Monday, September 27, 2010

VIOLENT MIDNIGHT

(1963; PSYCHOMANIA; d- Richard Hilliard)
Approaching a film like VIOLENT MIDNIGHT, one might consider hesitating or resisting fully while contemplating the repertoire of it’s creators, Richard Hilliard and Del Tenney (I EAT YOUR SKIN). After all, it was writer/director Hilliard who penned the infamous HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (directed by Del Tenney, producer and alleged co-director here), one of the uttermost turkeys ever set loose upon the unsuspecting drive-in public. That film, attempting to cash in on the recent trend in teen-centric low budget horror established by AIP, lowered the bar so far it more or less permanently stigmatized age-specific terrors as completely unreliable bunk - it’s reputation later cemented in ignominy as it was famously skewered on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.
So, imagine my surprise (imagine something else) when I found this to be a relatively competent and surprisingly interesting and provocative little thriller… that isn’t to say it’s very good, but rather, it brought unanticipated pleasures.
Opening with an ominous scene from a hunting trip gone awry, VIOLENT MIDNIGHT sets the tone via conventional “whodunit” means before the credits even roll, though shows flashes of daring soon after. This being a rather startling scene of a voluptuous model posing nude for the distinguished painter, Elliot Freeman (Lee Phillips), introduced previously during that hunting trip (in which his father was murdered and it was later ruled an accident). The last thing I expected five minutes into such an obscure black and white potboiler was a topless scene that might’ve caused even Russ Meyer’s knees to buckle. Regardless of how much a “bait and switch” this ultimately amounts to, I applaud their efforts. I mean, it got my attention, anyways.
Soon after meeting Elliot and his model, Delores (Kaye Elhardt), a lurking, black-gloved presence is revealed, peeking and poking around Elliot’s sprawling family estate, employing the kind of customary forebode you might expect from an episode of Scooby Doo… then Elliot’s intrusive, prickly family attorney (Shepperd Strudwick of THE TWILIGHT ZONE) pops up unannounced with his massive, creeping, mute German manservant (one of many none-too-subtle red herrings supplied in a bid to keep us off balance), who scares the hell out of Delores while ogling her disdainfully through a window.
Nothing in VIOLENT MIDNIGHT is especially original or exceptionally well-executed, but I have to give credit where it’s due - the movie manages to squeeze a lot out of such a miniscule budget. It’s cast, for starters, is loaded with future talent - working for peanuts here - including Oscar nominee Sylvia Miles (MIDNIGHT COWBOY), James Farentino (DEAD AND BURIED), (TV’s) Jean Hale and (TV’s) Dick Van Patton, all of whom give fair enough account for themselves, considering… furthermore, it’s much more risqué and suggestive than I’d ever have guessed, treading the line of common decency throughout (common decency was, like, an important thing in olden times).








So Delores has a thing for Elliot, rooted in a night of lust six months prior, and receives a call from her jealous on/off beau, Charlie (James Farentino, feigning menace and mugging like THE WILD ONE), a hot-headed biker who doesn’t mince words… “You be there tonight… or you’re gonna be the sorriest broad in town.”
Following that delightful cooing, Delores decides to stir things up by getting both men in the same place together, suggesting Elliot take her to Charlie’s favorite bar for a bite to eat. “There’s a little place down the road. It’s called Rizolli’s… it’s Italian.” Just when it looks like Charlie’s gonna wipe the floor with the slight, seemingly delicate Elliot, the artist turns the tables, tossing Charlie around effortlessly, beating him unconscious after a switchblade is pulled. It turns out Elliot was a decorated war hero in Korea, hinting some at his dark side after turning the bar on it‘s head, “I was gonna kill him.” “You couldn’t do a thing like that.” “Yes I would…”
His brooding nature is further embellished moments later when Delores, now scheming to ensnare him with a recent pregnancy he isn’t partner to, compares him to his father (whom he hated), which draws a ferocious slap. Later that night, Delores is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant wearing a trench coat and black gloves - the likes of which shoddily attempts to evoke Janet Leigh’s murder in PSYCHO, though the chocolate syrup passing for blood here seems a bit on the coagulated side.

From here we’re introduced to the rest of the principal cast, including Elliot’s bookish, neurotic younger sister, Lynn (Margot Hartman), Dick Van Patton as the cool yet hard-driving detective(!) and Sylvia Miles as, well, Sylvia, the ungainly, wolfish barfly who loves Charlie. There’s also the delectable array of young lovelies who inhabit the nearby Belmont College for Women - especially the gorgeous, scandalous Alice (“miss thang” herself, Lorraine Rogers), the adorably coquettish “Lolita” (catty, cutesy Shiela Forbes) and the good girl, Carol (Jean Hale, good-girl extraordinaire), who becomes the luscious apple of Elliot’s eye.
Also of notable interest is Mr. Melbourne (Day Tuttle, whose specific function at the school remained unclear to me), our resident peeping tom and spiritual avatar - who keeps a close eye on them, especially when they’re changing clothes or frolicking half-naked in the lake. Through his loving gaze, the bawdy, lustful secrets of yore come to wondrous, breathtaking fruition.
I’m trying to remember that this is, in fact, a murder mystery, but the film itself seems to forget that for lengthy, breezy stretches, offering us a steamy tryst in the laundry room between Alice and Charlie (Alice to Charlie, “Hey, you smell. Of Tobacco. And beer… and animal.”), romantic interludes with Elliot and Carol and even a dreadfully long folk song called “Black Autumn”. During this momentary lapse in order, a particularly melancholy college girl croons and groans endlessly about pushing up daisies, the big sleep, the general abdication of life, etc. The patrons of the tavern just stare at her blankly, pondering (as I did) just what got her panties in a bunch this fine morn.
And Charlie, that incorrigible chap - and the way he handles his women - left me wondering exactly what was his lasting appeal. I mean, whether viciously ripping out Sylvia’s earrings (“I’m not gonna hurt ya… much”) or one-punching Alice while skinny dipping at the lake, he seems to lack the basic good graces necessary to be the lover boy he’s otherwise indicated (chin-dimple notwithstanding).
When another gal buys the farm, Mr. Van Patton and company do all they can to remind us that there is an investigation going on here, that this kind of thing must not stand. Though rather out of left field, I still guessed who the killer was. The untoward overtness unto which every other suspect was portrayed became a wee tad overwhelming, though hardly mattering much. Watching VIOLENT MIDNIGHT was like stepping into some dark, daft, lovely alternate past in which breathy co-eds smiled sweetly and bathed and trollop-ed (help me here…), mindful of the rampaging psychotic terrorizing the community, though still lacking the better sense to avoid naked, drunken jaunts in the lake at midnight.

Monday, September 13, 2010

VICE SQUAD

(1982; Gary Sherman)

Knock, knock. “Who is it?” “God almighty, that’s who it is. Come on, baby… open up the door”.

I was gripped by this menacing stranger, this beguiling man in cowboy stripes - toothy grin and jutting jaw demanding approval. Skulking just beyond that disarming smile, though, is a simple beast that wants to destroy everything conflicting it’s way of life. The cops who want him caged. The pimp with information to give. The hooker who stands alone. “All I want to do is give you the kind of love ya want…”. Those initial feelings of untried menace bear little resemblance to the sheer terror that will take hold the moment those words find passage, the moment you unlock the door and let him in.
Wings Hauser is Ramrod (uh…), a man whose primary motivations seem to be control and pain. Hold ‘em down tight, then do what you do best. The kind of guy who liked to pull the wings off flies as a child. And if you grew up with a single mother with bad taste in men, well… he’s the kind of man you feared the most.
VICE SQUAD is early Reagan era sleaze at it’s most audacious, posing to expose the seamy side, but itself perpetuating (by way of extravagance) and therefore becoming, the fabric of the cultural underbelly. It is prime grindhouse gristle, a sumptuous example of what draws people to this type of entertainment. It also famously introduced the “pimp stick” into the vernacular. It being that gangly apparatus fashioned from a wire hanger, commonly used for beatings and elective genital mutilation.
Beginning as is garishly conceivable, VICE SQUAD kicks out the opening credits with a Hollywood and Sunset red light montage set to the wild, impossibly grimy “Neon Slime”, sung by Ramrod himself, Wings Hauser. His performance might alternately be described as a brutal cacophony of guttural savagery or, perhaps, your uncle trying to impersonate AC/DC while his testicles are ravaged by Texas fire ants… It’s just that good.
Following that gaudy, shrill introduction, we meet Princess (Season Hubley), conservatively dressed as she bids an emotional farewell to her young daughter (bussed off to grandmother’s place in San Diego for an indeterminate amount of time). With all the tears involved, one might surmise it’s by state decree.
Season Hubley (of Paul Schrader’s HARDCORE) is riveting here as the somehow demure yet thick-skinned prostitute - both persuasively tough and tender, perpetually wresting a fleeting vulnerability from the surface. Her street persona is a rather androgynous combination of elegance and virility, fiercely independent of the many foul, looming hands seeking to reign her in - precisely the reason she strikes such a resonate chord with Ramrod further on.
While preparing her daughter for that bus trip, Princess gets a frightened call from a battered comrade holed up in a dingy motel room. It seems Ginger (Nina Blackwood, an original MTV VJ), one of Ramrod’s girls, has been beaten so badly that she’s paralyzed with fear and unable to leave her room. Princess pleads with her to get out, that he’ll find her there, but Ginger won’t budge… setting up a savage introduction to one of the nastiest, most unforgettable villains in screen history.
So night falls - the rest of the film takes place over the same night- with Princess transforming into the sleekest thing in stiletto heels and glitter-based eye shadow on the strip. Her first order of business is outfoxing an undercover cop in way over his head. Then she’s accosted by a well dressed man in a white Mercedes convertible (played by Jonathan Haze, Seymour from the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS!). “You ever golden showered? It doesn’t hurt or anything.” “Sorry… I just went to the rest room.” “I got a six pack and a hundred dollars."  “You also got yourself a date with Princess Running Water”.


Just down the block, we find Ramrod instructing one of his girls from his tricked out Bronco, then pulling off and into a motel not far away. If there’s a scene everyone remembers from VICE SQUAD, it’s Wings Hauser coaxing Nina Blackwood to unlock the motel room door - and it’s horrifying aftermath. Regardless of how “good” a movie this is, Wings Hauser’s mythic turn as the psychotic pimp in VICE SQUAD will always remain the stuff of legends.
Next we’re pulled into the police station and introduced to a flamboyant, vulgar assortment of pimps, hookers, junkies and perverts. Everything grinds to a screeching halt, though, when a huge black cop blows a gasket over a missing paperclip. “Somebody stole my goddamn paperclip! WHO IN THE FUCK TOOK MY PAPERCLIP?!” I had to rewind this meltdown scene twice. I mean, seriously, who would steal this guy’s paperclip? I shudder to think…
There is a third principle character rounding things out, a cop named Walsh (Gary Swanson, method acting protégé of Lee Strasberg) who drags Princess down to the city morgue following Ginger’s torture, mutilation and murder at the hands of Ramrod. Though at first she vigorously declines to help set him up, Walsh forces her intimate appraisal of Ginger’s bloodied, ravaged corpse… “Ramrod did that… he beat the shit out of her! And used the pimp stick on her!”
So Princess (wearing a wire) strolls into the nearby pimp watering hole, The Balled Eagle(!), swiftly brushing off the advances of the be-feathered mack sitting next to her quarry. “You know if beauty was a minute, mama, you’d be an hour”… “Fuck off”. Ramrod, clearly impressed, makes his move - grabbing her mouth forcefully, slapping her - “You like that shit? You like that shit, bitch?!”



The cops, waiting for their cue, listen in as Princess now flutters like a leaf in Ramrod’s apartment. After some tense build-up, they bust in and Princess attacks him, revealing that she’d set him up and that she knows he’s murdered Ginger. All a bit prematurely though, as he grabs her by the back of the neck, smashes her head into Walsh’s face 3 Stooges-style, then proceeds to bash her skull with a stool as the stumped cops scramble to get a hold on the situation. It’s a powerful scene, proving Ramrod’s fearlessness is certainly something to be feared. All the more important, considering the next moment has him kicking the shit out of the two arresting officers driving him to the station (while handcuffed, no less).
I realize this is all quite ridiculous, that I’m basically running down the plot scene by grubby scene - but I'll be damned to Hell if this story doesn’t get juicier yet.
So Ramrod gets some underworld assistance removing the cuffs, getting a car and gun, and from this point on he’s dead set on finding Princess. She, though banged up from that nasty encounter, is the consummate pro - too tough to let a little rough stuff keep her from a night’s work.
In fact, following what has already seemed like a very busy night, she finds time for a trollish, submissive toe-sucker (whom she seems to enjoy the most), a regular john confined to a wheelchair, a cheapskate greaseball in town for a convention… and what has got to be the strangest “trick” in film history.
Her night is just too bizarre and sensational to sustain the gritty realism director Gary Sherman (director of the great “Dead and Buried” and the dismal “Poltergeist 3”) seemed to be earlier staking a claim to. It becomes an odyssey through just about every perversion in the book - and one they seem to have invented out of sheer boredom.
After being duped out of pay by that slimy conventioneer, she’s met in a motel parking lot by a limousine driver who has requested her by name. So off she’s carted to a mansion in the hills where she’s told to put on a see-through wedding dress/negligee. She’s then instructed not to speak under any circumstance, is methodically led down a long staircase to the traditional “wedding march”, then locked into a room with a casket - from which an old man springs out in ghoul make-up, calling her a slut and ordering her away when she reacts verbally to his confounding shenanigans. Call it what you will - to my knowledge, this particular kink doesn’t otherwise exist.
Meanwhile, Ramrod’s leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of her, adding another one of her friends, Coco (Lydia Lei), to his laundry list of victims. When he finds out she used to have a pimp, he pays a visit to the guy… the “Sugarpimp”, as he’s so affectionately referred here, is played by none other than Fred “Rerun” Berry (of “What’s Happening” fame!), who suffers perhaps the worst indignity yet - his high pitched voice jumping through the roof when Ramrod insists, with switchblade handy, that he has no balls. Yikes!
Without giving much more away here (ahem…), the proceedings do lose a bit of that rarefied air, devolving into fairly typical good guy/bad guy cop-stuff, though hardly diluting from an overall experience you’d be hard-pressed to replicate. Princess and Ramrod (am I dreaming?) do have their fateful showdown, conflicts are resolved - and you may just wind up hugging the person sitting next to you when it’s all said and done.