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.

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: 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: 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.

Bite Size: The Psychopath/An Eye For An Eye (1973)

Writer/producer/director Larry G. Brown made just 3 films, but with 1973’s An Eye For An Eye aka The Psychopath (which was its listed title in its lone home release, back at the height of the VHS boom), managed to hit a high water mark for grimy low budget strangeness that even some era classics would be hard pressed to top. While cult film fans often lament their favorites being something you could never make in the present day, this is one of the few films of which I actually believe that statement to be true.

Mr. Rabbey (Tom Basham, who also starred in Larry G. Brown’s The Pink Angels), is the host of a kiddie television show, which seems to consist primarily of puppets threatening to behead each other or odd felt melodramas about locking babies in the basement. Inexplicably, this nightmare fuel is not only a popular television program, but also makes Mr. Rabbey a frequently requested entertainer for the sick kids at the local children’s hospital.

Rabbey is child at heart, but also seems a bit confused about the fact that he’s not an actual child. When not performing for the cameras, he keeps a tattered blankie in his oversized bike basket. He spends his off hours gorging chocolate cake and gleefully playing children’s games at the park. When his “I don’t wanna grow up” routine and tendency to snoop reveals that some of the kids in his audiences are being abused, he takes matters into his own hands.

This is shot with all of the flat colors and abrupt editing of a TV movie, and neither the visuals nor the music give much regard to matching the tone of what is being shown on screen. The discordance is disorienting before we even meet our peculiar protagonist or delve into plot details. Tom Basham is surprisingly effective as Rabbey, all bulging eyeliner smudged eyes and bowl cut, as he sugar sweetly stalks and lurks. His whole affect is so treacly wholesome and golly gosh high pitched, you just know that something deeply unclean is going on. All of the kids are Mr. Rabbey’s special pals, but it reeks of the parasocial pipe dreams of the deeply emotionally disturbed underneath.

Given that this protagonist is not exactly easy to root for, every parent in the film is cartoonishly villainous. Only one family stoops to all out cold blooded filicide, but they are all incredibly toxic, running the gamut of over the top abuse. Meanwhile the police and the hospital staff are beaten down by the difficultly of successfully helping these kids with what is often circumstantial evidence of their trauma.

There is an unexpected flash of realist truth in the frustration of the authority figures, and by the 6th or 7th time you watch some poor kid being shrieked at or slapped, its easy to root for whatever lies beneath Mr. Rabbey’s Peter Pan affect to finally snap to the surface.

An Eye For An Eye goes full tilt in both the psychosexual weirdness of Rabbey’s almost parent/child style relationship with his female TV producer, and the ugliness of his particular methods of vengeance. The film isn’t very gory, but it makes up for that in the sheer lurid viciousness of its kills. The victims are angrily dispatched with whatever Mr. Rabbey can get his hands on, be it a baseball bat, a lawnmower or his beloved blankie.

One of my personal favorite exploitation films, this is the sort of hidden gem of groovy ghastliness and off kilter oddity that grindhouse groupies tend to love, with a grim ending that only adds to the queasy fever dream quality of it all. I’m honestly shocked this hasn’t already been picked up by one of the boutique Blu Ray labels as a long lost trash classic. If you can find it, watch it, and join myself and the legendary Joe Spinell as dedicated members of Mr. Rabbey’s Rangers.

Bite Size: Cry Of A Prostitute (1974)

The original title of this film, Quelli che contano, roughly translates to “Those That Matter”. While certainly a more thematically accurate title to notable scuzzmeister Andrea Bianchi’s (What The Peeper Saw, Strip Nude For Your Killer) only foray into poliziotteschi, it was far too subtle for the US distributor. When Joseph Brenner released the film stateside, it became the easier to sell Cry Of A Prostitute, with a lurid roughie style ad campaign focused on the battered and bloody visage of supporting player Barbara Bouchet.

The main plot actually concerns Tony Aniante (euro crime titan Henry Silva), a Sicilian born, American raised mobster. The head of one of the Mafia families has been transporting heroin in the bodies of dead children. All signs point to Don Ricuzzo Cantimo (Fausto Tozzi), another American expat known for some distasteful business practices. He’s been in an ever escalating turf dispute with Don Turi Scannapieco (Mario Landi). Aniante is dispatched back to his homeland of rural Sicily to root out the source of the ugly problem.

Of course, Tony Aniante has motivations of his own, and is soon playing both factions against each other. Tony stays for a few days at the home of Don Cantimo and his American trophy wife, Margie. Tony and Margie begin a perverse, ill advised affair which sends all of Tony’s careful planning tumbling down into the chaos of an all out gang war.

Cry Of A Prostitute is primarily a spaghetti western wearing the wrong hat, and at least it has the good sense to steal from some of the subgenre’s greats. The base plot structure is lifted wholesale from 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars, and Tony’s habit of eerily whistling before he kills definitely seems like a callback to Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Add in a dash of The Godfather’s throughline about the cyclical nature of power, and you’ve got a rather familiar cinematic cocktail.

Andrea Bianchi seems to realize he’s working from a bit too familiar of a playbook, and tosses in as much sensationalist shock as possible to attempt to liven up the otherwise pedestrian proceedings. The film opens with a car crash decapitation and a graphic (if not particularly well done, effects wise) autopsy. In Tony’s various machinations there are plenty of bloody deaths, most notably via a rather conveniently located steamroller. When all of that fails to do the job, Bianchi hits what is probably the most misogynistic piece of plotting in a career chock full of them…..the toxic relationship between Tony and Margie.

Margie is a scheming alcoholic ex prostitute, cuckolding her eager husband with tales of her former profession and her various extramarital affairs. Tony’s arrival is a welcome dose of fresh meat, and she is cartoonishly suggestive, lovingly soaping her bare thighs in plain view or sucking the color off of a banana at the dinner table. Tony initially resists her come ons. However, when they both find themselves in the kitchen late at night, she basically blackmails him into having sex with her. This escalates into a brutal rape, her face buried in the carcass of a freshly butchered pig. In case that wasn’t repugnant enough, remember that this is the erstwhile hero of the film. There’s also a sleazy implication that she secretly likes it, as the affair continues. Later, a major plot point is revealed only to conclude in Tony brutally beating and assaulting Margie again.

Henry Silva had cornered the market on these sorts of hypermasculine avengers of eternal whoopass, but this is stunningly amoral even by the standards of other Euro crime films. The material as written makes him basically robotic, yelling a signature motherfucker at the appropriate times and punching through several beatdowns by numbers in a way that falls flat, and makes the sexual assault scenes even more out of place. Tony lacks the capacity to feel, period. The sudden burst of sexual rage makes no sense.

In fact most of the performances here are rather drained, and as atrociously as she is written, Barbara Bouchet’s oversexed poisoned hothouse flower is a welcome dose of distinctive personality, with a perpetual scheme up her lavishly feathered sleeve. Unfortunately, Bouchet’s Margie has far too few scenes were she swans about with sex on her mind and fabulous saloon madam loungewear on her back. She’s used, abused and promptly removed from the film via suicide so the men can get back to their dirty work.

Cry Of A Prostitute is a tedious watch for the same reason so many mondo films are joyless slogs. There’s a certain fundamental intellectual dishonesty in couching a geek show as a boldly unfiltered view of humanity’s rotten core. Minus the exploitative elements, this particular plate of crime film seasoned spaghetti is decidedly pre chewed.

Bite Size: Night Of The Cobra Woman (1972)

Night Of The Cobra Woman has all of the right elements to be a delightful bit of down and dirty, shot in the Philippines drive in fare. The location shoot allows for a built in exotic setting. It stars multiple comely actresses that did some solid genre work and weren’t opposed to showing a bit of skin, and the downmarket Peter Lorre stylings of Vic Diaz. Plus, there’s enough snakes to mandate the resurrection of St. Patrick. Yet, for all of its positive aspects, the overall effect of watching the film is akin to that of a bad online date. The basic details all match the profile, but it has all of the personality of a sack of wet laundry.

Sometime during World War II, Lena Aruza (Marlene Clark, Ganja & Hess) and a young woman named Francisca (Rosemarie Gil) are Allied nurses out gathering medicinal herbs. Lena has heard rumor of a local plant that provides additional vigor and long life, and stops to investigate inside of a remote cave, where she is bitten by an exotic cobra. Meanwhile, poor Francisca is shot and (completely unnecessarily) raped by a Japanese soldier. As it turns out, the cobra venom has all of the properties the herbs were reputed to, and Lena uses it to save the life of her friend.

Cutting to the present, A UNICEF researcher named Joanna (Joy Bang, Messiah Of Evil) has just arrived in Manila to research anti venom for snake bites. She becomes fascinated with the local legends of immortality granting cobras, and a woman in a remote village who supposedly has access to one of the rare snakes. Lonely with all of the long hours in the lab, she invites her boyfriend Duff (Roger Garrett) to join her.

Of course, the local legend is a still youthful Lena. The long ago bite does grant her near immortality, as long as she has a steady supply of venom from familiar/snake deity Movini and a steady stream of young sexual conquests to steal vitality from. When Duff becomes another of the notches on Lena’s deadly bedpost, Joanna must rush to find an antidote.

Even the basic plot outline is overstuffed, and Night Of The Cobra Woman has no qualms complicating its mostly invented on the fly storyline with even more subplots. Nothing exceeds like excess, and nothing is more sure to flatline than a magic and mysticism based narrative that has absolutely no clue how its basic mythology is supposed to work. Most of Lena’s conquests die immediately, but her manservant Lope (a nonsensically gibbering Vic Diaz) is merely a deformed jungle riff on Quasimodo. Meanwhile Duff can be restored entirely by regular does of fresh venom. Plus, the mighty snake god Movini apparently has a specific weakness against eagles, which happens to be the exact animal Duff stole from outside the airport upon arrival.

Joy Bang is woefully miscast as Joanna, and she stumbles through the film in a haze of well styled hair and an expensive set of veneers. Richard Garrett as Duff is even worse, and it’s inexplicable what either of these women would see in this tall glass of skim milk that was worth venom stealing and backstabbing each other over. Marlene Clark’s imperious, high cheekboned beauty lends itself well to a dangerous cobra queen, but the material robs her of any real chance at delicate tragedy or camp villainy. If anyone’s vitality is truly stolen by this film, it is hers, as she valiantly struggles to add a distinct characterization to the whole mixed up affair.

For all of its potential, nothing much happens. The snakes are pretty tame, and mostly confined to inset shots. A lot of runtime is wasted on people wandering around searching for each other, Joy Bang looking like she’d rather be at Woodstock while they test the venom on a monkey, and a Francisca and Lope hired help revenge angle that just slithers off into the bushes.

The general inertness of the plot could have been forgivable if Night Of The Cobra Woman was stylishly shot, a sort of hallucinatory fever dream of glorious incoherence in the Messiah Of Evil mode. Unfortunately, Andrew Meyer’s direction isn’t any stronger than his screenwriting skills. The effects are pretty cheap, and he lacks any sense of framing or pacing to build any consistent mood. The film’s few kills are primarily cutaway, and what should be a horrific sequence of Lena shedding her skin is shot with the overheated eye of an aging patron watching a burlesque dancer slowly remove her stockings.

Roger Corman was a producer on the film, and was reputedly very displeased with the final result. He never hired Meyer to helm a feature film again. The fact that Night Of The Cobra Woman was beneath the visual and storyline standards of the king of fast, cheap B movie making tells you pretty much all you need to know.

Bite Size: If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)

On a warm night in 1966, a single engine airplane crashed into a cow pasture just outside Donalson, Tennessee. The crash was likely caused by an overheated engine, and both of the adult passengers suffered severe injuries. The child traveling with them was, miraculously, mostly unharmed.

On a similarly muggy night some four years later , a congregant named Monnie Stansfield left the cramped environs of a revival tent in Myrtle, Mississippi, deeply impressed with the impassioned oratory of one Estus W. Pirkle. The fire and brimstone preacher’s words were just as vivid as any movie. Had that passing thought been left in an appropriately fleeting place, much innocent celluloid could have been spared.

Unfortunately, Monnie Stansfield actually hunted down Reverend Pirkle that day, encouraging him to put his words on film and bring even more souls to the Lord. Stansfield even knew the right man for the job, who ran a small film studio down in Nashville.

That filmmaker’s name was Roy Ormond (The Mesa Of Lost Women, The Monster And The Stripper). After a second near miss plane crash, he had denounced the skin and sin of his secular career in exploitation. Freshly born again, he had decided turn his talents toward salvation. Since 1968 or so, he had been focusing on making small local films within the Baptist community for church and classroom use.

Stansfield’s chance introduction led to one of the strangest series of collaborations ever set to film. 1971’s If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? isn’t so much a movie as it is the cinematic equivalent of those faux $100 bill tracts left at a restaurant tables in lieu of an actual tip.

The opening few minutes are spent in a bizarre combination of manifesto and disclaimer, with Estus Pirkle having a conversation with a disembodied off screen voice about his ability to “verify” everything we’re about to see. “All of the documented re-enactments are taken from actual events that have taken place in Russia, Korea, China, and Cuba, where they have already taken over”, and that the only dramatic liberties taken are the use of American actors to better show what will happen on the home front “when they take over….if they take over”.

In front of an audience that looks like they are already in their own personal Hell (aside from the one prominently placed spectator who wisely stays asleep the entire time), Pirkle preaches a slightly modified for the screen version of the fire and brimstone sermon he had previously peddled both in person and as a mail order book.

All roads outside the revival hall lead to crime, sex, or both. Worldly vices are the footmen of the coming horses of communism, which establishes an overall metaphor shoehorned in to fit the title’s Biblical reference. Reverend Pirkle generously estimates this takeover as being an imminent danger within the next 24 months, unless America changes its wicked ways.

Television? Encourages sex.

Secular education, particularly at colleges? Riots, crime and……. sex.

At least this particular point gets accompanied by an a brief cut to a chalkboard. The board is illustrated with drawing straight out of a John Willie retrospective and a suspiciously hippie like instructor about to teach a class on the “7 Erogenous Zones Of A Woman”. That number is both severely underestimated and highly specific in a way that makes me suspect very few of the people involved on this film had much of a clue how sex actually works.

Dancing? Just sex standing up

Drive ins? Sex on wheels.

There’s also a bit of melodrama interspersed involving a miniskirted slattern named Judy who arrives to the sermon late, and finds herself regretting her lifestyle of smoking, drinking and anything else even vaguely resembling fun. Reverend Pirkle’s words make visions of her dead mother dance in her head, and she tearfully repents.

Where Footmen surpasses conservative Christian curio is when Pirkle moves on to the consequences of not heeding his warnings, and breaks out the promised reenactments of “verified” stories of Communist regimes shifted to American shores. They most certainly are not his personal persecution fantasies and apocalypse dreams. Nope. All true. 100%. His cousin’s sister’s hairdresser’s church had a missionary who saw it. Could totally happen to us.

There’s an endless parade of inset shots of (clearly breathing) good Christian children lying massacred in the street for not denouncing their faith. Before they are executed, they are forced to join in bizarre games involving tying up their own parents and forcibly dropping them onto pitchforks. While horses are inexplicably the preferred mode of travel for the movie’s soldiers, they break out a van for the daily roundup of speak and spell my first indoctrination. A loudspeaker drones about Christianity being stupid, pausing only long enough for training exercises. The children too cowardly to be martyrs for Jesus find themselves praying to the glory of Fidel Castro for penny candy.

Because we can’t leave the adults out of the paranoia, there’s an offscreen Communist rape fantasy involving a General that slides in between accents as easily as he slides into marriage beds to steal good Christian wives. It isn’t an explicit scene, because sex is bad. However, violence in the name of Jesus is justified. An unfortunate child actor gets the joy of his big movie moment ruined by having to pretend to get his eardrums poked out with plastic bamboo, then vomiting water straight into the camera.

Granted, all of this is far too cheaply shot and indifferently framed to look realistic. The main special effect at hand was apparently a diner’s worth of ketchup packets. Conceptually? Umberto Lenzi would have found some of this in poor taste.

Roy Ormond was one of the few filmmakers in exploitation who could make Doris Wishman look like Cecil DeMille. He had trouble efficiently conveying simple story concepts like “monster” or “stripper”, and framed every shot he ever took through what may as well have been a Jenga stack or a funhouse mirror. His biggest expense on any of the films he ever made was likely a parking ticket when he went to drop off prints to be processed.

When handed subject matter as full of fake history, factual errors, logical fallacies and misplaced rage as this screed, Ormond’s general ineptitude adds an air of manic surrealism to the whole affair, that truly must be seen to be believed. What if God was one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make His way home from an afternoon trip to the grindhouse.

To answer the film’s titular question, and tidily sum up my feelings on this particular experience…….they shoot horses, don’t they?