Sunday, November 21, 2010


‘Gator Bait’ opens (to a jangling bit of faux Cajun music) with two Suth’un gennulmen passing some time in a boat, waxing lyrical on the sun-dappled but ’gator-infested waters of the bayou and sure hopin’ that Desiree Thibideaux (Claudia Jennings), a lady of some renown in the locality, might pass their way and favour them with that dazzlin’ smile of hers.

No. Wait. What the fuck am I talking about?

‘Gator Bait’ opens with hick shitkickers Billy Boy Thomas (Clyde Ventura) and Ben Bracken (Ben Sebastian) waiting for Cajun wildcat Desiree to come scooting by in her speedboat so they can indulge in what would seem to be the holy trinity of leisure activities in this neck of the woods swamp: a high speed chase, a few belts of moonshine and a spot of rape.

And sure enough, along comes Desiree. One high speed chase later, Billy Boy and Ben are left outwitted, unsatisfied and with a bag of snakes – flung at them by our enterprising Louisiana lass – spilling out all over their boat. Ben leaps into the bayou, while Billy Boy draws his gun (believe it or not, this buck-toothed doofus is the deputy sheriff) and starts trying to shoot them.

Pop quiz: what happens when you empty the chamber of a gun into the bottom of a boat? Hands up everyone who answered “the motherfucker sinks”.

This is the correct answer.

So: Ben’s splashing about in the murky waters, Billy Boy’s hopping around in the boat, firing wildly and what happens next is an object lesson in the consequences of allowing buck-toothed doofuses access to firearms. Billy Boy accidentally shoots Ben in the head.

Cut to: Billy Boy cooking up a story about how Desiree shot Ben and sank the boat for the benefit of his pa, the town sheriff and the owner of said boat, all of whom are incorporated in the portly figure of the same man: Joe Bob Thomas (Bill Thurman). Because Ben’s equally rape-hungry brother Leroy (Douglas Dirkson) once had a run in with Desiree (the outcome: “she cut his balls off”), Joe Bob buys it, and this upstanding father-son law enforcement team head out to the Bracken property to inform bullish and temperamental patriach T.J. (Sam Gilman) that his youngest is shot in the head and mouldering in the swamp. They have sneaky suspicion that he might not take the news too well.

Cut to: the Bracken family at home. The surviving Bracken brothers, Leroy and Pete (Don Baldwin), are goofing off watching a voluptuous woman in a silk slip hanging some washing out. I missed the character’s name; might have been Darlene or Jolene, but none of the usual online resources confirm the cast list in enough detail and the movie has no closing credits. Anyways, Pete tells her she looks might fine in her slip, gropes her derriere and wrestles her to the muddy ground. T.J. turns up at this point, lashes away with a bullwhip and yells, “Goddamn it, Pete, you horny bastard, that’s your sister.”

Let me just repeat that finely honed and classy line of dialogue. “Goddamn it, Pete, you horny bastard, that’s your sister.”

Ladies and gentlemen: ‘Gator Bait’.

Anyway, before I lose the will to live: T.J. takes it badly and coerces Joe Bob and Billy Boy (I’m writing a review, that’s already pushing 700 words, of a film with characters called Joe Bob and Billy Boy; I consider it a small miracle my laptop hasn’t self-destructed as an act of protest) into allowing him, Pete and Leroy to accompany them as part of the posse when they head into the bayou to arrest Desiree. Turns out not only is Joe Bob scared of T.J., but he’s been taking bribes off him to look the other way as regards some of his less than legal activities.

The Thomases and the Brackens fetch up at the small but homely shack inhabited by Desiree and her siblings: sister Julie (Janit Baldwin) and mute brother Big T (Tracy Sebastian). Desiree herself has headed back into the swamp to hunt ’gators and snakes (which sounds kind of like my job, but without the paperwork) and is unable to protect them. Joe Bob and T.J. interrogate Big T as to Desiree’s whereabouts – being redneck doofuses, it takes them a while to figure that someone who’s mute is going to encounter a certain degree of difficulty in answering questions – while Leroy and Pete stand guard over Julie.

Now, asking a fellow of Pete’s predilections to stand guard over a woman and expect nothing to happen is comparable to appointing Oliver Reed night watchman at a brewery and expecting all the barrels and vats to still be full the next morning. Or entrusting Keith Richards with the key to the evidence room following a major drugs bust and banking on Exhibit A still being available for the trial. Or asking Gary Glitter to do the school run and not …

Anyway, you get the picture. Priapic Pete, who’s viewing the (wo)manhunt not as a search for a dangerous fugitive but as the Louisiana equivalent of speed dating, decides he wants a piece of that jailbait ass (and to think, this time last year I was finishing up an Andrei Tarkovsky respective; may the god I don’t believe in have mercy on my wretched soul). Leroy gets pissed off that Pete’s about to enjoy what he can’t and the second of the film’s three attempted rape scenes ends in an unexpected and shocking manner.

Meanwhile, Joe Bob and T.J. have cut Big T loose. Bad move on their part. Big T goes and finds Desiree. Making her way stealthily back, Desiree discovers what the posse have done. Cue an hour of Desiree ghosting vengefully through the swamp, exacting her calculating and merciless revenge.

All of which sounds like trashy fun. And I’ve got to admit, ‘Gator Bait’ has its occasional moments. Yes, it’s a crass, scuzzy, no-budget piece of shit with very little in the way of redeeming qualities (fuck’s sake, you have the most popular Playboy centrefold of the early ’70s in the lead role and there’s not a scrap of nudity!), but it’s one of the few exploitationers of its time where the rape is (a) only attempted and (b) not lingered on interminably, and – the mechanics of Julie’s fate notwithstanding – the violence isn’t graphic and OTT.

BUT. It’s still an exploitation movie. And there are certain conventions which should be observed. The chief of which is this: entertainment factor. I can watch and appreciate a film by Andrei Tarkovsky and deal with the 9-minute single takes and extended scenes of reeds rippling in a stream or someone driving through an interminable series of arterial roads because that’s what I expect from a Tarkovsky film. Likewise something by David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky: I don’t bitch about the narrative incoherence or the headfuck imagery because that’s what these guys do. You pays your money and you takes your auteur.

Similarly, when I watch an exploitation movie, I am taking certain things (such as production values, technical achievement, high calibre acting performances, sophisticated plots and good taste) and putting them in a box which I then seal with scotch tape and store temporarily in the attic of my critical aesthetics. And the only thing I want in return is 90 minutes of guilty pleasure. Hit me with some sex, violence and bad language, maybe a dash of lowbrow comedy, and most of all keep it fast paced and entertaining.

‘Gator Bait’ is, at best, only intermittently entertaining. The opening sequence, with Desiree making Ben and Billy Boy look like fools, is terrific stuff. Billy Boy’s big bad fib to his pa and the cause-and-effect at the Bracken homestead ups the tension. Unfortunately, way to much of the remainder of the film is given over to boats zipping through the bayou (now, a boat chase can be good fun: the pre-credits sequence of the otherwise turgid Bond movie ‘The World is Not Enough’ is proof positive) but when 70% of your movie consists of fucking boats zipping through the fucking bayou, the effect becomes tedious pretty quickly. And when a good chunk of the remaining percentage is redneck peckerwoods arguing amongst themselves, well excuse me while I lose interest.

The biggest asset ‘Gator Bait’ has is Claudia Jennings. While not great shakes in the acting department, she nonetheless established herself as a popular and voluptuous staple of such grindhouse fare as ‘Truck Stop Women’, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, ‘Moonshine County Express’ and ‘Deathsport’. As the athletic, vengeful and scantily clad Desiree, stalking her antagonists silently through the undergrowth, as able with a knife and gun as she is with a motorboat, she had the potential to be as iconic an exploitation heroine as Christina Lindberg in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’. Unfortunately, the role is underwritten to the point of being a cameo. After the first ten minutes, in which all she’s asked to do is steer a boat through the bayou, Jennings effectively disappears but for intermittent vignettes where she torches her enemies’ boat, blasts them with a shotgun or fashions Rambo-stylee traps in the woods.

Jennings, denied the chance of replacing Kate Jackson in ‘Charlie’s Angels’ when network bosses balked at her Playboy photoshoots, had already started to carve a career for herself at the crummier end of the film business, but a small role in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ suggested that better things might have transpired. Sadly, she died in a car accident at 29.

She’s much missed in the belated sequel ‘Gator Bait II: Cajun Justice’ made 14 years later and again helmed by husband and wife writer/producer/director team Ferd and Beverly Sebastian (check out the proliferation of Sebastians in the opening credits to ‘Gator Bait’; it’s somehow fitting how much of a family affair this production was). In a coda as bizarre as Jennings’s is tragic, Ferd Sebastian has since become a born-again Christian and apparently is now an ordained minister.

Holy crap is probably an expression he’d never use in a sermon, but it’s certainly mine on checking the word count. Last week I pounded out 4,000 words on ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. Today I’ve written 1,700 on ‘Gator Bait’. I need the services of either a priest or a mental health professional, I’m not sure which.


Troy Olson said...

Like 80% of the exploitation films I've seen, the combination of a plot synopsis, a few screen caps, and the cover box art always get me excited to watch, yet then it turns into what it sounds like GATOR BAIT turned into, 30 minutes of entertainment with 50-60 minutes of padding.

I definitely remember the image of Claudia Jennings on the cover box (likely due to the 6-month period I bought/sold numerous VHS tapes from a local going-out-of business video store).

The only other film of this genre I can remember watching is POOR WHITE TRASH 2 aka SCUM OF THE EARTH, which like GATOR BAIT sounds way more amazing than it really is (though I did at least find it amusing in its stereotypical portrayal of backwoods folk).

Neil Fulwood said...

Yeah, the expectation/actuality ratio of these kind of films normally bottoms out into disappointment. It says something that writing this review provided far more entertainment than the film itself.

Aaron said...

Nice to see you tackle GATOR BAIT, Neil. And yes, Beverly and Ferd are "born again", which is very ironic when you consider the films they put out in their career as a director/writer team. The only film of theirs that I actually like is ROCKTOBER BLOOD, which is one of my all time favorites, but they definitely have some sleazy films to their credit, like GATOR BAIT! This film was a little too mean-spirited for my taste, but I personally feel that it's an essential exploitation film and quite possibly the definitive Hixploitation flick (not counting DELIVERANCE). On a side note, the Sebastians also directed Claudia Jennings in THE SINGLE GIRLS, which is awful and should be avoided like the plague, but is notable for being a prototypical slasher. Sorry for the babbling there. My short, lazy comment would be: "Yeah, this movie kinda sucked".

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Aaron. I'm still astounded at the directors becoming "born again" Christians. I wonder if they refer their exploitation past in their sermons: "We used to be sinners, y'all. We were tempted by Satan. We trod the path of wrongdoing. We were depraved and wicked, oh Lord, yes! We made 'Gator Bait'! But we have seen the light. Hallelujah!"