Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Thrillers - Davey Collins ""

Friday, October 17, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Davey Collins

Davey Collins had the same misspent childhood that many of you did: Watching strange movies via late-night/Saturday afternoon television programming or VHS. As he crawled into and back out of adolescence, he realized movies were the most important thing in his life and had taught him most of what he knew. He ditched class and went to the library to read books about film noir and westerns. He discovered some of his favorite filmmakers weren’t always the ones widely appreciated (“Where’s the Reginald Le Borg chapter?”). His first appreciation of literature came about by tracking down and reading the source material for his favorite films. He currently works in the hospitality racket and catches himself shining his ass from time to time by making allusions to old movies while mired in meetings. Lately, he’s been getting together material for a print film zine entitled “Strange Illusions” which focuses primarily on budget-starved cinema of the 1930’s-1970’s. He’s on Twitter @Davey_Wade.

The Lonely Sex (1959)
Carl Theodor Dreyer was born about forty years too late and on the wrong continent. Things didn’t go his way and he wound up living out of his car, picking up day labor gigs where ever he could.  When he had any extra dough, he’d go to the cinema.  He only paid one admission to Summer Interlude but, when ushers didn’t clear the theater, he watched it take three laps.  He caught a program of experimental films at the Gramercy but didn’t speak with anyone else in attendance (too shy or too jittery from all-coffee-no-food).  An urge rolled in on him and nagged and nagged but kept him warm in the backseat nights.  When an opportunity presented itself to produce and direct a sex thriller, he latched on and turned over the inspired results to Joseph Brenner.
Maybe Richard Hilliard wasn’t the second coming of Dreyer set to spring forth from the low-budget exploitation scene (and he probably wasn’t living in a Buick), but one look at The Lonely Sex reveals him to be an artist of the most admirable kind:  One who secedes from the low expectation of mere quotas, pulls through and above limitation. The opening sequence is a throwaway.  A voyeur, later revealed as a principal character in the film, peers through a barred window into a stripper’s dressing room.  It’s as if Hilliard is saying “Here’s your tits, now you can leave.”  What follows is a strange, experimental work with roots growing throughVampyr, Blood of the Poet, M, PRC chillers, psychological noir, and American Avant-Garde (especially Harrington).  My personal discovery of it (via Vinegar Syndrome’s Drive-in Collection pairing with Anatomy of a Psycho) was no less revelatory than my first viewings of Dementia (Daughter of Horror),The Savage Eye, or Carnival of Souls.  
The dreary alienation Hilliard conveys in his outcast sufferer is as successful as any film which attempts such.  Even with a short running time (58 minutes), the film takes deliberate care portraying the empty existence of our maniac (though sympathetic to the point that I don’t feel like the term is appropriate…then I remember he leaves corpses in Memorial Park).  Even his changing positions on a cot in his shack---the throes of depression; the drowsy monotonous ads that play on his radio are as expressionistic as any visual.
The maniac’s counter is the aforementioned peeper from the opening.  He is the true scoundrel of the piece, relying on thin guise upheld due only to the apathy of others. Though a tenant at a boarding house for some time, he’s been granted enough disregard to explain away his carefully timed intrusion on an undressing female tenant with “I’m sorry…..I thought this was my room.”  It is he who eventually assumes the role of “angry villagers.”  The film may not be completely successful in its statement against this type of double-standard, but comes off admirable in its intention.
Hilliard is best known for associating himself with Del Tenney working on such films asHorror of Party Beach and Violent Midnight(Psychomania).  The first Psychotronic book prints a still depicting a Russian-roulette sequence from a film Hilliard did called Wild is My Love that seems to be a lost film.  I’d really like to see it (add it to my most-wanted list:  Spring Night, Summer Night aka Miss Jessica is Pregnant, and 1965’s Rat Fink…both have great trailers) to find out if it shares any qualities of The Lonely Sex.

They Drive by Night (1938) 
Obviously, let us not confuse this with the great Raoul Walsh picture from a couple of years later (although they do share several similar scenes of trucks moving across eternal night, their drivers stopping at diners for coffee and sandwiches they can barely afford).  This British production, shot at Warner’s First National Studio in Teddington (bombed hard a few years later) and points outward, is Cornell Woolrich transplanted across pond.  Its wet nights are as waterlogged and dark as if conjured from the brittle pages of Black Mask magazine itself; a copy found in the crawlspace of some repressed flat.
I first read of this film in the newsprint pages of a Sinister Cinema catalog (remember the joys of reading enthusiastic capsules in movie catalogs?) which hit just about every keyword that could possibly put a film on my little radar.  Along with the review was a disclaimer about the poor source materials.  A TV broadcast of acceptable quality has since surfaced, but the truth is that I sat on this for years wondering what it was really like.  Only recently did I catch up to it, and that Sinister review proved to be more than hucksterism.
That Woolrich familiarity…although penned by a gentleman by the name James Curtis, the picture conjures more of Woolrich than many of the adaptations actually sourced from his works.  A protagonist just released from jail falls right into a nightmare scenario:  Visiting his girlfriend, he finds her lifeless.  He responds to the situation the way many down-on-luck characters do in bleak crime tales.  The confusion, the cyclical attempt to elude detached pursuers that leads nowhere, the tough dancehall girl who believes he didn’t do it, the eccentrics who populate the night world.  All here.
British films of the thirties often get flagged for a creaky stuffiness that you will not find on display in They Drive By Night.  When compared with early American Noirs it predates (Street of Chance, I Wake up Screaming, Among the Living), it can stand alongside confidently, even favorably.  The camera dares to wander out into the rain and moves swiftly to catch pace of our protagonist.  The settings are numerous:  The prison yard, tenement apartments, pubs, numerous city blocks, muddy rural roads, dingy roadhouses, abandoned mansions, a handsome English dance-hall, the residence of a neurotic sex deviant.
And if I can only list one reason to see They Drive by Night, it’s that the above-mentioned sex deviant is portrayed by Ernest Thesiger.  If Ernest Thesiger was only on-screen to comb his hair in a mirror, that would be enough. What we get is another of his nuanced and eccentric dementos.  It’s a must-see.
If you watch old movies maybe this has happened to you:  You were looking into a particular filmmaker or performer and noticed that their output ceased somewhere in the early to mid-forties.  You get that feeling of dread as you realize that war, even generations past, is somehow still robbing the world.  The talented director of this picture, Arthur B. Woods, didn’t make it home from his service in the RAF.

The Young Captives (1959)
A very fond era in my life came when I discovered Cult Movies and Psychotronic magazines.  Sitting at the newsstands or at home lying on my twin bed under flashlight, gateways were unlocked and context was born.  Within these invaluable and sorely missed journals, juvenile delinquency films received significant coverage alongside the usual horror, science fiction, and general cult fare.  Items such as The Cool and the Crazy, High School Big Shot, Teenage Wolfpack, The Young Don’t Cry, and the like came across essential for these seeking the total “Incredibly Strange” cinema experience.  The attention given to JD pictures seems to have evaporated these days.  That’s kind of a shame; some are real winners that climb from the confines of genre (as if busting out of juvie), but nearly all are diverting.
The Young Captives fits into the sub-genre just enough to exonerate the marketing campaign of any charges of public deception. Just a tad over an hour, getting from opening credits to end-title is a quick ride.  The movie may have been less memorable if not for the talent of Irvin Kershner who was still years away from directing one of the greatest films of all time (The Flim-Flam Man).  In his hands,The Young Captives is tighter, moodier, and more inventive than what Paramount would have been willing to release anyway.       
Roughnecking nut Steven Marlo (returning from Kershner’s JD drug-shocker Stakeout on Dope Street) gives his supervisor a dirt-nap and beats trail on his motorcycle.  His bike breaks down and he hitches a ride with a pair of eloping teens.  After he figures he’s weirded them out sufficiently, he slowly moves the situation into hostage territory.  At a roadside diner he excuses himself and chats up a pretty blonde having her car serviced.  About a minute later he stuffs her corpse in the trunk.  The typical police investigation scenes are given a lift by an overall relaxed approach and the presence of the late Ed Nelson who gives everything to his with-it detective character.
Pay attention to the car antenna thrashing scene for future reference should you ever find yourself on the wrong end of one.
The Naked Road (1959)
There’s a book I’d like to get called “Ed Wood, Mad Genius:  A Critical Study of the Films” wherein it seems film journalist Rob Craig sets aside the point-and-laugh approach and places EDWJ’s work in cultural framework.  I sympathize with this approach because despite (or maybe directly due to) technical shortcomings and left-field execution, Wood’s films (and others from the same window in time---especially Mesa of Lost Women) penetrate my psyche in the same manner that, say, a Cocteau film does.  In fact, these are the type of films that bulldozed that opening into my subconscious.  This I realized one day while browsing a local Dallas video store.  The phone rang and the clerk fielded a called concerning the availability of The Brain Eaters (my favorite science fiction film of the fifties).  Not only did the caller have no luck in finding it, she/he earned a scoff from the clerk.  So badly I wanted to plead the case that I wouldn’t be in the market for Renoir films that day had it not been for abnormal masterpieces such as The Brain Eaters.  I know I’m not the only one to feel this way.
The Naked Road isn’t an Ed Wood picture, but shares similar qualities of anti-logic.  The villains of the piece (the mastermind of which comes off as a bare-pantry amalgamation of Laird Cregar and Sydney Greenstreet) provide “entertainment” for their clients.  They work in PR, you understand.  Rather than find mid-range hookers and negotiate their fee, they opt for the ease of kidnapping, forced drug-addiction, rape, and eventual murder of girls they find in vulnerable positions.  This saves a few dollars, I imagine.  The risk/reward between pandering charges and the above-mentioned atrocities never seems to have been given a weighing-out. 
First time director William Martin (who later turned out the more coherent and decent indy crime flick Jacktown) employs some very unique beats here.  Characters react belatedly, as if their every move was subject to strategic consideration; efforts such as getting up from a chair.  The camera is patient.  The other characters on-screen are patient.  I found my eyes darting between characters in these moments, in search of some reaction, or motivation or anything.  It was late at night and I wondered if I was stupid.  My attention was undivided; I was bewitched.  The dialog is sometimes spoken as if Martin had instructed them to make a thorough study of Lugosi’s Dracula cadence. The resulting inflection is so off-putting it’s difficult to imagine it as unintentional as it must have been.  This effect is so altering, that words spoken in The Naked Road cannot possibly mean the same thing they do on typed page.
On sequence sealed it.  The enforcer of this unholy ring of criminality casually drops a doped-up damsel from a high window.  When he notices that his murderous act has been witnessed by an unwilling accomplice, he feigns an overstated indifference by sway-walking past her in what may be the most exaggerated bit of expression I have ever seen an actor go for.  He gets around the corner and, CUT TO:  He’s panicking down the stairs in full sprint.  I’d like to be around for an audience reaction to this.
The Naked Road can be found in a six-pack called “Weird-Noir” which was released without much fanfare a while back from Something Weird.  If you’re reading this, it belongs on your shelf.  A wonderful package (The 7th Commandment is a real winner).
The Night God Screamed (1971)
First off, great title.  That title purports to be so horrifying that God, after having overseen plague and pestilence, war and famine, peered down on the events of the night portrayed here and let loose a shriek of terror.
The film does have at least one pretty hefty shock scene (rather early on too), but belongs to that breed of seventies thrillers that slowly handcrafts a sense of dread.  The post-Manson conservative knee-jerk scenario of batty hippie cults on the loose isn’t anything entirely novel anymore.  The Night God Screamed doesn’t have the did-you-just-see-that effect of I Drink Your Blood, but it’s the better film in all other regards.  A sincere approach to the material along with a few nice touches help to separate it from the pack, but it’s Jeanne Crain who really makes it worth rediscovering.
The first thing evident about Jeanne Crain is that she is still a stunning beauty here in the early seventies.  Perhaps she’s the oldest character I’ve ever developed a crush on. And furthermore, she’s as invested in the part as can be expected.  In that aforementioned jolt, I believed her terror in what ends up, despite the exploitative conception, as a rather heart-breaking and difficult scene to perform.   Even when walking down the sidewalk during transitional sequences, Crain is an interesting subject.  What’s nice is that she lends class to an already above-average thriller.  The film’s nearly anti-climactic downer conclusion may leave some scratching their heads, but I can’t count this among its few missteps.
The film even introduces its own boogeyman which is effectively left unexplained.  “The Atoner” is a wooden cross-bearing, hooded monk figure who arrives to distribute violent death.  It almost sends the film over into full-fledged horror.  This is all in the best spirit of the type of macabre chiller that would run on Saturday afternoon when I was too young for all this; the type of thing that cost me countless hours of sleep and likely shed years from my life.
 This is one everyone should really track down.  I’ll add the expected “It would be nice if _______ got their hands on some nice elements and released a blu-ray.”  Until then, I’ll lie awake in fear of the Atoner!

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