Big Doll House, The (1971)

Big Doll House, The (1971)

“You tell me about this escape — I release you from this nightmare.”

Synopsis:
A group of female prisoners — Alcott (Robert Collins), Grear (Pam Grier), Bodine (Pat Woodell), and Marnie (Judy Brown) — plot to escape from a prison in the Philippines run by a sadistic warden (Kathryn Loder), and receive support from a pair of fruit vendors (Sid Haig and Jerry Frank).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Escape
  • Prisoners
  • Strong Females

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary posits that this “first of the women-in-prison genre” — “directed by Jack Hill and produced by Jane Schaffer for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures” — is “the best outside of Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat.” He notes that it “created the formula for later films by mixing R-rated sex and violence… with feminism: women bond together for survival, women are not helpless and passive.” He argues that “Roberta Collins and Pam Grier” — “two future superstars of the sexploitation genre”:

— are “reasons enough to see this film”, given that they “will take only so much humiliation, abuse, and torture”. While this film is competently directed and features spunky performances — including by Barbara Steele-look-alike (Loder):

… it’s not must-see viewing by anyone except fans of the WIP genre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective direction


Must See?
No, though it’s work a look for its historical status as a trend-setting women-in-prison film.

Links:

Penitentiary (1979)

Penitentiary (1979)

“You got to keep yourself in shape around here — this place is full of fools! If you don’t handle the fools, they handle you.”

Synopsis:
When a hitchhiker (Leon Isaac Kennedy) gets involved with a prostitute (Hazel Spears) who inadvertently sends him to prison, he must deal with a sadistic cellie (Badja Djola). After joining a boxing league in an attempt to earn his release, he is re-assigned to live with an aging prisoner (Floyd Chatman) whose “live and let live” goal is simply to survive.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African Americans
  • Boxing
  • Prisoners

Review:
This blaxploitation film by director Jamaa Fanaka is notable as a representative flick within the genre, and for featuring a (relatively) realistic look inside mostly-black prisons of the 1970s. Kennedy’s situation of having no choice to survive other than through boxing echoes many other Hollywood films — most notably From Here to Eternity (1953) — but primarily serves as the excuse to feature seemingly countless bouts in the ring, fully sanctioned by an overweight white guard (Chuck Mitchell) who is mercifully decent towards his charges.

Thankfully, Kennedy is a determined and strong enough protagonist to manage every hurdle coming his way. Also of note is Chatman as a lifetime prisoner:

who is clearly meant to serve as a powerful and viable contrast to Kennedy’s get-out-no-matter-what-it-takes attitude; his character rings very true.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Semi-realistic footage of life inside prison

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious.

Links:

Warriors, The (1979)

Warriors, The (1979)

“They think we shot Cyrus.”

Synopsis:
When the leader (Roger Hill) of New York’s largest gang is murdered by a fellow gang leader (David Patrick Kelly) at an all-city gathering, the innocent leader of the Warriors (Dorsey Wright) is killed in wrongful retaliation and the remainder of the gang — now led by Swan (David Beck) — is pursued across the city. During their harrowing attempt to make it back home to Coney Island, the Warriors meet a beautiful young woman (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who falls for Swan, and must battle numerous other outrageously dressed gangs — including the skinhead Turnball A.C.s, the Baseball Furies, the Punks, and the all-female Lizzies.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Gangs
  • New York City

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary describes “Walter Hill’s nifty, stylized, heart-pounding action movie” as “set in a surreal, fantasy New York, a playground for numerous tribes (called gangs) which stake out territories and parade around in garish identifying costumes, brandishing weapons and spray paint with which to decorate everything in their paths.” He notes that this is a “dream world, an enormous arena of parks and empty subway tunnels, the perfect obstacle course”, with “the subway trains — neutral territory in Sol Yurick’s much different… source novel — Hill’s bases, one for each baseline.” He points out that “the police are another tribe, the Men in Blue who serve as umpires and remove all rule breakers from the game”, and that “there is even a play-by-play announcer, a female deejay who reports the Warriors’ progress” and refers to their gang as “a minor-league team”. Peary reminds us that “the film is bloodless” and the “violence is cartoonlike, with every brutally beaten character feeling fine immediately after” — a notable fact, given that “this film was the object of a huge anti-violence-in-film campaign due to some incidents in theaters in which it played”.

Peary elaborates on this film in his first Cult Movies book, where he describes in detail the many differences between it and the original novel. He writes that while “The Warriors, artistically, is an uneven film to say the least”, it “is so full of unbridled energy and drive, with frenetic pacing from beginning to end, that it’s hard not to root… for it to succeed.” While “it’s a film that’ll make you cringe at times”, you’ll “forgive the shortcomings and praise the exciting camerawork, the excellent use of music, and the oddly conceived performance of David Patrick Kelly, the best wacko villain since Andy Robinson in Dirty Harry (1971).”

Indeed, there’s much to admire and enjoy about this fast-paced flick, including the “first rate” choreography of the fight scenes, the stylized costumes (especially those of the Furies), and highly effective use of New York shooting locales. This unique cult favorite remains well worth a look.

Note: Peary understandably fails to point out the nifty comic-strip transitions added in the 2005 director’s cut, which heighten the cartoonish and playful nature of the story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Andrew Laszlo’s cinematography

  • Effective use of New York locales

  • Plenty of memorable moments
  • The creative comic strip transitions (added in 2005)
  • Barry De Vorzon’s synthesized score

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine cult classic.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The / Phantom of Terror, The(1970)

Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The / Phantom of Terror, The(1970)

“It seems very clear to me that there is a dangerous maniac at large in this city.”

Synopsis:
After an American writer (Tony Musante) in Italy witnesses the attempted murder of a beautiful redhead (Eva Renzi) behind the glass walls of an art gallery, he and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) put their own lives at risk while attempting to help a police inspector (Enrico Maria Salerno) figure out who the mysterious serial killer might be.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Horror Films
  • Serial Killers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “tricky and bloody horror-mystery” — very loosely based on the same novel that was turned into Screaming Mimi (1958) — is “stylishly directed by Dario Argento, Italy’s specialist in this kind of material.” (Other Peary-listed titles by Argento include Deep Red [1975], Suspiria [1977], and Inferno [1980].) Peary notes that The Bird With the Crystal Plumage “has some scary moments”, but argues that “perhaps the best scene is half comical, with Musante visiting an eccentric artist whose painting is the key to the mystery”.

Peary points out that the film’s “dubbing hurts” (yes, it does), and that it “should be seen in [a] theater for full effect” — though thanks to Blu-Ray technology, that’s no longer necessary. The storyline offers plenty of atmospherically filmed sequences and twists and turns, with several possible candidates for the murderer. It’s worth a look by giallo fans, though not must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vibrant cinematography and sets


  • Several tensely filmed sequences

Must See?
No, though Sargento fans will of course want to check it out.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

White Line Fever (1975)

White Line Fever (1975)

“They all think they got the God given right to haul what they want to, when they want to!”

Synopsis:
After leaving the Air Force, a pilot (Jan-Michael Vincent) marries his sweetheart (Kay Lenz) and the couple buy a big rig — but after going to see a family friend (Slim Pickens) about work, Vincent quickly learns that the entire trucking industry is corrupt.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Corruption
  • Revenge
  • Truckers

Review:
Named for the phenomenon experienced by long-haul truckers who enter a state of “highway hypnosis” (also known as “white line fever”), this exploitation flick by writer-director Jonathan Kaplan is a disappointment on every count. After an opening musical photo montage depicting Vincent and Lenz’s happy newlywed life together — including friendship with Lenz’s older brother (Jamie Anderson) (you can tell he’s her older brother from the package below):

… Vincent and Lenz are quickly (within the first five minutes of the movie) spending money they don’t yet have to invest in a long-haul truck.

However, after going to see an old family “friend” (Slim Pickens) for work:

… Vincent is astonished — astonished! — to learn that corruption is rampant in trucking, and in order to get any jobs at all, he must be willing to transport undercover cigarette machines. Our plucky protagonist refuses even to consider this, and thus starts the remainder of his bold but tragic journey, which includes the sudden brandishing of a powerful weapon (is this considered “logical”, given his military past?):

… and an ensuing cat-and-mouse tale between The Bad White Guys in Power and righteous Vincent, helped occasionally by those “on his side” — including an older Black man (Sam Laws):

whose son disapproves of his dad being friendly with a white guy. Laws endures racist slurs hurled at him by The Bad White Guys in Power, who also happen to be sexist pigs.

Meanwhile, Lenz — who hates her factory job but doesn’t have any other training or education — glibly falsifies her resume in an attempt to get a more interesting job:

… and then we see her in a so-sad “family planning clinic” due to becoming pregnant before she and Vincent are ready to be parents. (Clearly they don’t really know the meaning of love — and the clinic doesn’t know that you can’t just cram two shorter words together to make a longer word.)

The drama continues.

(SPOILER ALERT)

After engaging in a bold top-of-truck shootout with henchmen of the Bad White Men in Power:

… Vincent is tricked into hauling a truck full of overripe avocados (worth nothing at his final destination).

He’s justifiably pissed, and the vendetta continues. Eventually he’s framed for the murder of an increasingly unsympathetic Pickens (seen here about to offer his tarty date a box of “European chocolates”):

Within the span of just a few minutes, however, Lenz (still secretly pregnant) testifies on Vincent’s behalf and saves his life.

All of this happens before Lenz gets up the courage to finally tell Vincent she’s pregnant, only to walk immediately into her bedroom and discover Laws brutally murdered on their bed.

After this, the couple is nearly burned alive in a retributive house fire:

which causes Lenz to miscarry, never able to bear children again.

(You’d be forgiven for assuming you’d dropped into a movie-length soap opera by this point. And yes, there are more details I’m not including.)

While there’s clearly a valuable story to be told about the challenges of trucking, the nobility of Standing Up to the Man, and the importance of unionizing, this isn’t it. Given that Kaplan went on to make Over the Edge (1979), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Project X (1987), and The Accused (1988), his talents and tastes clearly evolved.

Oh, and Dick Miller appears a couple of times, presumably to reassure you that you are indeed in exploitation-film land, despite this film being made for a major studio (Columbia Pictures).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Pretty landscape footage across America

Must See?
Oh boy, no. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)

Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)

“Were you listening, P.S.?”

Synopsis:
A 7-year-old orphan named P.S. (Nicholas Gledhill) who has lived with his poor but kind aunt (Robyn Nevins) and uncle (Peter Whitford) for years is forced to go spend time with his wealthy, emotionally reserved Aunt Vanessa (Wendy Hughes) when his absentee father (John Hargreaves) decides this may be best for him — but P.S. misses his old life, and struggles to make his wishes known to the adults around him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adoption
  • Australian Films
  • Class Relations
  • Orphans
  • Raising Kids

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “sleeper from Australia” — which “seems to have profoundly affected everyone who has seen it” — “effectively conveys the trauma suffered by a child who is shuttled back and forth between two homes, without having any say in what is best for him… Everything he is told is biased; nothing he does is correct in either household… [and] he is told by each aunt to keep secrets from the other”, leading to him being “confused, scared, and miserable.” Peary points out that the “tragedy is that everyone acts at their worst”, with “even the sweet little boy resort[ing] to cruel manipulation of the adults by the film’s end” (one doesn’t blame him in the slightest). Peary argues that this “important subject matter has, surprisingly, never been handled well until this film” (really?), and that the picture features “excellent acting — young Gledhill will capture your heart — and solid direction by Carl Schultz.” I’m in agreement with Peary’s review, and was pleasantly surprised to revisit this evocatively filmed historical drama, filled with unusual characterizations — “Hughes’s character is… well-meaning in regard to her nephew, but is incapable of expressing love or warmth” — and deep empathy for a child’s perspective on life. One could easily imagine Joan Crawford in Hughes’s role, and other elements of the film — including its rather melodramatic final half-hour — hearken back to the golden age of classic cinema as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nicholas Gledhill as P.S.
  • Wendy Hughes as Aunt Vanessa
  • Robyn Nevins as Aunt Lila
  • Beautiful cinematography and production design
  • Fine direction

Must See?
Yes, as a unique and satisfying film.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

Over the Edge (1979)

Over the Edge (1979)

“When you’re 16, you start playing for real.”

Synopsis:
When a teenager (Michael Kramer) and his buddy (Matt Dillon) witness an acquaintance (Vincent Spano) shooting the windshield of a car driven by a vengeful cop (Harry Northup), a chain of events is set off in their boring planned community, where there is nothing for kids to do except hang out, take drugs, and engage in petty crime.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Generation Gap
  • Juvenile Delinquents
  • Teenagers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “excellent youth film” — a “social drama that’s set in Grenada, a planned community in California” (based on similar real-life occurrences that took place in Foster City) — “has a cult following”. He notes that “director Jonathan Kaplan and writers Charles Haas and Tim Hunter (the director of Tex) are in total sympathy with these teens”, whose “wasteland environment” gives them ample reason to rebel — and he points out that the “filmmakers have no pat answers for the problem of juvenile delinquency in planned communities”, but rather “want to make it clear that such a setting creates the kind of teenagers that made adults want to move away from where they had been.” He adds that the “scenes with the kids are very believable” and “the kids are an interesting lot”, but he wishes “the adults weren’t all one-dimensional” (I agree).

In Cult Movies 3, Peary discusses the film’s production and release history in greater detail, explaining that “after it received excellent reviews in such test markets as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Kansas City, it became almost impossible to see, sparking interest and word-of-mouth.” However, “since it was promoted as a horror(!) film” (see the movie poster above), Warner Brothers “shelved it”, defending “its decision with claims that no one would book a ‘gang picture’ after the heavily publicized incidents of violence at theaters showing The Warriors (1979) and Boulevard Nights (1979).” In addition, the “drug scenes” meant no network television stations were willing to air it, so “its audience would not grow until it turned up on cable more than a year later, began to play in repertory theaters, and became available on cassette.”

Peary goes on to compare Over the Edge to Rebel Without a Cause (1955), noting that while “both films deal with the same subject, Over the Edge is more disheartening, indicating that it has gotten much worse for America’s youth since 1955″. Indeed, “Kaplan’s brutally realistic film” — a “terrifying warning — with no resolution — about what is happening to American’s best resource” — “makes Rebel Without a Cause seem optimistic.” Peary further associates Over the Edge with a handful of other films that are “completely in sympathy with teenagers”, including The Blob (1958), Foxes (1980), The Outsiders (1979), and The Breakfast Club (1986).

Despite the ongoing issue of how to keep teens and pre-teens meaningfully engaged, when watching Over the Edge today one is definitely struck by how time-bound it feels: in the pre-internet era presented here, kids must gather physically somewhere in order to hang out — and as Peary writes, “they remind [one] of rats and other night creatures that come out when people are gone”, gathering “in the dark by the rec center, sitting on the ground or in little improvised hovels”. In “the party scene, their clutching bodies fill up the halls, the basement stairwell, and the basement of a house whose adult owners are away (it’s like an underground tunnel system inhabited by rodents)” — and “they run out of the house en masse as the cops arrive, as rats or roaches would do if the lights went on; they vandalize the school and like scavengers destroy and steal from the cars in the parking lot.” Indeed, while this film may be sympathetic to its teenage protagonists, it’s hard to actually like these characters, who are so damaged by their (privileged but insufficient) upbringing that violence and drugs seem to them to be their only option. Director Kaplan has stated, “I happen to believe these kids are potentially dangerous. A good demagogue comes along and he’s got his troops. And that scares the shit out of me.” Kaplan’s right to take this stance: these kids are dangerous, and one despairs for humanity when watching his depressing film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the natural young cast
  • Effective cinematography

  • The eerie civic building set

Must See?
Yes, once, for its former cult status.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Flesh (1968)

Flesh (1968)

“You just do whatever you have to do.”

Synopsis:
A hustler (Joe Dallesandro) whose wife (Geraldine Smith) has requested money for an abortion for her girlfriend (Patti D’Arbanville) engages in numerous adventures throughout the day, including hooking up with a young john (John Christian), posing nude for an older artist (Maurice Barddell), giving advice to a new hustler (Barry Brown), making out with his former girlfriend (Geri Miller), and requesting money from a friendly Korean War vet (Louis Waldron).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Counterculture
  • Paul Morrissey Films
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “early attempt by Andy Warhol” (directed by Paul Morrissey) “to cross over from strictly underground to more commercial movies” features “no real story” but is instead “just a series of vignettes shot on New York streets and inside apartments, with Warhol regular Joe Dallesandro either hustling gays in order to get money for his disgruntled wife… or meeting and having sex with his weird friends.” He points out that it’s filled with techniques — including “a cinema verite camera style, improvisation, [and] intentionally sloppy jump-cut editing — that were unique in the commercial cinema of the day”, and equally “unusual” were the film’s themes: “homosexuality, transvestitism, casual sex, [and] male prostitution”, all meant to “subvert bourgeois sensibilities.” Peary writes that Dallesandro — who “is his young, likable self” — has “several amusing scenes with oddball characters, particularly a sequence with a philosophical artist” and “a sex scene with his wife when she asks what he wants her to do most and he says his laundry”. I’ll admit to quickly tiring of Morrissey’s “sloppy jump-cut editing”, but otherwise becoming oddly absorbed by this glimpse into “the peculiar lifestyle of a fringe element of the counterculture.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective neo-realist footage in New York
  • Joe’s encounters with a Greek-loving artist

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look as Warhol’s breakthrough feature film.

Links:

Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The (1974)

Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The (1974)

“Everything means something, I guess.”

Synopsis:
While on a trip to visit their grandfather’s grave, a young woman (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother (Paul A. Partain) — along with three friends (Allen Danziger, William Vail, and Teri McMinn) — encounter an unsettling hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), then the rest of his family of psychopathic cannibals: Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the Old Man (Jim Siedow), and “Grandpa” (John Dugan).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cannibalism
  • Horror
  • Living Nightmare
  • Psychopaths

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “ferocious, independently made cult horror film by Tobe Hooper” — which led “to his Poltergeist assignment in Hollywood” — is “well-made but unpleasant”, filled with “quirky humor, bizarre characters…, and terrifying, brutally violent sequences.” He points out that “in the weird cannibalism subgenre,” it is “the most striking example of a picture that emphasizes the slaughter of human beings for ‘meat’ rather than for outright feast.” His suggestion that it might have been “made by vegetarians and animal lovers who wanted to make viewers identify with poor animals in a slaughterhouse that have their heads crushed by sledgehammers…, are hung on meat hooks…, are put in freezers…, [and] are sliced up into little chunks by chain saws in preparation for human consumption” seems right on the mark. Peary points out that the “film duplicated the nightmarish effect of Herschell Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs“, and notes that while “Hooper claimed Hitchcock influenced him greatly”, their “styles are dissimilar except for their shared ability to get viewers to imagine there is more blood on the screen than is actually shown.” Finally, Peary notes that while “Hitchcock builds suspense“, “Hooper prefers having one shock after another to achieve terror” — and while “Hitchcock reminds us we’re watching a movie, Hooper strives for reality.”

In his Cult Movies book, Peary goes into further detail about the legacy of Texas Chainsaw — including the fact that during its sneak preview in San Francisco, some unsuspecting moviegoers “threw up; others stormed the lobby to protest what they (and their children) were being subjected to”; and “when no money was refunded, punches were thrown” and “two city officials in attendance that night threatened to sue the theater on behalf of themselves and other irate viewers.” Thus, Peary writes, “began the bizarre history of the seventies’ most controversial cult horror film.” He adds that the film “kept doing great business wherever it played”, and “as its cult grew, so did its reputation for quality.” He notes that “the main differences between Chain Saw and both Psycho and Deranged” — also loosely based on the real-life exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein — is that “its villains are completely unsympathetic”. Ultimately, this film “perfectly reproduces our worst nightmares — being in a strange locale where we are attacked for no reason at all by homicidal maniacs we have never seen before”; and while it’s most definitely not for everyone’s tastes (certainly not for mine), it should be seen once simply for its place in cinematic horror history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective cinematography and direction

  • Memorable sets

Must See?
Yes, but only once, for its infamy and cult status.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Historically Relevant

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

“Oh, wow! This is the happiest day of my life!”

Synopsis:
When a new principal (Mary Woronov) arrives at a rock ‘n roll-obsessed high school, she vows to make life even stricter and less pleasant for its students — especially Riff Randall (P.J. Soles), a hardcore Ramones lover. Meanwhile, a “love broker” (Clint Howard) promises to help a socially awkward football team captain (Vincent Van Patten) get a date, while also helping Riff’s nerdy best friend (Dey Young) to catch Van Patten’s eye.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • Generation Gap
  • High School
  • Obsessive Fans
  • Rock ‘n Roll

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School — directed by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante — is the “prime example of a picture that was designed to be a cult movie,” given that “New World [Pictures] premiered it as a midnight movie, hoping that it would attract fans of its musical stars… as well as college-age viewers who were curious about any midnight movies”. He writes that “a strong following has kept it one of the most popular of the midnight movies”, but I’m curious if that designation still stands. Peary notes that the film is “full of nonsensical humor”, but “lacks diabolically conceived outrageousness and sick humor” — indeed, he argues it “needs more bawdiness and, better, raunchiness in spots”: while it’s “fun watching fascist monitors demand hall passes, watching rebellious students throwing ‘Tuesday Surprise’ at the cooks, and Woronov threatening Soles with ‘detention for life!'”, there’s “not enough of this.” He asserts that the “best thing about this film is the high-spirited cast headed by Soles, bebopping and high-kicking non-stop,” and notes that the Ramones “are amusing in this film and fun to watch while performing”. Discussed in further detail in Peary’s first Cult Movies book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A colorful and energetic satire



Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time look for its cult status.

Links: