Posts Tagged ‘grindhouse releasing’

scum-of-the-earth-movie-poster-1974-1020204770

If you’ve purchased or rented any Grindhouse Releasing title in the past decade or so,  you’ve no doubt seen the trailer for southern-fried exploitation vet S.F. Brownrigg’s tantalizingly sleazy 1974 effort, Scum Of The Earth (not to be confused with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ seminal “roughie” of the same name), and hoped against hope that one of these days it would finally be getting a proper DVD release. Last I heard, Bob Murawski is still planning on getting an extras-laden special edition out at some point, but in the meantime you can still view the film itself courtesy of a fairly high-quality VHS rip from its 1980s Magnum Video issuing that I’ve linked to at the bottom of this review.

Hold your horses, though, because first I want you to fully understand the incomparable awesomeness of this “Holy Grail” of the hicksploitation genre.

Alternately billed as Poor White Trash Part II for reasons that seem iffy at best — the original Poor White Trash  having come out all the way back in 1957 and being much more widely known (to the extent that it was even known at all) by its “proper” title of Bayou — Brownrigg’s complete lack of taste or subtlety oozes through every celluloid pore of this astonishingly over the top take on life, as its poster says, “below Tobacco Road,” and the end result is enough to make even the proudest resident of Dixie either blush, howl with anger, or who knows — maybe both.

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On, then, to the story particulars : newlywed couple Paul and Helen Fraser, honeymooning (for reasons I can’t fathom) in the woods have their new life together cut violently short when Paul, going to his truck for some smokes, meets his end courtesy of the head of an unseen madman’s axe. Helen (Norma Moore), understandably panicked, quickly decides to make a beeline for what passes around these parts for “civilization,” only to encounter “assistance” from swamp hick Odie Pickett (Gene Ross, who is obviously lovin’ every minute of it when he’s on screen, and is even credited with “additional dialogue” in the credits), who promises to take her back to his shack where she can phone the law, even though, by his own admission, he doesn’t like “having no truck” with them.

Of course, in reality he has no phone, but he does have a bizarre, inbred bunch o’ kinfolk, all of whom have their own amusingly one-dimensional backstory : there’s his pregnant child bride, Emmy (Ann Stafford), whose father traded her off to Odie at age 12 in order to pay off a debt; his country hooker daughter, Sarah (Camilla Carr), and his idiot man-child son, Bo (Charlie Dell), aand the whole lot of ’em  have their sights set on their new house guest for entirely different reasons.  Needless to say, Odie has absolutely zero intention of ever letting her leave, under any circumstances, so they’re all going to get their chance to sink their hooks into her or die trying.

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Cue every single backwoods hick stereotype you can think of : incest, possum eating, tobacco chewing, moonshine swilling, domestic abuse — it’s all here, in gloriously gut-wrenching detail. No stone is left unturned when it comes to making rural southerners look like complete imbeciles utterly devoid of either class or conscience. And yeah — it’s every bit as awesome as it sounds.

Suspense is pretty hard to come by here (unusual given that Brownrigg would also give us one of the more under-appreciated B-horror efforts of its time, the superb Don’t Go In The Basement), and “story” takes a back seat to unfurling an ever-growing laundry-list of corn-pone atrocities, but none of that really matters since it’s not what you’re watching this for, anyway. The tagline to trash-horror classic Pieces comes to mind here since, like that reviled-for-all-the-best-reasons flick, Scum Of The Earth is, indeed, “exactly what you think it is!” And honestly — who would want it any other way?

But I’ve taken up enough of your evening (or day, as the case may be) with my interminable blathering already already. It’s high time you clicked the link below and experienced the utterly depraved majesty of this one for yourself.

"Stigma" Movie Poster

In 1972, hot on the heels of his little-seen-at-the-time-but-now-recognized-as-the-undisputed-horror-classic-that-it-is I Drink Your Blood, a tale of a Manson Family-esque hippie clan that contracts rabies, writer-director David E. Durston was approached by then- fledgling producer Charles B. Moss, Jr. (who would go on to oversee the mood-horror masterpiece Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, among other films) to do another “viral outbreak”-type film, only this time to de-emphasize the more lurid elements and place the story on more firm socially-conscious ground.

In short, Moss wanted to do a serious film about an epidemic on an exploitation budget.

Durston went away to think things over and, spotting a back-of-the-page newspaper story about new strain of syphilis that appeared to be resistant to penicillin, decided that sounded like fertile ground for just the type of movie that Moss was looking for.

The result is Stigma, another fine entry in Durston’s all-too-short cinematic oeuvre that, like I Drink Your Blood, excels in the areas of mood, atmosphere, and characterization, and features some surprisingly fine acting from its (at the time) little-known cast.

In the lead role of  Dr. Calvin Crosse we have Philip Michael Thomas, who just over a decade later would go on to major television stardom on Miami Vice. Durston discovered Thomas playing a supporting role on Broadway and cast him immediately — a fortuitous decision as it turns out that he possessed the natural charisma and screen presence to literally carry this film on his shoulders.

Dreaming of the future and a co-starring role with Don Johnson

Our guy Dr. Crosse has just been released from prison, where he served a couple years for performing an illegal abortion (this was 1972, after all), and is on his way to Stilford Island, off the coast of Maine,  where his medical school benefactor, one  Dr. Thor, has sent for him to come and assist him with some mysterious project he’s been working on but can’t say too much about.

The good Dr. Crosse doesn’t seem to have much luck thumbing rides (again, this was 1972, and he’s black) though, until he meets up with a GI just returned from Viet Nam named  Bill Waco (Harlan Cary Poe), who just so happens to be from Stilford and is heading back home.

Stand-up guy that he is, Waco loans Crosse his extra army uniform and the two are soon offered a lift to the ferry they need to catch to reach the island, where Bill receives a hero’s homecoming and Calvin finds a bunch of local yokels who won’t even give a black guy directions to the doctor’s house.

When he does finally get there, though, he’s in for a second ruse surprise (the first being the inhospitable treatment of the natives, racism being a constant undercurrent in this film). Dr. Thor is dead, and Calvin’s essentially conscripted into taking over his practice and studying this mysterious outbreak he hints at in his notes and tape recordings.

In short order Calvin gets on the wrong side of the local redneck sheriff (appropriately named Whitehead and played with maximum relish by Peter Clune) and learns that the viral outbreak that his late instructor had discovered was a new strain of VD, namely a kind of super-syphilis, that’s showing up in some unlikely places — not only among the teens and twenty-somethings, as you’d expect, but also in the crazy old alcoholic lighthouse keeper!

Just how randy are the folks on this island, anyway?

We now pause to present a good old-fashioned VD scare film

It’s a testament to just how absorbing a sense of time and place Durston has created here that the movie can essentially take a breather at the halfway point for about five minutes to present an educational 16-mm VD scare film hosted by famed New York top 40 DJ “Cousin” Brucie Morrow and pick right back up where it left off with no loss of interest on the viewer’s part. So well-rounded are all of even the most minor characters that we still give a shot about what happens here despite the interruption — and anyway, it is actually a necessary one in terms of plot advancement.

Dr. Crosse naturally suspects that the source of the outbreak is the country whorehouse run by grizzled old madam Tassie (Connie Van Ess), but why does the sheriff’s promiscuous daughter (and Waco’s flame) D.D. (Josie Johnson) pay a midnight visit to Dr. Thor’s house? Why is the sheriff so determined to obstruct Dr. Crosse at every turn? And just how did that crazy old alcoholic lighthouse keeper come down with the disease?

Stigma plays its hand pretty close to its vest until the film’s riveting final act, when all is revealed in the lead-up to a very satisfying conclusion. Along the way we’re treated to plenty of gorgeous location footage of the Massachusetts coastline (sorry, there really is no Stilford Island, Maine), a downright compelling performance from Thomas that showcases a multi-faceted and highly skilled actor well worthy of the TV superstardom that was in his future, and believable and dare I say even intriguing turns from one and all of the supporting cast.

Stigma isn’t exactly a horror film per se, although one can’t help but think it had a marked influece on a very young David Cronenberg who would go on to mine similar terrain in his early films Shivers and Rabid, but it’s  certainly got enough gratuitous nudity to make it an easy sell to grindhouse audiences (although distributor  Cinerama did a crummy job of marketing it upon initial release and it probably didn’t turn much of a profit) and touches upon enough hot-button social issues to make it something of a “message” movie.

All in all, though, this critic would have to say that Stigma resembles, genre-wise,  a “medical thriller” above all, as its subdued atmosphere and strong characterization really do put a damper on the more obviously horrific elements of the story and the film instead accentuates the inner lives and working of its characters and their community. It’s a thoroughly satisfying viewing experience in every sense, unless you’re looking for another I Drink Your Blood.

Which certainly isn’t a bad thing to be in the market for, but Stigma isn’t it. And why should it be? Durston had been there and done that — with this film he proved his stylistic versatility by tackling similar themes in a completely different, but no less gripping, way.

"Stigma" DVD from Code Red

Stigma has just been released on DVD from Code Red, who have done their usual excellent job in terms of presentation and extras. The newly-restored anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer looks superb, with only minimal graininess in places, and the mono soundtrack is crisp and clean.  For supplements we’ve got an 18-minute on-camera interview with Durston, the theatrical trailer, a TV ad spot for the film, a selection of previews for other Code Red titles (under the heading “movies you probably won’t buy” — guess business has been even worse than I thought), and best of all, a feature-length commentary with Durston moderated by Jeff McKay and hosted by Code Red head honcho Bill Olsen.

As with his commentary on Grindhouse Releasing’s I Drink Your Blood DVD, Durston proves to be a gregarious and engaging raconteur, and while his memory is foggy in places and he obviously gets just flat-out confused from time to time, he’s still a lively and energetic storyteller and it’s a joy to hear his recollections, whether crystal clear or foggy.

Sadly, David E. Durston passed away at the age of 88 shortly after recording his extras for this DVD and missed won’t be here to see a new generation of exploitation fans turned on to this, his second-most-well-known work. He couldn’t ask for a more fitting tribute than the loving resotration that Code Red has brought to this film, though. It’s definitely one of 2010’s best DVD releases to date.

"Gone With the Pope" Movie Poster

Do you believe in miracles? I don’t. But the fact that this film even exists, much less finds itself making the rounds of the surprisingly resurgent (with new cult favorites like The Room, Birdemic, The Human Centipede, and Troll 2) midnight movie circuit these days (it recently played the Uptwon theater here in Minneapolis and did pretty brisk business — hopefully enough to bring it back from a return engagement sometime in the not-too-distant future, since I’m betting that a DVD release is pretty far down the road at this point) is about as close to one as you’re ever likely to find.

Perhaps a brief (not that brevity has ever been my strong suit) explanation is in order for the doubters among you . Bob Murawski, editor of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and recent Academy Award winner for The Hurt Locker, and Sage Stallone (Sly’s kid) operate a specialty DVD and theatrical distribution “boutique” outfit known as Grindhouse Releasing. Their specialty? Well, given the company’s title,  you don’t even need to ask. In recent years, they’ve been responsible for the DVD releases and midnight screenings of films such as Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces, and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox.

In 1999, Stallone and Murawski got turned onto a movie we’ve reviewed previously on this blog, Palm Spring lounge singer -turned-writer-director Duke Mitchell’s little-seen Massacre Mafia Style. Making contact with Duke’s son Jeffrey, they arranged for a DVD release of this ultraviolent, ultrasleazy, ultrafun exploitation curiosity. And as is the custom with Grindhouse Releasing, we’re still waiting for it (thankfully, the younger Mitchell has recently seen fit to issue the film on DVD in a private limited edition, ordering details for which can be found in the film’s review here on TFG) — but at last they have agood excuse.

You see, Jeffrey turned over to Murawski all he had of his father’s second film project, Gone With the Pope, another singular exploitation oddity that Michell the elder shot primarily in 1975 but that remained a work in progress right up to his death in 1981. A rough — -very rough —work print of sorts existed, and of the 17 reels Mitchell shot, 12 were in his son’s possession, with the other 5 missing and never found.

Enterprising sort of guy that he is, Murawski set to work in what little spare time he had assembling a cut of the film that would make some kind of coherent sense, and added in the occasional bit of modern rock-and-roll soundtrack music along the way, coming up with the closest thing possible to a definitive version of this mid-70s ultra-low-budget Mafioso crime thriller/comedy/philosophical treatise/Mitchell ego-fest. In a very real sense, it’s a brand-new ’75 exploitation flick — not a new movie aiming to capture the “spirit” or “style” of the grindhouse, as has been attempted so often to varying degrees of success, but the genuine article —a mid-70s grindhouse classic that had never been seen before.

Clocking in at 83 minutes, Gone With the Pope delivers the exploitation goods to the umpteenth degree — mindless violence, uneven (to put it kindly) acting, cheap production values, haphazard plotting, cornball dialogue, gratuituous nudity —all wrapped up in a surprisingly visually accomplished package that includes tremendously well-composed location footage of “golden age” Las Vegas and Rome, among other astounding locales. It’s no exaggeration to say this flick is a visual treat, and when one considers that the entire movie was shot guerrilla-style without permits, and on short ends at that — well, again, the “nearest thing to a miracle” comparison seems pretty apt.

The man, the myth --- nay, the legend! Duke Mitchell in "Gone with the Pope"

Okay, so the idea here is primarily to give Mitchell a chance to showcase his talents. He gets all the best lines (in fact, the only good ones), and the rest of the cast, non-professionals to a person, are completely overshadowed by his performance. But here’s the rub — as with Massacre Mafia Style, Mitchell is so confident, assured, and literally at home in the command he has of his character that he would hog the limelight even if surrounded by high-priced Hollywood “talent.” The guy is just that good. He knows it, too.

The story is designed to put him not only front and center, but to literally place him in the driver’s seat in front of the camera as well as behind it.  It’s all pretty seamless, really — watching Mitchell on screen, there is simply no doubt that he wrote and directed this thing as well, and the man himself becomes literally inseparable from his work — Duke Mitchell is Gone With the Pope and Gone With the Pope is Duke Mitchell.

His character, Paul, a mid-level mafia hood just getting out of prison, might as well just be called Duke. Everybody in the joint loves the guy and they’re downright tearful to see him go. Some of his best buddies, though (generally even older than he is, probably no accident as far as casting goes) are soon to be granted their freedom, as well, and Duke — err, Paul — has a plan : he’s got  a rich lady on the outside, a woman he’s loved since they were teenagers but who chose to marry a wealthy philanthropist while the man of her dreams was in stir. Now widowed, he rekindles his romance with the lady in question, Jean (played by Jeanne Hibbard, who is obviously reading directly from cue cards the entire time), and finagles her into loaning him her late husband’s yacht so he can take his aforementioned, and now released, prison buddies on a cruise around the world so they can work away their bitterness and anger at the world (his “sales pitch” to her humanitarian side on this matter being one of several philosophical soliloquies Mitchell writes for himself to establish the fact that he’s more than just a dumb ex-con himself).

With his cast of often biblically-named (Luke and Peter being among them) old-time prison buddies in tow, Paul sets off on an ocean voyage that will take them to Mexico, Panama,  Sardinia — and finally, to Rome.

But fist he’s gotta fulfill a contract he’s been hired out for to whack seven guys in Vegas and Hollywood. He takes care of the three in Sin City and subcontracts his buddy Girogio to do the four in Hollywood. Then it’s off with the cash, the boat, and his buddies for the trip of a lifetime.

Duke Mitchell sets sail with a heartfelt message to the people of the United States

Paul’s been dreaming of getting out on the open water for a long time. Just before being let out of prison, he tells one of his inmate friends about how you can be “totally free” on the ocean because there are “no cops, no judges — all you gotta worry about is some fucking maritime asshole.” And, as can be seen in the photo above, he delivers a philosophical diatribe to our society upon raising anchor and heading out to sea : “People of the United States — judges, cops, all the law — I got a message for ya —I want you to take this —” (grabbing his crotch) “and stick it up in your mother’s twat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Where else but Gone With the Pope, my friends, are you ever likely to hear a line of dialogue like that?

It isn’t until we get to Rome, however, at about the 2/3 mark of the film, that the scheme referenced in the film’s title is revealed by Paul to his erstwhile co-conspirators — in short, they’ve come there to kidnap the Holy Father himself and hold him for ransom. And what, pray tell, do they want in exchange for the Pontiff’s safe return? A dollar from every Catholic in the world!

Well, okay, in fairness, Paul lowers the ransom to 50 cents per Catholic when he finds out just how many of them there are — call it another chance to show his human side.

Okay, so the actual method by which they kidnap the Pope is so lame that it’ll test even the most seasoned exploitation veteran’s credulity, and the fact that it actually works is even more outrageous (as is the fact that the Pope seems to be a native English-speaker) — and the garbled philosophy really does take over in the film’s final 20 minutes or so, with Paul’s friends turning their backs on him in some sort of ultra-predictable religious conversion brought on apparently just by being in the vicinity of anybody so — -well, holy — and Paul himself offering as his justification for the audacious scheme some sort of revenge for what the church did to the Jews in World War II (not that he’s Jewish himself, mind you, or that he even mentions a word about them prior to his “here’s why I did it” moment), but along the way there are so many quintessential and downright perfectly-executed exploitation movie moments that you can’t help but be downright awed by the spectacle on display here.

And it’s those “along the way”-type moments that you see a movie like this for, anyway. Maybe it’s the stunning nighttime visuals of Duke Mithcell walking down the now-bulldozed-and-replaced-by-corporate-megacasinos Vegas stripe, cigarette dangling from his mouth; or Duke and his buddies hurling (good-naturedly, at that) racial epithets at a black prostitute for a good five minutes before she offers to sleep with him anyway; or the searing proto-Tarantino balls-to-the-walls slaughter of the guys on Duke’s hit list; or the musical numbers sung by Mitchell himself; or the ultracool sight or Duke in a black stetson taking out a crime lord at a racetrack; an extended and downright surreal sequence featuring Duke and one of his pals pretending to — or maybe genuinely planning on — banging a morbidly obese woman before getting cold feet, resulting in her literally breaking down a door and coming after them; a slow-motion fight scene not actually shot in slow motion but rather featuring the actors slowing their movements down;  or the footage of super-lame fifth-rate Vegas “entertainment” acts like this one —

You probably won't find this bunch playing the main room at Caesar's anytime soon

— whatever you’re into this kind of movie for, you’re going to find it, and then some. It’s not about where you’re going so much as how you get there, and Gone With the Pope gets you there in searingly authentic grindhouse style.

But in the end, this movie isn’t about either the voyage or the sights along the way, in spit of what I just said — it’s about the captain of this zero-budget ship. Mithcell crafted the script as a starring vehicle for himself, and if he couldn’t carry the load, this whole enterprise would have gone nowhere fast. As he proved beyond a doubt, though, with Massacre Mafia Style, he’s more than capable of the task. Mitchell in a singular screen presence quite unlike any other — by turns heartless and heartfelt, despicably cruel and charismatically engaging, he’s never less than electrifying and commands your attention like a black hole sucking in the rest of the goddamn galaxy around it. And if no major Hollywood studio could see that and Mithcell had to craft his own projects from scratch to show off just how fucking good he was, so much the better. Unencumbered by the burdens of compromise or even, for that matter, consideration of anything apart from getting his film in the can, he’s as free to do his own thing as the character he portrays.

You just can’t conceive of Duke Mitchell doing things any other way that his way, and while he may not be responsible for the final edit of this film, you can’t help but think that the superb job Murawski has done assembling this from essentially a haphazard collection of random short-end reels has resulted in exactly the kind of movie he’d have made himself — or rather, was in the process of making when he died.

Gone With the Pope works on a variety of levels, then, simultaneously — as a quintessential-yet-curious relic of a bygone era; as a distillation  yet also, strangely,  almost spoof-like exaggeration of all of said era’s indulgences and foibles; as a tour-de-force showcase vehicle for the creative force at the center of the project both behind and in front of the camera; and as a labor-of-love tribute to that man and his raw dynamic power and sheer screen presence.

If you’re lucky enough to have this film come through your area, don’t miss it under any circumstances.

And hey, how about that poster? Dear God, that is cool!