Heather Drain has been writing about fringe film and culture for almost ten years. She currently writes for Dangerous Minds, as well as her own site, Mondo Heather.
When you're a writer, there is always a tally in your head of all the places and publications you would like to be featured in. Let's call it the ambition-helper, perfect for those days when the valleys are outnumbering the peaks. One of mine has been this blog, Rupert Pupkin Speaks, for ages. A site that I've admired from afar, I always hoped, like a pie-eyed schoolgirl waiting by the phone, to get invited to contribute. Lucky for all of us (depending on your taste, of course) that day has finally arrived and all in the form of “Top Five Underrated Dramas.”
This has been an interesting challenge, since so many of the underrated films I adore tend to fit in these fairly nebulous categories. Is it a musical? Is it a horror film? Is is a western? Is it erotica? When it comes down to it, labels and I are usually on barely speaking terms. It doesn't help that when I hear the word “drama,” I tend to immediately think of weepy Oscar-style theatrics and films that have been deemed respectable by the mainstream press, two things that I have tended to stray from as a film writer.
However, thinking of some of the underrated films that I do hold near and dear, it hit me how at their very core, they are essentially dramas. Some of the films on my list were not initially promoted as such, since it is easier to go for the almighty dollar and hype the more punch-and-tickle aspects of a film.
Anyways, without further ado, here are my top five underrated dramas....
Criminally out-of-print, Larry Peerce's “The Incident” is one of those films that seers itself in your bones and makes you examine the darker side of our own human nature. Based on the 1963 DuPont Show of the Week, “Ride With Terror,” “The Incident” centers around Joe Ferrone (the masterful Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen, in his feature film debut), two thugs whom, after an evening of mugging and pool playing, decide to shake things up on the subway. The film takes its time to build up the assorted supporting characters, all of whom are various shades of dysfunctional, bordering on damaged. Naturally, this all comes to the surface as Joe and Artie peel each person down of their socially acceptable facades via mental harassment. The emotional hostage-situation inflicted on the subway goers is harrowing, with the A+ cast, that also includes Ruby Dee, Beau Bridges, Ed McMahon, Donna Mills, Brock Peters and Thelma Ritter, all making “The Incident” one of the most intense character studies committed to celluloid. On top of that, Musante's predatory-as-a-shark performance marked him as one of my favorites from the first ten minutes onward. The level of charismatic malice he displays is nearly unparalleled.
When most cult film fans hear the name Roger Watkins, they instantly think of his primal scream horror film “Last House on Dead End Street.” However, when I see Roger's name, I think of his real masterwork, 1987's “American Babylon.” A tone poem of small town melancholy disguised as an adult film, “American Babylon” stars Michael Gaunt as Thomas, a middle-aged man whose life-in-auto-pilot is shaken up by his friendship with Robert (Bobby Astyr), a neighbor who spends much of his free time procuring and watching grimy stag reels. As Thomas' wife grows more and more unstable, at one point blowing up the TV in their bedroom with a shotgun, he begins a passion-less affair with Robert's neglected wife, Joan (Tish Ambrose). What unfolds is that nothing is what it seems. Robert initially reads as mentally unstable, at one point walking in on Joan having sex with a friend while Thomas watches, all the while wearing a trash bag and acting completely non-plussed by the lurid action going on. Yet, the more he speaks, the more it becomes apparent that he has more on the ball than anyone else. “American Babylon” is a film that will eternally appear on any “best films” list I do. The pall of Americana and the little death of the self that happens when you realize that you have spent over half of your life going through the motions all inhabit this film. The performances, especially Gaunt's and Bobby Astyr, two of the most underrated actors from the last thirty years, are pitch-perfect. Ambrose is also good as the sad eyed Joan, not to mention Chelsea Blake as the cheese-sliding-off-the-cracker wife of Thomas. Unfortunately, like a lot of Watkins' work, it lies in out-of-print, bootleg/torrent limbo.
A lot of films have been made about the perils of the music industry, but few have stayed with me quite like 1980's “Breaking Glass.” (Slade's “Flame” is a very close second and is equally recommended.) In lieu of your stereotypical “artist is so hungry for fame that they will do whatever it takes to get ahead” plot line, “Breaking Glass” goes for something a little less hackneyed and as a result, more effective. Hazel O'Connor plays Kate, an idealistic punk singer. As her band starts to get more popular, she refuses to conform to the growing pressures put upon them from the label. The rabbit hole effect begins though, when a live gig turns nasty and violent. A demoralized Kate ends up caving and even when she tries to fight back towards the end, one of the record company reptiles forcibly injects her with drugs. Given some of the horror stories I've read about idealistic musicians getting eaten by the machine, going in healthy and strong and leaving addicted and death-riddled, the film feels fairly accurate. Hazel O'Connor is phenomenal in this and on top of doing all of her own singing, even wrote the lion's share of the lyrics. The rest of the cast is great too, with a pre-”Brazil” Jonathan Pryce as a sweet, junk-addicted saxophonist being a big stand out. “Breaking Glass” is available on DVD, though you may want to opt for the PAL version from the UK, since the American release, both on DVD and Blu Ray, omit the last ten minutes of the film.
Based on both director Boaz Davidson's childhood and his Israeli based film series “Lemon Popsicle,” “The Last American Virgin” is one emotional wrecking ball of a film. It was promoted for all intents and purposes like another wacky, early 80's T&A teen comedy, which must have seriously messed with audiences' heads when they actually sat down to watch it. Instead of frat style wackiness, “Last American Virgin” centers around Gary (Lawrence Monoson), your average awkward teenage boy. He ends up developing the crush of the century on lovely but kind of vacant Karen (Diane Franklin). Of course, Karen's taste in dudes is more on the cute but incredibly stupid side. While that is going on, Gary and his friends, being young hormonal dudes, go questing to get laid, leading up to one particularly ugly sequence involving a calloused and diseased hooker. Things get even more complicated when Karen turns up pregnant and leans on poor Gary for support. I don't want to spoil things too much but needless to say, it will all end in tears. “Last American Virgin” rings true of the worst aspects of the teenage experience: rejection, awkwardness, alienation and the type of life lessons that leave a nice little ring sized scar on you for good. All the acclaim that Amy Heckerling's “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” got should have gone to this film. While “Fast Times” had some memorable moments, its handling of the serious aspects always felt a little forced to me. (Plus, the indignity of having a character lose her virginity to Jackson Browne's insidious “Somebody's Baby.” Jesus wept.)
Last but certainly not least is famed actor and forever controversial force-of-nature Klaus Kinski's sole directorial film, “Paganini.” Based on the life of famed “vampire with a violin,” Niccolo Paganini, Kinski's take on the bio-drama is one rare bird of a film. Opting for more of a fever dream approach as opposed to your usual a-b-c plot lines associated more commonly with historical films, “Paganini” sears itself with lush imagery, eschewing mechanical lighting in favor of both natural and candlelight. Weaved throughout is naked sexual dysfunction, blurring the lines perhaps between Paganini and Kinski himself, a torrential need for love that will always, always leave and the sweet, irreplaceable bond between a father and his son. In fact, both Kinski's then-wife, Deborah Caprioglio and his son Nikolai Kinski appear as Paganini's wife and son, respectively. It's a work that is as uncompromising as it is unforgettable. The only other film that comes close to it in recent memory is Nico B.'s challenging and superb “1334.”