn’t long before Richard Lynch’s Joey shows up at her mansion to collect from Jason instead. Richard Lynch was always excellent at playing human excrement, and his sleaze coated homophobic and racist hit man steals every scene in which he appears without getting a single spot on his immaculate white suits.

Unfortunately, the movie fails to utilize some of its strongest themes or performances as effectively as they could have been, particularly the systemic racism of Hollywood and the upper class environs Jason inhabits in his brief stint as a gigolo. Some of the film’s best bits are when Jason is subtly sticking it to the upper class snobs in posh clubs and department stores, using his hustler skills and some well placed malicious compliance to make their prejudices pay out in cold hard cash.

The ending is also more than a touch rushed, and lands with a bit of a whimper. Given the obvious lack of resources and a coherent central focus, the fact that the ending feels unsatisfying is a testament to the quiet appeal and good will the performances managed to generate in the first place. While The Baron never quite reaches top speed, there’s a certain charming pluck in the fact that it ever managed to get onto the track.

Bite Size: Night Train Murders (1975)

Night Train Murders, on its surface, is easy to dismiss as another of the revenge fueled Last House On The Left imitators that flooded the market in the mid 70s. Originally titled Last Stop On The Night Train, its entire US release history was littered with retitlings that further emphasized that idea. New House on the Left, Second House on the Left, and other confusingly close variants that likely insured at least a few unlucky moviegoers accidentally paid to see the same film twice.

The basic plot structure is undeniably similar. Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D’Angelo) are high school best friends, traveling from Germany to Italy to spent the Christmas break with Lisa’s parents.

The train is packed, and amongst the crowds the girls have an awkward run in with two ticketless young punks, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi). It quickly becomes apparent that something is very off about these two young men, who seem overly solicitous in an aggressive manner. It’s predatory disguised as playful, immediately recognizable to any woman who has traveled alone.

A bomb threat forces the girls to change their itinerary just as night falls, to a much more sparsely populated train. Initially glad they have a compartment to themselves, the girls’ joy at the additional room is short lived. The same two thugs have also switched trains, and now have a mysterious woman in tow (Macha Méril). The trio invades Margaret and Lisa’s cramped quarters.

While the unnamed woman is outwardly rather elegant and civil, her icy upper class hauteur is just a facade. She becomes the ringleader for an ever escalating series of humiliations and sadistic tortures towards the two young women. Rather than act as a buffer to insure the girls’ safety, the woman directs her thuggish companions to do her dirty work. The trip becomes a twisted game of torture, sexual assault, and eventual murder.

There is, of course, the required highly unlikely coincidence in the third act, that leads to the bloody parental vengeance you would expect. Where Night Train Murders distinguishes itself is in style, tone, and an important late in the game deviation from the established format.

Director Aldo Lado had already made several highly stylized gialli, and throughout his long career often brought a refreshing degree of technical skill to even pedestrian productions. His camera makes excellent use of the beautiful settings rolling outside the windows, before swinging in to catch the details of the passengers, the seemingly unrelated strangers that are fated to cross paths. Once the night falls and the girls are unknowingly on their doomed last ride, he soars overhead and around tight corners, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the increasingly tense situation.

Gábor Pogány’s cinematography bathes the tiny compartment in sickly yellows and dark as night indigo blue, the ugliness laid bare in its contrast to how elegantly it has been shot. A haunting Ennio Morricone music cue slinks across the soundscape, the endless rumble of the train threatening to drown out the girls frantic begging for something resembling mercy.

That was never something Macha Méril’s unnamed lady was ever willing to give. For such a morally repugnant character, its a measured, subtle performance. With a careful tilt of an eyebrow, or a casual lilt in intonation, its abundantly clear the sexual, visceral thrill she gets from both the torture of the two innocent women, and the ease of manipulating the two men. By turning Blackie’s attempted rape into a seduction, and encouraging Curly to indulge his habit, she easily turns two petty criminals into the enforcers of her sadistic fantasies. In encouraging the men to indulge in their basest impulses, she also cleverly adds another layer of plausible deniability to her own.

Last House traded in a more graphic depiction of violence, and a gritty, almost documentary style to make a seething statement on the breakdown caused by the failure of 60s idealism. Night Train Murders is more slow burning and suggestive, the concept of the events so inhuman that the brief bits of explicit detail we do see carry a heavy impact. Night Train Murders also swings broader in its choice of ideological targets with a uniquely Italian brand of dryly abrasive cynicism.

Early in the film, Blackie takes a walk through the various compartments of the crowded train, and every passenger is just as morally bankrupt as he is. From a (heavily implied) sexually abusive Catholic priest, a group of proud fascists singing Nazi marching songs, or the mysterious lady leading a philosophical discussion to further curate her refined persona, the film clearly finds very few innocents in its universe. Even Margaret and Lisa are worldlier than advertised, sharing cigarettes and tales of sexual misadventures as soon as they are safely out of authority’s earshot.

Lisa’s parents do get their vengeance, but only two out of the three torturers meet their bloody end. By denying both the characters and the audience the cheap catharsis of fully realized revenge, Night Train Murders underlines its grim ideological perspective. The film clearly takes Gualtiero Jacopetti’s and Franco Prosperi’s view of humanity being inherently a rotten lot, and combines it with Pasolini‘s utter loathing of bourgeoise hypocrisy and the authority figures who give their perverse abuses the veneer of mainstream respectability.

While the Christmas setting is more incidental than not, Night Train Murders is an incredibly downbeat entry to even skirt holiday horror. Intense joy or intense suffering, the train just keeps indifferently rolling, as the world values the performance of morality with equal faculty to the genuine article.