Archive for January, 2016

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It’s been awhile since the artistic collective known as 44Flood put out a new comic via their publishing deal with IDW, and while I admit that the last effort to go out under their label, Ben Templesmith’s dystopian sci-fi nightmare The Squidder is certainly a tough act to follow, if the first issue of the new four-parter Victorie City is anything to go by, it should be more than up to the task — even though I’ll be the first to admit that, perhaps more than any other comic out there on the stands right now, this one’s going to divide people on a purely aesthetic level almost instantly.

First, though, a few words about the story — writer Keith Carmack appears to be constructing a deceptively standard-issue hard-boiled noir here, with our ostensible “hero,” police detective Hektor Ness, playing the role of one good cop in a city full of crooked ones. He’s finally decided that he’s had enough of the corruption and sleaze his co-workers (particularly his partner) engage in as a matter of course, so he’s taken it upon himself to clean up the force single-handedly, one dirty cop at a time. Needless to say, his superiors are less than thrilled about his little endeavor and soon enough he finds that he’s the one in hot water rather than everybody else. Honestly, though, that’s probably the least of his problems, because a violently psychotic (and as yet unnamed) serial killer has just hit town, and he’s leaving a trail of bodies in his wake that would make a third-world military dictator blush. He really seems to relish his “work,” as well, given the blood-curdling dialogue that literally oozes from his mouth and the clinical calculation with which he goes about wreaking havoc.  These two principal characters are on a collision course from the outset, then — even if they don’t know it until the end of this issue, which closes with a striking and memorable double-page splash of them facing each other down.

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Hmmm — what could possibly be so “divisive” about all this, then, you ask? Well, I’m tempted to give an easy answer here and simply say “the art,” but truth be told, Vincent Nappi’s scratchy, rapid-fire, visceral illustrations, combined with the pared-down color palette he employs, are only a part of the overall “DIY” ethos of Victorie City. Jessi Adrignola’s lettering is likewise about as far-removed from the industry standard as you can imagine, and when you put all this under either of the book’s visually-arresting-but-highly-unconventional covers (Ben Templesmith’s wrap being at the top of this review and Nappi’s “B” cover being shown directly above), the result is something that wouldn’t look or feel out of place on the ‘zine rack of your local punk record store 15 or 20 years ago. The fact that it’s happening in the here and now is certainly worth getting excited about if you’re an old-school indie publication fan like me, but if you’re used to a more professionally-executed look to your reading material and frankly can’t abide anything else, well — this just ain’t gonna be the book for you.

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To which I say “tough shit — your loss,” even though I know it’ll make me sound like an asshole (or maybe that should be even more of an asshole). Honestly, whether the look of Victorie City is something you’re wholeheartedly on board with, or something you need to “get past,” the simple fact of the matter is that the story here doesn’t just “grab you,” it straight-up punches you in the nuts right from the opening page, and it doesn’t let you up once you’re writhing on the ground. You say it “looks ugly”? Well, that’s kinda the point, because the world it’s showing you is ugly in the extreme, as are most of the people in it. Go find your dose of “feel-good” someplace else, friends, because it’s not happening here.

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And so, now that we’ve sent everyone else scurrying back to their Marvel and DC four-color capes-n’-tights “reassurance therapy” sessions, I can safely tell you few misanthropic troglodytes who remain that Victorie City is almost certainly the comic for you. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull and as welcoming as a brass-knuckle sandwich. It’s the kind of book that waves its hand at you and says “howdy neighbor!” with an evil-ass grin while it’s standing on its side of the fence and pissing on your lawn. If a comic book could walk right up to you and tell you “hey, that teenage daughter of yours gets prettier and prettier every day when I see her walking home from her school at 3:30 in the afternoon to your house at 1432 Elmwood Lane, I might just have to introduce myself to her one of these days” — it would be this one. No prisoners are taken here and no fucks are given about it.

Am I “all in” for the next three issues? You’d better believe it.

Review : “Pencil Head” #1

Posted: January 25, 2016 in Uncategorized

Another one I just did for Graphic Policy, hence the rather plain-sounding review title.

Graphic Policy

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When you were a kid, did you harbor fantasies (or should that be delusions?) of becoming a comic book freelancer? I know I did. And I know that a fair number of critics out there still cling tenaciously to the idea that they’re the next great undiscovered writing “talent.” One reason I respect the hell out of the way the powers that be here at Graphic Policy run things is because they make it crystal clear when they’ve received a free digital “copy” of a book so that you, dear reader, can decide for yourself whether or not the “generosity” of a publisher has influenced a critic’s opinion (for instance, you may want to know right off the bat here that the book I’m reviewing today, Ted McKeever’s Pencil Head #1 from Image/Shadowline, is one that I actually purchased with $3.99 of my own hard-earned money). Other sites I won’t…

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Question : what do you get when you combine a violent home invasion, an ex-mercenary (I think) with a burned-off face, a bunch of good ole’ boys who hang out in a convenience store and like to make fun of the retard who mops the floors there, a grotesquely overweight lecherous creep who lurks in playgrounds paying teenage girls to flash their tits, and a sadistic neo-Nazi meth-gang leader whose idea of fun is to strap a husband and wife to chairs facing each other, give them both guns, tell them that one has to shoot the other in the face in order to survive, and then kills the “winner” anyway?

If your answer is “probably the most depraved and amoral comic book of the year,” congratulations! You’re exactly right. But, as much misanthropic fun as that is in and of itself, my best guess is that writer Brian Azzarello and artist Juan Doe (yeah, I don’t think that’s what his birth certificate says, either)’s  new Aftershock Comics series American Monster is also going to prove to be something more than that — at least I hope so.

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When it comes to slow-burn, ultra-violent, hard-boiled crime comics, Azzarello certainly has the pedigree to inspire confidence despite the admittedly disjointed, “where-the-fuck-is-this-going-anyway?” nature of this first issue. Or had it, at any rate. Frankly, I’d be a lot more inclined to give him all the leeway he needs if he’d just been coming off 100 Bullets or Jonny Double, but those were — what? Fifteen years ago? His most recent “street-level” projects have been far less successful, as anyone who endured his agonizing run on John Constantine : Hellblazer or his wretched Joker graphic novel can tell you. And while his character-redefining run on Wonder Woman has met with a fair amount of praise (how could it not? He included Wesley Willis among the pantheon of gods!), his penchant for involving himself with deplorable cash-in projects like Before Watchmen and Dark Knight III : The Master Race knocks his formerly-sterling reputation down a few notches in my estimation, as well. Sure, one could argue that his Comedian and Rorschach books never had a chance in the first place and that he was maybe trying to make the most of a bad situation, but really — he’s a grown man and should have had better sense than to get involved in such a fiasco. So I guess the question here is — which Azzarello are we going to get? The one everybody loved back in the early 2000s, or the money-grubbing “pen for hire” we’ve seen of more recent vintage?

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So far, the jury’s still out on that one. American Monster #1 definitely features plenty of the strong-characterization-achieved-with-minimal-dialogue that was a mainstay of his earlier, stronger work, as well as a lot of almost celebratory sadism that used to be his stock-in-trade, so there’s reason to keep your fingers crossed here. There’s also an obvious moral dimension at play from the outset, in that the “American Monster” of the title clearly refers to the nameless (so far), faceless (as in literally) stranger who just drifted into whatever anonymous Midwestern shithole this story takes place in, but everyone else we meet in this opening installment is, in fact, even uglier than he is — their deformities just happen to be on the inside.

I know, I know — the idea that there’s a deep, incurable sickness underneath the Norman Rockwell-esque image of small town Americana has been done to death, but it can still be an effective enough trope if handled correctly. Shit, at the end of the day it’s still what Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks were really all about, and while Azzarello on his best day probably isn’t worthy of shining David Lynch’s shoes, there’s an undeniable vibe running from first page to last here that, close to the vest as he’s keeping his cards, he’ll know precisely when to lay them on the table for maximum impact. The number of visceral body-blown he lands in this issue alone shows that he’s got a very firm handle on both his story and its implications. So again, whether deserved or not, I’m airing on the side of guarded optimism here and happy to give our scribe at least five or six more issues to either earn or lose my trust.

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Ditto for the artist — Doe is not someone whose previous work I’m familiar with, but he has a clean, linear style that really works when it works (the scenes featuring regular characters going about their far less-than-regular daily business) and really misses when it misses (our titular “monster” looks far too cartoon-ish and the violence lacks some of the immediacy that a “dirtier, grimier” style would impart it with). More pages looked good than not, though, so I’m prepared to let his visual storytelling style either grow on me, or alienate me altogether — whichever comes first, I guess.

And speaking of alienation, if you need your story to have a hero, this series will probably put you off right out of the gate. There don’t seem to be any actual “good guys” on offer, the question here is only which of these hopelessly-compromised, sullied characters is going to prove to be less bad. We always like fuck-ups and reclamation projects and multiple-times-over losers who come through unexpectedly and do the right thing at the right time, and odds are that American Monster is going to give somebody, somewhere in this cesspool of depravity a chance to be that sort of  temporary hero- by- way -of -circumstance- rather -than- design. Whether or not they —whoever “they” may be — comes through? Well, guess we’re going to have to take a “wait and see” approach with regards to that, as well.

So, what the hell — count me in, at least for now. Azzarello and Doe have shown me enough to convince me that this is worth $3.99 a pop for a little while longer, and I harbor faint hopes that we might even be heading for something kinda, dare I say it, special here. And while a title like American Monster might be best suited for a Donald Trump biography, this comic seems determined, among other things, to give us a cold, hard look at the fetid swamp of psychological, emotional, and material insecurity bubbling under the polite surface of American life that makes it possible for a shithead billionaire demagogue in a toupee to rise to power in the first place. We’re meeting the enemy in the pages of this comic — and he is us.

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What the hell, I’m in the mood to crank out one more review of a Harry Novak-produced softcore sexploitationer, so let’s close this little week-long series out with probably my favorite of the bunch — 1966’s black-and-white smutfest The Agony Of Love. What sets this one apart from the rest of its well-populated — and sadly extinct — genre? Two words : Pat Barrington.

For those who may not be familiar with the name, Ms. Barrington, who passed away in 2014, was a true standout of sultry sensuality at a time when, let’s face it, just about any woman who was willing to take off all her clothes in front of the camera could find work on these sorts of productions. This was her first crack at a “leading” role, and while she certainly displays no real acting range to speak of, that actually suits the material perfectly, given that her character, Barbara Thomas, is a bored and unsatisfied (both emotionally and sexually) well-to-do housewife who takes to renting out an apartment and prostituting herself behind the back of her cold and distant husband, Barton (played by Sam Taylor) in a fun, but ultimately fruitless,  quest for fulfillment.  Her unnamed shrink (James Brand, working under the name of R.A. Silverberg to disguise the fact that he throws on a hairpiece and portrays one of her clients later in the film) knows all about her supposedly lurid fantasies, of course, but apart from that her secret desires — most of which are pretty tame by today’s standards apart from a truly bizarre food-themed scene — are only shared with those willing to pay for her services, who are more than happy to indulge her at every turn. As they damn well should be. You’ve honestly gotta wonder who’s getting more out of the exchange — her or them?

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Given that this is a pretty early entry into the sexploitation canon, plenty of “rules” of the genre are broken, given that they hadn’t even been established yet. For one thing, rather than a guy getting it on with a lot of different ladies, this one’s about a lady getting it on with a lot of different guys. For another, no one seems to have informed director William Rotsler that all he needs to do is point the camera and shoot, and so we actually are treated to a fair number of interesting and highly effective shots.  And lastly and perhaps most importantly, The Agony Of Love is one of the far-too-few skin flicks that understands that a plot is more than some throwaway device cobbled together to have some sort of plausible explanation for why everyone is fucking all the time and can instead be utilized to make all those sex scenes matter to viewers for reasons other than just getting their rocks off. In fact, one could even argue that Ms. Barrington is given an honest-to-goodness “character arc” here and that said sex scenes further it along.

As mentioned already, emoting isn’t really one of our leading lady’s skills, but she sure can do the “blank stare” look just fine, and given her character’s mental and emotional state throughout, it’s pretty easy to read those listless expressions as purposeful “far away, empty gazes” even if they’re simply signs of either supreme uninvolvement or, more likely, just good old-fashioned inability. It’s not too terribly often that a genuine lack of skill plays to someone’s strengths, limited as they may be, but that’s definitely the case here.

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And yeah — it sure doesn’t hurt that our gal Pat is shapely in the extreme, either. She’d later go on to appear in a number of roles more, shall we say, tailored towards her specific physical endowments, such as when she popped up (and popped her shirt off) in Russ Meyer’s Mondo Topless, but it’s to Rotsler’s credit that he treats her as more than just admittedly quite delicious eye candy here and trusts her enough to actually carry a picture while providing her with a script, which he also wrote, that puts her in a position to do precisely that.

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So, now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that The Agony Of Love is actually worth seeing, where can you find it? Why, on DVD from Something Weird Video, of course, who saw fit to pair it on a double-bill with the far-more-lackluster The Girl With The Hungry Eyes. Both films are presented, as you’d expect, full frame and with mono sound, and both actually look quite good. Extras are, primarily, the usual smorgasbord of Novak-related stills, promo art, and trailers, and there are a couple of thematically-and chronologically-relevant, but by and large dull, short loops included, as well. Probably only worth buying for the sake of the main feature, but hey — that alone definitely justifies the price of admission.

 

 

 

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way first here — that’s a pretty crappy scan for the poster of 1971’s Below The Belt, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s also the one and only image I could find of it anywhere online, so we’re sort of stuck with it — and that’s kind of a shame given that, as far as Harry Novak softcore productions go, this one actually isn’t too bad.

Novak and writer/director Bethel Buckalew have traded in the barnyards and swamps of hick country for the mean. gritty streets of the (unnamed) big city in this one, and venturing out of their usual “comfort zone” injects the proceedings here with a frisson of realism that most of their collaborations fail to achieve (not that they’re really trying). Sure, it would still be a heck of a reach to claim that this is anything like a good movie, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a successful one in terms of doing what it sets out to do — even if all it “sets out to do” is show a lot of simulated sex scenes.

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For those concerned with a recap of the threadbare plot, here it is : dimwit prizefighter Sammy (played by John Tull, who “starred” in too many flicks of this nature to count) is saddled with a sleazy manager named Johnny (Steven Hodge) who’s in deep trouble with local mobster Louie (Fred Finkleloffe), which is a bad thing because Louie’s the kind of guy who doesn’t really appreciate deadbeats who don’t pay up, and he has the muscle working for him to do something about it. What’s a shady promoter to do? Why, use his charge to get him out of hot water, of course!

Johnny has to keep his fighter focused on his training regimen if he’s going to ride him to a big payday, though, and in order to do that he has to make sure that all of the big galoot’s needs are met — and so while trainer Benny (the always-awesome George “Buck” Flower) works him during daytime hours, leggy hooker Lisa (Mirka Madnadraszky — billed here simply as “Mirka”) is hired to keep him busy at night. Johnny’s definitely not a one-woman kind of guy, though, so look for him to stalk, subdue, and not exactly rape, since she eventually consents, Rene Bond (playing another hooker who’s never given a name), and to have long, slow (but, fortunately, in no way dull) poolside sex with the amazingly-endowed Uschi Digard (whose character is purportedly named “Denise,” although I don’t recall hearing her called that — or anything — in the film), as well. There’s some pseudo lesbian love-making thrown into the mix for good measure, as well, so hey — that’s always a plus.

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In fairness, this flick suffers from the same setbacks that pretty much all of these things do — cheesy theme song, repetitious music during the sex scenes, dull camera work more concerned with obscuring any actual penetration that may or may not be occurring than it is with actually making the copulation look interesting, and cheap studio and location sets, to name just a few obvious shortcomings — but in its favor, it has well-above-average performances from Hodge, Finkleloffe, and Flower, a decidedly unexpected but perfectly logical downbeat ending, and best of all Bond and Digard eating up plenty of screentime and doing what they do best.

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So yeah, what the hell — Below The Belt is definitely worth a look, and look at it you certainly can thanks to (need I even say it?) Something Weird Video, who released it on DVD some years back paired with another Novak sexploitationer, The Godson (which, if memory serves me correctly, I reviewed on this site a few years ago). Both films have been remastered to look as good as they possibly can and are presented full-frame with mono sound. Extras include the standard collection of Novak trailers and promo art, plus a couple of generally pretty decent, if quite grainy, Uschi solo loops (one of which is hidden as an “Easter egg”), which makes perfectly good sense given that she features, to one degree or another, in both films. Worth a buy if you’re a fan of these sorts of movies and can still manage to find it at anything like a semi-reasonable price.

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Voluptuous farmer’s daughter Moonbeam (played by Terry Gibson) has what passes for a “problem” in backwoods country in 1972 — she’s all of 19 years old and still unmarried. Needless to say her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Swyner  (Bruce Kimball, working under the pseudonym of “Buck Wayne,” and Gina Paluzzi, respectively) are worried about this situation to no end, but what they don’t know is that their darling not-so-little girl is getting it on with every single swinging dick the countryside has to offer, including those between the legs of local yokel stud Jasper (John Keith — who makes time with every chick in the movie), another dimwit named Wyngate (Paul Stanley —  don’t get excited Kiss fans, not that one), and even, when she drifts off to dreamland, an imaginary handsome prince (Nick Armmans) who used to be not a frog, but her prize porker, Lord Hamilton.

Running concurrently with all this in The Pigkeeper’s Daughter (which is, if you hadn’t sussed it out already, a Harry Novak production) is a secondary “plot” involving a nameless traveling salesman (Peter James) who arrives in hick country thinking he’s going to pull one over on all the locals (to the point where he even sings about it), but ends up consistently getting the wool yanked down over his eyes by every lusty  Daisy Duke-wannabe he encounters, his string of less-than-conquests beginning with a supposedly 15-year-old hitch-hiker (an uncredited Tina Smith, who’s way too — uhhhmmm — developed to fool anyone into believing that she’s really that young), and continuing on to include the likes of Moonbeam’s virgin-until-about-20-minutes-ago cousin, Patty (Peggy Church, trying to hide behind the name “Patty Smith”) and even Mrs. Swyner herself, who screws her way into a free perfume payday.

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There’s no point kidding ourselves — director Bethel Buckalew (who lensed a fair number of Novak’s softcore sleaze-fests, both rural and otherwise) isn’t offering anything up here beyond standard-issue sexploitation, and The Pigkeeper’s Daughter may even, believe it or not, have less of an actual “story” going on than most of its contemporaries, but one thing that does stand out here is what a fair approximation of the Russ Meyer formula we’re treated to , with the women (even the decidedly less attractive ones, like Paluzzi) all being of the decidedly curvy (and natural!) variety, while the men are invariably inbred dumbfucks who blindly follow their cocks into almost any obviously-stupid situation just for the promise of free and easy country pussy.

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Poor Monnbeam’s marital situation is never exactly resolved, it’s true, but that doesn’t matter so much because by about ten minutes into our roughly 90-minute (which is, frankly, way too long) runtime here, it’s crystal clear that the “script” only exists as a device for stringing the sex scenes together — and to be honest, this one gets pretty down and dirty and I wouldn’t doubt for a second that the actors were really going at it much of the time, with the camera positioned in just such a way at just the right times to obscure any actual penetration.

If that’s enough to keep your attention glued to the screen, then congratulations, you’re in for a good time, even if you have to look at a lot of hairy, pale male flesh along the way. If you’re in the mood for something that at least pretends to have aspirations of being an actual movie, though — well, you’re better off looking just about anywhere else.

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For anyone inclined to give The Pigkeeper’s Daughter a shot (or should that be a poke?), it’s available on DVD from — do I even need to say it? — Something Weird Video, where it’s paired with the genuinely bizarre (and previously-reviewed-around-these-parts) Sassy Sue. Both of these nominally-remastered flicks are presented full frame with mono sound and extras include the usual bevy of thematically-related Novak trailers, promo art, shorts, and what have you. It’s actually a pretty darn solid double-bill if you’re a fan of these sorts of horny hillbilly shenanigans, but anybody and even everybody else can safely skip it.

 

 

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When a couple of big-city musicians head out to the sticks to play a country music gig at a backwater honky-tonk, any number of things could happen, I suppose — but if they’re doing it in 1974, one thing that was almost ubiquitous along the two-lane roads (paved or otherwise) of our always-lusty country were sexy female hitch-hikers.

Unless, ya know, TV and movies have been lying to me all these years. Which is, I suppose, distinctly possible.

Still, County Hooker being a Harry Novak production and all, veracity is of little concern to the proceedings, and so our ostensible “heroes,” Dave (played by Rick Lutze) and Billy (John Paul Jones — no, Zeppelin fans, not that one) do indeed come across a pair of comely young farmer’s daughters named Sue (Rene Bond, in an early, pre-breast implants performance) and Jan (Sandy Dempsey) with their thumbs out, offer the ladies a ride, and find themselves “paid back” for their troubles in the way that men always are by grateful and/or desperate women in flicks of this sort.

When all that good backwoods fuckin’ is done, though, our quartet quickly finds that they’ve got big  problems on their hands —

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The ladies haven’t been entirely honest with the gents, you see, and not only do they work at the very same banjo-twangin’ joynt the fellas are headed to, the throaty singer, Mike (Louis Ojena) who makes his regular home on the stage there is also a bad-ass hayseed pimp, and the waitresses — including Sue and Jan (and be on the lookout for softcore stalwart Maria Arnold) — all work for him off the clock. Sue’s committed the ultimate infraction in the “pleasure business,” though, by immediately falling head over heels for Dave, but if she thinks she’s gonna get out of her — ahem! — indentured servitude and go live the life of a musician’s main squeeze, she’s got another thing coming, because nobody breaks out of Mike’s lecherous clutches without a fight.

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For about 75% of its roughly 75-minute runtime, Country Hooker plays out more or less exactly as you’d expect, with only the most threadbare of “plots” on hand to string together a fair number of distinctly unimaginative, “point-and-shoot” softcore sex scenes, but towards the end director Lew Guinn and whoever wrote the (I’m guessing) six-or eight-page screenplay decide to throw some tragedy into the mix, and tragedy of a decidedly brutal nature at that, and so one of our leading ladies — I won’t say which — meets her end at the hands of her boss in a genuinely stomach-churning (and unconscionably lengthy) rape-and-murder scene that could give even I Spit On Your Grave a run for its money.

Can you say incongruous? Sure you can, even if you were educated in a one-room country schoolhouse. And that, with apologies to Pee-Wee Herman, is our word for the day around here. Most of what’s on offer here is bog-standard rolling in the hay, with a selection of half-assed wisecracks and badly-dubbed country music to break up the monotony (not that watching Rene Bond faux-screwing is every truly dull), and it’s obvious that no one from Novak on down is taking things very seriously because there’s absolutely no reason to. And then, pretty much out of nowhere, things take a turn for the way darker, way bleaker, and way deadlier. Frankly, the whole tone of the film is shot right to hell and I honestly have to wonder how drive-in and jack-shack inner city grindhouse audiences reacted at the time, because it’s a serious mood-wrecker.

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Still, if a woody-killer is what you’re in the mood for, Country Hooker is available on DVD from (who else?) Something Weird Video where it’s paired with another Novak barnyard romp, Sweet Georgia, Both are presented full-frame with mono sound and extras are the usual SWV collection of thematically-related loops and promo materials. I’ll say this much for this movie — it’s certainly memorable, even if for all the wrong reasons.