The late 70s and early 80’s were a boom time for exploitation films for both the US and our genteel neighbors to the north, for very similar reasons. Grindhouses and other theaters with extended showtimes needed more content that the mainstream was producing. Hefty credits for film productions made them ideal tax shelters for the well off, or for those wanting a bit of reflected lemonlight from being a “movie producer”.
With all of that extra cash flowing around, a whole host of first time and indie film makers stepped up to fill their noses with cocaine the programming gap.
Over 300 films were made in Canada between 1975 and 1982, most of them low budget genre fare. One of the last films of that tax evasion fueled boom was this forgotten bit of Canuxploitation, originally titled Bells. When it was released in the US, the film was sliced down from 95 minutes to a scant 80 minute runtime. It was also christened with the tabloid title Murder By Phone. Proving that even 38 years ago, the average American viewer had still not mastered the obvious.
College professor and environmentalist Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlin) takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious death of his favorite student. With the help of his teaching mentor Stanley Markowitz(John Houseman) and mural artist Lisa (Sara Botsford), he discovers the deadly weapon was a high pitched frequency sent over the phone line.
As Nat tries to find the culprit before they can kill again, it looks more and more likely that the calls are coming from inside the house…..or at least the phone company.
It’s the sort of one turn too complicated plotting that is half as clever as it thinks it is. This basic template glutted TV movies of the week and the better episodes of police procedurals of the period. There’s a double cross, and a love affair and the usual slight shimmies masquerading as twists you find in scripts of this ilk.
A far classier than average cast uses their talent to make sure the formulaic medicine goes down. How often are an Oscar winner (Houseman) and a Golden Globe winner (Chamberlin) heading up a formerly timely, now carbon dated older than dinosaurs fear of technology cheapie? If you guessed “Neveruary 32nd”, you win the Kewpie doll. Gary Reineke is also amusingly gruff as Lieutenant Meara, the stereotypical cop sick of all of these God damn meddling hippie kids.
The true joy of MurderBy Phone is its gleeful commitment to its titular concept, rather than any real concerns of acting or plot. Truer to advertising than many exercises in exploitation, the films’ kills are indeed all accomplished with the goofy telephone conceit.
The victim picks up the phone, and we get a brief shot of blinking lights, levers and sliders straight out of 50’s sci fi spaceship. A high pitched whirr and some beep boop beeping grow loud on the soundtrack. The victims’ heads shake, their eyes bleed, and then they shoot off into the distance like a champagne cork, accompanied by fireworks from a municipal parade or a third tier metal show. To add indignity to illogic, victims fly across train stations, out of windows and into bookcases, all accented with doubly goofy thunder and lightning sound effects and unceremonious thuds. It’s absolutely delightful in its essential silliness.
Most of the high propulsion victims, and all of the the eye candy in this movie has been condensed into a tight 1:35 trailer. Here’s a gif of one of the few death scenes not present. Tag yourselves, I’m the French doors:
Let the sunshine that is the cheerful ridiculousness of that GIF play for a little while, and try not to giggle. Feel free to then skip over what is essentially a very special guest star filled episode of Mannix. For an R rated horror thriller about murderous plastic, it’s all very tame and tasteful. The only real fun to be had is when Murder By Phone lets go a little bit in the campy death scenes. Even in their cheapie exploitation movies, Canadians live up to their reputation for politeness.
Shot in roughly 2 weeks in 1974, Death Game’s production was doomed from the start. The original director was fired at the last second, and producer Peter S. Traynor took over. His complete lack of anything resembling a clue caused the entire cast to basically stop speaking to him. Colleen Camp and (post Oscar nomination, pre Clint Eastwood) Sondra Locke only bothered to inform him that they preferred he stay the fuck out of the way of day to day filming. Male lead Seymour Cassel quit the shoot after nearly decking his ersatz “director”. While all of Cassel’s scenes were completed before he left, he refused to come in to rerecord some lines, causing his entire performance to have to be dubbed over in post.
Production was then halted by a federal investigation into Peter Traynor’s financing sources, delaying the release of the film by over two years. When Death Game finally saw the light of day in 1977, it promptly flopped in a six month theatrical run. Retitled as The Seducers, the movie had some modest success on the home video market before becoming a common add on to those $5 50 movie box sets that sit by the checkout line at big box retailers.
In honor of the upcoming Grindhouse Releasing restoration, let’s take a look at what will soon be (incorrectly) hailed as a lost grindhouse classic, and you too can be one of the cool kids who liked this movie better when it sucked:
All you need to know about the credits sequence is that this print was ripped from VHS (hence the title) and that it is a full 4:45 of a woman with a faux fishwife accent singing about “dear old dad” who “taught both table manners and the birds and bees”. I wondered what in the fuck those two things had to do with each other, made a mildly off color eating reference, then began praying for my own death or the end of the song, whichever occurred first.
This porn ‘stache having gent is George, our somewhat hairy hero. The film’s events take place on his birthday, which he spent playing cinema’s first ever game of strip croquet with his wife, before she traveled out of town to get his son some needed surgery. He has a nice chat with his son on the phone, telling him how great he thinks it is that he wants to bring his newly removed appendix to school.
Just as he is about to settle in by the fire with a drink, these two bits of ridden hard and put away wet come knocking, and ask to use his phone. Because he’s the sort of guy who thinks a human organ is great for show and tell, he lets the women in.
The brunette is Donna, and the blonde introduces herself as Jackson. George agrees to let them stay until a friend comes to pick them up, and offers them hot cocoa and fresh towels to dry off, warm up, and allow more subtle peeks of skin for him to low key leer at. While Jackson nips off to use what she inexplicably refers to as the “catbox”, George acts like a first class out of touch doofus around Donna, trying to impress her with some elevator music he claims his kids gave him.
When the girls become transfixed by such amazing amenities as running water, they decide to have a skinny dip in the hot tub. When George discovers them cavorting about, he puts up some token resistance before joining them for a threesome. I’m sure his strip croquet partner will be less than thrilled with George’s sudden fondness for water polo. In the meantime, we get a 5 minute montage of head, shoulders, knees, and man ass. The music is so utterly redolent of 70’s porn, I had my speakers tested for syphilis. We also get a lot of weird B roll landscape and sunrise shots mixed in, for those cheap weed and consciousness raising vibes.
Morning comes, and so does the regret, but the girls are all smiles and offers of breakfast. They refuse to leave and are clearly both less cute and more crazy by daylight. However, it is their messy eating habits rather than the several obvious screws loose that causes George to scream at Donna and Jackson to get dressed and GTFO. The chords of the “Dear Old Dad” theme start up again. I wear a matching hangdog expression to the still above. Instead of anything relevant to the plot, we get a 30 second close up of ketchup slowly dribbling from the bottle, while discordant noise stacks up on the soundtrack. I am not kidding about this.
In a rare moment of clarity, someone in the editing bay realized that was ungodly boring, and we get this instead:
Disco strings swell in the background as Jackson deep throats a banana. Donna smashes out random notes on the piano, and the pair inform George they won’t be leaving, after all. Jackson claims to be 17, and Donna only 15. They have no qualms at all letting George be shuttled off as a sex offender if he tries to make them go.
Sondra Locke was 30 years old, and Colleen Camp was 21 years old in 1974. It’s obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot that both of these ladies are clearly of legal age. However, George has proven to be exactly that, and panics at the threat. His response is to offer them a ride anywhere they want, and soon we are on another boring b roll filled field trip. The threat of another refrain of “Dear Old Dad” is cueing up on the soundtrack.
Thinking he’s left his bad life decisions behind in San Francisco, George has another cozy telephone chat with his wife, which is of no consequence other than the fact that his family is coming home the next afternoon.
Back at home after a long day of lowering the bar, George gets knocked out and bound to his own bed by Jackson and Donna, who while rather poor at basic life skills like bathing and using forks, can at least plan a successful fake out. Now that they’ve got him where they want him, the girls….jump on the bed. They put on make up, and play dress up in George’s wife’s clothing, showing some likely to be distributor mandated nudity. They cackle. A lot. “Dear Old Dad” plays yet AGAIN on the soundtrack.
They beat George up a bit for not looking particularly terrified, and Donna makes a sad speech about being molested, and that George is her new daddy now because he was so nice to her. We are now halfway through the movie and it’s the first legitimately disturbing thing either of the pair have managed.
Because all less stupid things must come to an end, the girls drag George down the hall and coat him with all of the food in the house. They cackle. Boy do they ever cackle. They cackle so much I feel like I’m back in primary school conjugating verbs. I cackle. She cackles. They cackle. We cackle. I will cackle. She will cackle. We will cackle. They will cackle. Assume cackling happens anytime the female leads are on screen for more than 3 seconds.
Realizing they have no more stolen food to actually eat, Donna orders groceries, and George makes his first non moronic decision of the film. The second the delivery man rings the doorbell, he starts screaming for help.
To keep him from snitching, Jackson and Donna drown the poor delivery guy in the oversized fishtank. We are now over an hour into a movie originally titled Death Game, and the first (and thus far only) death is barely visible behind a green gel filter. This game sucks.
There’s a long, sleep inducing sequence of a mock “trial” the girls subject George to. All it really is the same threats of rape allegations, breaking stuff and cackling as the previous hour of the movie, but with a green gel filter to make the lighting spooky this time. For real(ly dumb), I’m serious(ly amazed this movie is still going).
The “verdict” is guilty. Shocking, really. Sentence is death at dawn. George tries to escape a second time, and gets another blow to the head for his trouble. Whimsical music plays as the girls booze and eat, making weird pseudo sex faces at each other while they munch on apples and bagels.
George is left to his concussed daydreams of the simpler times of family life and strip croquet. “Dreams” might be a bit strong of a word. It’s basically his wife’s weird sex noises from the beginning of the film on the soundtrack while the camera stays focused on ceiling eaves. Saves the $50 it would cost to bring back the actress.
After even more shriek, smash and cackle (which was totally what was lacking in this film), dawn finally arrives. Jackson picks up a cleaver, but brings it down on the pillow behind George rather than his actual neck.
As a broken George sobs, the girls finally leave, satisfied with the life ruining results of their not quite death game. They skip down the street for yet another full 4:45 minute reprise of “Dear Old Dad”, and I once again start praying for death, before recalling I’m a lifelong atheist.
An “SPCA” truck comes barreling around the corner……
….and kills old Cackle and Squeak so violently, they become photo negatives. Apparently, the Deus ex machina does answer prayers. Roll credits.
Retro VHS Rewind: The Stuff (1985) Deadly desserts and sharp satire make a surprisingly tasty confection in this Larry Cohen cult classic tale of corporate espionage and murderous marshmallow fluff. Take a retrospective review look with me at one of my favorite films of the video era.
While not exactly a trend, the 70’s saw several scattered attempts at an adults only fairy tale musical. If Fairy Tales had been a one off, I could have easily shrugged my shoulders and blamed it on the era’s love of Quaaludes and poor life decisions. However, this movie is the last in a line of filmic lemmings freefalling off the same cliff. The Adult Brothers Grimm hit theaters in 1970, Alice In Wonderland in1976, Cinderella in 1977, and finally Fairy Tales in 1978.
“Softcore musical sex comedy featuring storybook characters” is an oddly specific hill for multiple crews to box office bomb on, so let’s take a bite size look at a once upon a time turkey in a kingdom far, far away from anything that should have ever existed.
What plot there is concerns a Prince who is set to inherit his kingdom on his 21st birthday. The catch is that he must produce an heir by the following Thursday, because even stupid sex spoofs need some kind of stakes. A bouncing blonde birthday present fails to excite him, and he goes on a meandering hero’s journey to find a woman who can solve his fading flagpole issues in a pre Viagra era.
Despite the title, the characters are pretty much a mixed muddle of whatever could be found in a prefab bag at the local costume shop. The Prince is a dork in a bowl cut, last night’s make up and the outfit of a Shakespearean era extra in a middling high school musical.
In his travels, he meets a daffy Little Bo Peep in sheer panties, Mother Hubbard as the blowzy madam of a brothel in a shoe, a belly dancing Scheherazade and a Frog Prince that’s basically a confused dance student in a green velvet drape. While it is a thick drape, it fails to hide the actor’s obvious shame at the booming frog sound effects echoing from his crotch.
In between bumbling rejected Borscht Belt jokes about Venus and Uranus, we get musical numbers from a cast that performs with all of the acumen of a narcoleptic sufferer of St Vitus’ Dance. Snow White gets a pop tune about the joys of all 7 dwarves, 4 random nude women with floggers and gimp masks lip sync an Andrews Sisters style ditty about S&M, and the Prince gets a sad love theme. In all of this, there’s less skin showing than an average nudie cutie movie would have displayed almost 2 decades earlier.
By the time this movie introduces a bizarre subplot about a codpiece wearing Blaxploitation caricature of a pimp, and his love potion making Auntie Leveau, I barely had the energy to wonder how the legendary Motown singer Martha Reeves got mixed up in this mess. I was just thrilled to see a professional performer swing into a spooky fog filled disco number that actually would make a great addition to a Halloween novelty playlist. You can see for yourself in the video above.
Apparently, Martha was never told that the film was an adult movie, as her scene was shot outside of the main plot. Only after Fairy Tales was released, did she learn she was conned into making the only watchable sequence in this utterly juvenile “adult” film.
Despite all of its flaws, Fairy Tales does have a happy ending. Not for any of its characters per se, but for scream queen Linnea Quigley. Featured in a partially nude bit part at the end of the film (as the Princess the Prince has been searching for), she managed to springboard this small early role into starring in the much better movies we know and love her for today.
Roberta Findlay was one of the few female creators of the exploitation golden age, and is only rivaled by Doris Wishman in terms of both longevity and prolific output across the sleaze subgenres. In her multi decade career, Roberta wrote, produced, directed, distributed, and occasionally acted in her own work.
Thankfully, Ms. Findlay is a far more competent multi hyphenate than her predecessor. Less thankfully, keep in mind the curve on which we are grading.
Alongside her husband Michael, she created the landmark Flesh trilogy of roughies, which mixed sex and violence into a brand new bag, helping eradicate the tamer trend of the nudie cuties that had dominated the early 60s. Their early 70s failed slasher experiment called Slaughter was later reedited into the notorious Snuff, which set an urban legend into motion that still persists today.
After parting ways with Michael in 1973, Roberta made a successful string of porn features, before controversy came calling again regarding 1985’s Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy. The movie was a cash in Frankenstein’s monster, made from archive footage after the titular star had committed suicide at 20.
So what happens when an admittedly indifferent schlockmeister mixes rape revenge tropes with a knockoff of Assault On Precinct 13? 1985’s The Tenement, which I watched under its lamer alternate title:
The font and the theme song got lost on their way to Beat Street, full of stutter synth, and a rap lyric that can’t decide if the tenement is a “place of shelter” or “helter skelter”. We get some generic exteriors and cut to a dingy basement, where a gang of weekend Warriors is busy doing drugs, waving dead rats at each other, and…….whatever the fuck this is:
Too bad the party gets broken up pretty quickly by the cops. The dude who called the police is our first introduction to the building residents, and he stops to greasily gloat at the gang members in a Speedy Gonzales accent as they get packed off into a squad car. This way they know exactly which person turned the gang in. How could that possibly go wrong?
The residents throw a party to celebrate the gang being gone. This introduces us to the rest of the ethnic stereotypes tenants, some of which I’m not even sure were given names outside of the credits. Rojas is the drunk tub of greasiness and bluster who called law enforcement. Mr. Washington is a strong silent type doing his best Duane Jones impression. Leona is a sassy single mom. Anita is a sweet pregnant girl. Ruth a tough Jewish grandmother, and Angel a hooker with a heart of gold who turns tricks to support her husband’s habit.
There’s another older couple named Wesley, blind Mr. Gonzalez with a seeing eye dog, some random little kids who belong to someone or another….none of this is going to get developed in any significant fashion, so trust that the accents are horrible and the characterization is worse. This celebratory party scene lasts longer than some of these actors’ careers.
Aside from Leona, they all prattle on at length about being SO VERY GLAD THE GANG IS GONE. THEY ARE SAFE NOW. FOREVER. WE SURE WON’T SEE THOSE GANGBANGERS AGAIN.
Except for the fact that bail exists, and within a few hours our gang is right back out on the streets, making sure that snitch Rojas gets the mandated stitches. Due to budgetary constraints “stitches” becomes 1 tiny piece of prop glass and a large bandage on the forehead.
The baddies get their own long and equally boring party scene, where they smoke a bunch of angel dust in a parking lot and sing off key songs about “passing that fucker, man”, to the tune of stock music cues that would later pop up in Zombie Nightmare. Then the mighty Chaco, our aviator shade and frontless shirt wearing gang leader gets a listless spin shot and this struggle of a 4 line speech. It absolutely sounds like he learned it phonetically:
Chaco (gazing at nothing): Blood. My head….is full of blood. My dream…. is full of blood. I’m going to take my building BACK!
Typical of most “urban warfare” style films, 20 minutes in and that’s pretty much it for plot. There’s a ton of expository padding, but none of it teaches you anything important about the characters you didn’t learn through the early party scenes. Angel and her husband fight over his drug use. Anita’s mom is not thrilled she’s pregnant. Leona wishes she could move. Mr. Gonzalez is beloved by the children, because cute seeing eye dog. Rojas is drunk and Ruth is reciting a Shabbat blessing. Just in case the caricatures weren’t broad enough the first time around, hit me baby one more time.
We know there’s going to be a bloody conflict. The film just needs to give Crow T Robot his Christmas gift , and decide who lives and who dies. Place your bets or grab your bingo cards, whichever you prefer.
While the post apocalypse aerobics instructor of the group cuts the phone lines, the seeing eye dog ends up as fodder for a banger’s Countess Bathory moment.
By the way, timestamped title cards have been present but irrelevant the entire movie, as its not like PCP fueled murder sprees are on a tight schedule. Feel free to join me in continuing to ignore them.
Leona goes downstairs to check the phone line, and is brutally punished for being right about the gang’s return. This sequence made me glad for how weirdly prim this movie is, despite its X rating for violence. Conceptually horrible things happen, but we don’t explicitly see much of them. In the case of a deceased pup and a Last House On The Left style remix of the uses of household implements, less really is more.
In a thin upside, Leona’s little girl is smart enough to head upstairs to safety with a neighbor, and Leona managed to pull a Fulci on one of her attackers before dying.
Mr. Washington begrudgingly helps herd everyone he can find onto the upper floor landing, because apparently Chaco & friends are a bit confused on how stairs work, and won’t follow them. Bickering amongst the residents ensues, but they do comply. That runtime needs a lot of padding to make a safe landing.
Proving Mr. Washington’s point, Chaco yells some threats from the lobby, but doesn’t move an inch. The rest of the gang rampages through the emptied apartments like unattended Sims. Without someone to tell them what to do, they are stabbing random furniture, tossing food around, and getting bags stuck on their heads.
Variations of these same 3 shots fluff out a lot of the remaining runtime. Assume they happen in between any relevant action, and even some that aren’t. For example, Angel’s futile plea to one of her tricks on the street to go get help rather than come inside, which wastes another few minutes without disturbing the main plot’s vacation.
Angel’s husband dies defending his stash. Angel only makes it to safety because Mr. Washington comes out onto the landing to protect her as she runs upstairs. The fourth floor stairs are still lava.
One of the gang overdoses by virtue of doing the entire stolen pile of drugs at once. Chaco and Olivia Newton Chula mourn by having a bloody trip to second base beside the body of their fallen comrade.
Not to be outdone by gangbangers for moronic and unnecessary deaths, Mrs. Wesley dies searching downstairs for disinfectant. Anita’s mom dies trying to escape from the third story window via a single strand of clothesline. That doesn’t even work in cartoons, for fuck’s sake.
Over an hour into the movie, the baddies finally figure out the whole fourth floor stairs thing, and start tearing apart the makeshift furniture barricade the residents made.
Only by the grace of grandma Ruth and her ancient New York wisdom of nut shots and baseball bats, do the residents escape up to the fifth and final floor.
The good ship plot device comes in, and the gang wastes more time with random vandalism, to give the good guys time to MacGuyver an elaborate defense of an electrified bed frame and wet steps.
Downstairs, Chaco kills one of his own people via genital stab because the film’s runtime is almost out and too many people are still alive.
The residents loot a gun clip off of the crispy fried victim of their death bed, assuming the gang’s gun is no longer a threat without ammo. Our fifth grade teachers taught us what happens when you assume. In this case, it gets Mr. Washington shot as he heads downstairs.
Assumption also gets Rojas killed by Chaco’s handy dog collar. While a brilliant parry of boiling water and a fridge made of foam killed Chaco’s ladyfriend, and mortally wounded another gangster, Chaco himself was unharmed.
By going downstairs to gloat and finish the job with a knife, Rojas proves that only manual strangulation can get him to shut the fuck up.
Ruth stuns Chaco with her trusty bat, but doesn’t kill him. That leaves poor pregnant Anita to battle the big bad on a rainy roof, and finish the job with a TV antenna and a convenient attack of sudden rotoscope lightning. Too bad she locked herself out, as the door slammed shut in the struggle…….
……….or maybe just a less rainy pitch black night. Allegory is hard.
Welcome to the second of the two new features around here, Monster Munch! Monster Munch is an occasional compendium of my horror writing around the wider web, that often covers topics that don’t quite fit here. Modern horror films, listicles, reviews of new releases, whatever scary shenanigans my various editors allow me to get into.
5 Isolation Horror Films To Watch While Social Distancing My recommendations for films that will make you grateful that your personal form of isolation has snacks, booze and a cozy couch. While stressful, our current predicament is far from the loneliness worst case scenario, as these flicks will show you. If you learn nothing else from this list, go watch In A Glass Cage. It’s brilliant, brutal, and way too obscure for its own good.
Really it’s “Teenage Survival Sex Work, With A Side Of Free Love”, but that just wouldn’t have the same lurid appeal for trailers, posters and lobby cards.
Teen drifter Kim (Alisha Fontaine) has decided to leave her former life pushing drugs for a transient commune. Instead, she hitches for a draft dodging new boyfriend, who is using her to help him get out of the country. The two of them make their way east, in the hopes that Kim’s estranged sister Hilary (Robin Low) will give them cash from Kim’s inheritance.
Too bad her former lover/guru/drug connect Maury and his wayward band of hippies have followed her across the country, and the bad times roll right behind them.
I can’t say there’s anything remarkable in this Z grade romp. Most of the dialog has clearly been dropped in in post, and the only print I can find is scratched like it has eczema. However, it is a grindhouse potboiler that understands that movies have to actually move. The 75 minute runtime breezes by as it hits all of the standard beats of the flotilla of the post Charlie Manson cheapies. Establishment bad. Disenfranchisement worse. Off beat bohemian dancing. You know the routine.
There’s a melodramatic B plot that involves Kim seducing Hilary’s sugar baby younger boyfriend, and Robin Low gives a hammy soap opera performance as the uptight foil to Kim’s freewheeling ways. There’s skinny dipping and man stealing, and a whole lot of Hilary swanning about her fabulous house drunk and tut tutting at Kim.
Then Maury shows up and brings all of the drugs, bongos and bad juju with him, as well as excuses for some more nudity, some violence, and a wild groovy, party, man. Wherever you go, there you are. Heavy.
It’s obvious that this will end poorly, in the classic youth in peril/juvenile delinquent mode, but the sheer budget conscious bungle of exactly how it all falls down was worth a solid giggle.
A slight, but perfect, bottom half of a double bill with a Tiffany Bolling feature presentation. She tended to play the grown up, harder bitten version of this same character in equally regional California productions. Give Kim 5 years to wise up, a tan, and a golden blonde rinse…..you end up with Jesse from The Candy Snatchers.
Lucio Fulci’s career was a long strange trip. Internationally known for a 70s and 80s run of giallo and horror flicks, his best work was bleak, bloody and often darkly funny. The golden age of sensational splatter reached its apex in the 1981 dime store surrealist classic The Beyond. However, Fulci still faced unfavorable comparisons to the incredibly stylish but super self serious fellow director, Dario Argento. This Jan vs Marcia situation would dog him for the rest of his career.
By 1988, Lucio Fulci’s fortunes had done an abrupt about face. He had lost his wife to suicide, and his daughter was paralyzed in a car accident. Hepatitis and concurrent illness had forced him to leave the completion of Zombi 3 to human Xerox Bruno Mattei. A reputation for violent content and no fucks given criticism of the Catholic Church made financiers harder to come by.
Originally filmed for Italian television as Quando Alice ruppe lo specchio (Translation: When Alice Broke The Mirror, for those prone to putting on airs), the US release of today’s film was direct to video. What happens when Italy’s godfather of gore goes TV movie of the week? Let’s find out with (retitled for the US) Touch Of Death:
The credits are brief, and play over dead silence, which should tell you the approximate budget of this whole proceeding. Instead, we watch Lester the lost woodshop teacher cook up some lunch, while listening to horse racing results on the radio.
I’m not sure why he’s cooking with a sterno stove at the dining table, but perhaps the gas had not been turned on in what is CLEARLY the showhome for some Florida senior living condominium complex circa the summer of 1987.
He takes his steak, curls up on the couch and watches either some sort of weird home made porn, or a fairytale witch. The video is all gaunt cackling face, big hair and the occasional flash of shoulder, so choose your own adventure on which is correct.
Proving my point about the house, we get a POV tour, and it’s full of mauve based color combos and delicate faux houseplants that would make Blanche Devereaux and the girls jealous. It even has a finished basement.
Too bad there’s a corpse with a steak sized chunk of her thigh missing lying down there. I hope they lock that door at the open house. Humming along with the classical music on the soundtrack, Lester grabs a chainsaw and does a lovely little box step and sway as he dismembers the body. While I would think a bloody power tool would make a poor dance partner, he doesn’t miss a beat or get a speck on his polo shirt. Soft aqua is such a lovely color, but it really does show every little stain.
In fact, Lester is quite the homemaker. After the dismemberment is done, he piles the pieces into a meat grinder, whistling and waltzing as he works. In the spirit of “waste not, want not”, the bits that can’t fit through the grinder are fed to some conveniently located pigs.
This condo complex really thinks of EVERYTHING.
Lester wants to celebrate a butchering job well done. He pulls several stacks of cash out of a wall safe, pours himself a drink and has a chat with the local bookie. All is right with the world, until the evening news reports the investigation into the death of a rich widow who looks like she just might be Lester’s blue plate special from the day before. Despite 3 different processes, he still managed to leave something behind for the trash collectors to find. Guess he was too concerned with keeping grue off that sweet polo shirt.
In any case, Lester is a bit stressed, and pops his favorite classical cassette into the finest tape deck Montgomery Ward could provide. He has a nice chat with his audio system about his worries, and the equipment is kind enough to allay his fears. What a pal.
For those keeping score at home, Lester is not only a murdering cannibal, he is nuttier than squirrel shit. Even Son Of Sam had the dignity to take his orders from a dog rather than an off brand boombox.
Apparently Lester’s betting is about as good as his body disposal. He travels to some weird abandoned building at the edge of town to hand over all of his ill gotten cash to a bookie who has yet to learn how to color match his browns. Our sadsack protagonist also begs for credit on his massive debts.
Because the bookie who keeps his own assistant literally over a barrel in a dilapidated building is going to be super generous and forgiving. Right.
Rather than sell his car or his house, Lester beelines straight for the personal ads in the local paper, to find more lonely ladies with an excess of money and a deficit of sense. For someone whose whole source of income is dependent on being Casanova in chinos, you’d think his seduction technique would have advanced past butterfly kisses and grin (or grimace) and bear it.
Unnecessarily drawn out hijinks ensue, with Lester trying and failing to poison his unfortunate paramour. He only succeeds in making her throw up, and magically removing the SFX facial hair that was tacked on to the actress’ face in the previous scene.
A vicious beating with a bat also fails, but does give us the bylaw mandated eyeball in distress scene required of any movie with Lucio Fulci at the helm.
Bloody, eyeless and as energized as the battery bunny, she pops back up, finally meeting her end in an oversized toaster oven. As her face melts away, the death is doubly sad. Not only has Lester killed an innocent, he has killed a freakishly tough medical miracle that apparently had no skull under her oozing flesh. If this seems an excessive amount of space to devote to a single death, bear in mind that this sequence is nearly 20 minutes of the film’s 90 minute runtime, and likely 95% of the SFX budget.
All that physical exertion makes Lester a sloppy boy. Rather than pass the body to those handy pet pigs, he stuffs it into his car trunk to dump it at a local construction site. Not only does he leave the woman’s severed feet lying in his own driveway, he covers the corpse in concrete in full view of an off brand Charles Manson sleeping in a nearby box.
To avoid getting informed upon, he backs over Canal Street Charlie, but leaves the body in the middle of the street. There goes the remaining 5% of the SFX budget. I would also like to point out to all of you, that the car does indeed have Florida plates. Called it.
To top it off, jewelry he stole from his last victim is all worthless costume, and he owes even more interest to his bookie. A description of the likely killer has hit the evening news, and Lester has to change his appearance from shop teacher to portly sitcom dad to avoid detection by the police.
Our next victim is a slap happy S&M loving soprano, who doesn’t stop singing even in her sleep. Lester strangles her with a whip, and in his latest brilliant plan, transports her body in the front seat of his car. I suppose a jauntily tied scarf hides a lot of sins, as the cop who pulls him over for speeding assumes the cadaver is asleep.
Despite the ever so supportive talking stereo’s assertions that all of this trouble is due to a copycat killer, Lester is not soothed. The evening news once again has the breaking info, announcing the killer’s blood type and DNA genetic code(?!), and our doughboy matches both. While possible, it isn’t terribly PROBABLE that there are two moronic mass murderers with identical DNA on file with the police, and a secret twin seems unlikely on a TV movie budget.
Time for Lester to do some more gambling to destress, as this movie is going to have to try to flesh out the plot now that the SFX money is spent. For variety, he loses his shirt at poker. Why poker? Because even his bookie won’t take any more of his bad bets on horse races. He’d rather fleece him at cards and eliminate the wait.
In deeper hock than ever and plagued by mystery phone calls, Lester heads to the racetrack……to look for the copycat killer. Yep. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Spooked by a few loud noises and his own shadow, he heads home……..
….to deal with a highly convenient plot device. A woman named Virginia Fields (whom genre fans will recognize as Cannibal Ferox’s Zora Kerova) keeps accidentally dialing Lester’s number. Thrilled by his sexy voice, she strokes a decorative taxidermy swan suggestively (not a typo), and they make plans to meet. She happens to be yet another wealthy woman with a disfigurement.
Meanwhile, the nightly news has clocked Lester again, so he disguises himself as woodshop teacher version 2.0. This time it’s big square glasses and hair that is an odd piss yellow attempt at blonde. Hope poor Virginia likes big brass house keys.
We’ve seen this same basic scene 4 times now. He minces and winces and acts generally disgusted to be anywhere near a woman. At this stage, I sincerely wonder if he would have been happier with a nice cuddly bear of a truckdriver.
They don’t even bother using the scar prosthetic in the long shots, so Lester’s cartoonish distaste is even more pronounced when the camera pans to the lovely (non altered) face of the actress.
Just like all the rest, utterly enchanted by the powder blue pouched possibility of penis, she is smitten beyond all reason. When Lester sobs about business debts, she agrees to loan him $200,000, with his house as collateral. She promises to have the cash when they meet the next night for dinner.
Unsurprisingly, Lester prepares to kill Virginia as soon as he confirms she withdrew the cash…….
Unlike the rest of these dizzy birds, Virginia watches the news. She recognizes Lester from the police composite drawing……..
……and promptly shoots him. Wanting to die like a wild animal, a bleeding Lester runs out to the parking garage……
…….where we learn that Lester’s mysterious copycat……..
……is his own shadow. Because even the literal darkness wanted to bring Lester’s crimes to light. Or something. I feel like some metaphors got mixed here. Since Lester the murderer and (just that one time) cannibal is dead, I hope somebody thought to notify the questionably sentient boombox.
Welcome to Bite Size! This is a new shorter form feature for movies that deserve notice for their singular strangeness, but lack enough non narcolepsy inducing content to merit even a timestamped long form review. If the highlights of a film can fill a trailer or a Youtube video, but just barely………it will get a Bite Size write up.
The concept of a group of drag queens traveling cross country butched up as a biker gang is a fantastic basic idea, but this 1971 exploitation curio has some serious issues of identity crisis.
The straight grindhouse audience will likely be bored by the light comedy tone with a pronounced lack of the genre staple sex and violence.
Meanwhile, the gay audience will likely be put off by six dinner theater level actors limp wristing their way through various queeny stereotypes. While the T&A is sparse, there are just a smidgen too many leering shots of female walk on characters not to tip the film’s hand. This is clearly a gay themed movie made by people whose closest contact with the queer community or culture was watching Liberace on TV.
To add another layer to this pile of confusion, wrapped in enigma, swaddled in bad ideas, it’s a plotless wonder. This film’s idea of dramatic tension is lots of open air riding shots with the occasion stop for a food fight, a light lunch roadside or some shopping. Inset shots some of self styled Colonial Mustard bear no real connection to anything else. He’s clearly on a different soundstage, and was perhaps shipped in from a different movie as he shouts about dirty longhairs and ogles his secretary.
Perhaps because I watched it in the midst of the world going on lockdown to avoid spreading coronavirus, or perhaps because I have been subjected to a lot of budget mandated claustrophobia in genre fare, I did find some slight joys in this mess of a film. The actors improv gamely through their threadbare scenes, and it was kind of nice to meander away an hour and some change in endless shots of wide open spaces with 6 characters who actually liked each other.
That small pleasure makes the insanity of the nonsensical ending that much worse. Only in the last 5 minutes of the film do the insets and the main plot merge, and it is to provide one of the most out of nowhere downbeat endings I have ever seen. A swerve toward Easy Rider territory, the dumb ugliness of the choice is enough to make you seriously question the intent of everything that proceeded it.
Skip the film, but definitely watch the perfectly made trailer above. A long ago film editor basically read my mind across space and time regarding this film’s good points.
Behold the hysterically overblown line readings, bizarre digressions and a pre-Grizzly Adams Dan Haggerty as a member of a straight biker gang chasing after our protagonists. Short, sweet, and without tainting your braincells with a 85 minute slog to a 5 minute insult.
I have some other new things on the way, as well as a full length review of a much better movie. Until then, stay safe kids, and feel free to steal this glorious GIF to spread a little love in unfortunately interesting times:
Exploitation film has always been a trend driven beast, with bizarre boomlets for damn near every common noun you can append -sploitation to.
Nunsploitation shared its 60s and 70s heyday with the women in prison films. Both niches were basically playing the same game, but with different variants of black and white uniforms. Fallen convent angels in habits or proud prison sinners in stripes, both subgenres were chock full of sadistic authority figures, women in isolation, and kinky (often lesbian) sex.
The subject of nuns also added the delightful bonus of jabbing a stick straight into the eye of the church, and a controversy was always good for a few extra asses in the seats. Not surprisingly, many genre standouts were produced by filmmakers in the Catholic strongholds of Spain and Italy.
Today’s film is one of the last gasps of the fading clergy craze, and is unusual for both being set in the (then) present day, and for having made the UK’s infamous “Video Nasties” list. It’s also the only nunsploitation flick starring former mainstream sex goddess Anita Ekberg (though it certainly isn’t the only Hail Mary in her late career filmography).
Originally titled “Suor Omicidi” and also released under the amazing, much snappier alternate title of “Bad Habits” let’s see just how far Ms. Ekberg has fallen from the Trevi Fountain:
Nothing much happens in the credit sequence. Communion wafers are eaten, nuns line up in elaborate configurations, incense and chants are had. An unseen Sister is in confession trying to be absolved of her need for revenge on all men, and up pops the title card. Enter Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg), clapping her hands, chastising two of her male patients for making dirty jokes, and being a absolute ray of sunshine that no rational human being would want to to deal with first thing in the morning.
By comparison to the dour nuns in the opener, Sister Gertrude is absolutely the Mother Superior of the Order of the #305 False Eyelash, making her hospital rounds in full eye make up. Sadly, it isn’t all smiles and frosted eyeshadow.
Sister Gertrude has just recovered from surgery to remove a brain tumor, and she hasn’t been quite herself since. While she used to be the resident doctor’s first choice of assistant, she has been neglecting her duties of late, endangering patients and having wacky music cue filled panic attacks at the sight of blood. A younger nun named Sister Mathieu picks up the slack for Sister Gertrude’s various fuck ups.
Every doctor that has examined her has declared Sister Gertrude healthy. She insists that all of the tests are wrong, and that she would be her usual self again if she could only get some more morphine. Because those cold sweats and fainting spells couldn’t possibly be drug withdrawal rather than an invisible phantom tumor. Nope. No way.
In a landmark case of “that escalated quickly”, Sister Gertrude is reading bloody hagiography of tortured saints to the patients at breakfast, then curbstomps patient Josephine’s dentures to dust for taking them out at the table. Sister Gertrude has gone from Pollyanna levels of sunny to shrieking “DISGUSTING! DISGUSTING! DISGUSTING!” like Joan Crawford when she just saw some wire hangers.
Sister Gertrude’s no good, very bad day just keeps on rolling.
Sister Mathieu insists on a nude fireside chat in their shared bedroom, confessing to both her forbidden love, and destroying Gertrude’s medical records. Without tangible proof, no one can deny Gertrude is sick…..which even the brain tumor survivor realizes is an utterly stupid plan.
Then that damned Josephine has to go and have a heart attack and die from the shock of the false teeth frenzy.
Then the doctor cuts off Gertrude’s supply of morphine. Cold turkey.
There’s nothing to do but sneak off into the city and pawn a dead woman’s stolen ring for drug money. As one does.
Over alternating dreamy Roman cha cha music and kicky disco kerfluffle, Gertrude does her various dirty deeds and stops into a cafe for a drink, a smoke, and a man. In hilarious voiceover, she growls about liking beards, and disliking a man she deems “too Latin looking”, whatever the fuck that means in terms of a generic looking white guy. Settling on a chain smoking clams adjuster, she practically purrs and pants her way through this breathy and bizarre line reading:
Sister Gertrude (voiceover): Come on……look this way. Sister Gertrude is just DYYYYYIIING to make love to you.
While Anita Ekberg declined to appear nude, they do have weird half clothed simulated sex in a random apartment building hallway. How his gross open mouthed goldfish style make out technique would be a turn on remains a mystery. On the other hand Ms. Ekberg’s Sister Gertrude is still a stone cold fox.
Back at the charity hospital, Sister Gertrude sets a two prong plan in motion. First, get the doctor who dared deny her fired. Second, celebrate by deciding to shoot up over it. It’s a special occasion, after all. Thrashing about on the carpet, we get a surreal little hallucination sequence of sliced brains and the tentative fondling of the deceased. All set to this delightful piece of music in search of a Nancy Sinatra song to belong to.
It’s about here that the movie takes an abrupt leap towards giallo territory, and mostly lands with a thud. A patient tries to help Sister Gertrude through her overdose. No good deed goes unpunished, and he is bludgeoned to death with a lamp, then tossed out of the window to make it look like a suicide.
The ever helpful Sister Mathieu burns a bloody veil of Gertrude’s she finds in the laundry, not that it helps anyone believe the suicide story. By the following afternoon, the remaining patients point blank call Gertrude a killer during the world’s grimmest game of truth or dare.
A patient and a local girl have some noisy sex outside in the pouring rain, and while their choice of venue is questionable, being choked to death with cotton gauze seems excessive.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Factory fleshpot Joe D’Allesandro shows up as the new head doctor at the hospital. He keeps his shirt on and his wonderful, working class New York City accent is dubbed out. That tidily eliminates any conceivable purpose of his being in this film.
In a clear concession to the current non starter status of the plot, Sister Gertrude savagely humiliates a nude Sister Mathieu. Sudden dominatrix mode engaged, Gertrude threatens to beat Mathieu if she does not immediately put on silk stockings, and make good on her previous sexual invitations.
Due to an excess of jumping jacks, the patients have a soup bowl clanking rebellion(none of that is a typo), and are sent to bed early. After leading evening prayers, Sister Gertrude is attacked by a mystery assailant, and the one patient who may know who did it is keeping silent. Not that it matters, as the potential snitch is acupunctured to death the following day, and hung up to bleed out in a laundry chute. Bonus points for easy clean up.
Sister Gertrude flies into hysterics at the sight of another body, and when Dr. Rough Trade gives her a sedative, her drug addiction is obvious. She has more than enough tracks to make a greatest hits album. Sister Mathieu tearfully admits covering for Gertrude’s addiction and the theft of hospital morphine.
Desperate to know what is real and what is her own hallucination, Gertrude drugs and kidnaps a handicapped patient named Peter. Dumping him at the bottom of the boiler room steps, she demands to know who is the source of the rumors blaming her for the murders. When he refuses to tell, Gertrude takes his crutches, trapping him there. She has other business to attend to……..
Which gives Peter plenty of time to drag himself up the stairs inch by inch….
Only to be kicked right back down them again by an unseen nun. Yet another killing gets Sister Gertrude sent away to the Brides Of Christ version of Bellevue……
To give us appropriate time to rush through a sloppy ending that primarily exists in service of getting this highly misleading image onto some video boxcovers.