Tuesday, December 26, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Krampus


A smidge over an hour into Michael Dougherty’s ‘Krampus’, there’s a dementedly brilliant sequence where a white trash weapons fetishist finds himself pinned down by three anthropomorphic gingerbread men armed with a nail gun, a liberal suburban mom fights off a porcelain angel with a snake tongue, a frumpy much-put-upon housewife goes apeshit at some demonic toys with an axe, and an alcoholic aunt with all the personality of drink-driving accident involving a Mack truck and a school bus cuts loose with a pump-action shotgun.

Let’s rewind an hour plus change. ‘Krampus’ opens with a slow-mo sequence, scored to ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ wherein a mall opens its doors to a horde of last-minute Christmas shoppers whose sense of festive spirit, joy, peace and goodwill makes your average episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ look like ‘Songs of Praise’ by comparison. Store assistants are trampled, product displays toppled, Santa’s grotto turns into a microcosm of hatred and frustration, and shoppers trade blows.

As the narrative proper opens, this selfsame sense of yuletide pugilism carries over into a school nativity play rapidly descending into chaos as young Max (Emjay Anthony) gets into an onstage scrap with an older lad which is only curtailed, much to the amusement of the other parents, when his father Tom (Adam Scott) drags him away. Tom and his wife Sarah (Toni Colette) are therefore not in the best of moods when they shepherd Max and his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) back home. Beth’s pissed off anyway that she’s unable to spend Christmas with her boyfriend.

Max, persona non grata in his own home, has only his German immigrant grandmother Omi (Krista Sadler). A woman with a superstitious view of Christmas, she urges him to finish his letter to Santa Claus and feeds him with homemade stolen. Shortly afterwards, the family are descended upon by their boorish in-laws. If Tom and Sarah are the stereotypically affluent and liberal couple, Howard (David Koechner) and Linda (Allison Tolman, who wins Agitation’s woman of the match award for wearing the worst Christmas sweater ever and still being a fucking badass) are every bit as clich├ęd as the white trash chip-on-the-shoulder oiks with a passel of ill-behaved kids. Including vindictive tomboy Jordan (Queenie Samuel).

When Jordan steals Max’s letter to Santa and humiliates him by reading it over the dinner table (it’s actually quite a sweet letter: he wishes for Christmas to be like it used to be, and his family not to be at each other’s throats), Max ignores Beth’s entreaties not to rise to the bait, brawls with Jordan, and reclaims the letter only to rip it into shreds and throw it out the window. The scraps whirl up into the snowy sky and all hell breaks loose.

A sudden cold snap monkeys with mobile phone signals, takes out the electricity and effectively cuts them off from civilisation. Beth frets over unreturned texts to her boyfriend and insists on walking over to his house. She meets with a bad end en route. We’re about 30 minutes into the film at this part, and the cynical hilarity of the opening sequence has given way to an extended sequence designed to emphasise just how wankerish Howard and his brood are; an extended sequence that needs to pile on the embarrassments and unpleasantries in order to shepherd Max towards his extremely ill-advised decision.

That minutes 5 to 30 of ‘Krampus’ (i.e. damn near a third of it) jettison all traces of humour is a big enough problem in itself. A comedy-horror failing to deliver on the first half of its self-description is on a hiding to nowhere. That those minutes are not only filled with crude cultural stereotyping – but cultural stereotyping that insists the over privileged hygge-obsessed middle class types deserve all of our sympathy and the working class types, who own guns and drive an SUV, deserve none – is an act of aesthetic cuntishness that all but derails the film. It doesn’t help, either, that the one of only two likeable characters – Beth, whom LaVie Owen plays with a winning mixture of sass and sympathy – gets such short shrift so early in the proceedings.

The other likeable character, Omi, is allowed to stick around long enough to deliver an expositional monologue and is then given similarly reductive treatment. Still, her big moment gifts the film with its most interesting stylistic diversion. The flashback that accompanies her explanation of Krampus – the shadow half of St Nicholas, a spirit who punishes instead of rewarding, who takes rather than giving – is rendered as an animation in the vein of Tim Burton’s ‘Corpse Bride’: the time and the place are fudged, but there’s a strong suggestion of wartime and fascism and loss of hope. A lot of weight is carried here, and while it offsets the banality of the first third, it also makes for an uneasy transition into the dark comedy that follows.

It’s an awkward film, is ‘Krampus’. Brilliance and crassness exist cheek by jowl. For every scene that’s utterly hilarious, there are three or four that fail to find a tonal register. The plethora of seasonal archetypes that assemble for the climatic siege are brilliantly realised, but the whole thing is delivered at such breakneck pace that none of them are ever fully developed. An extended coda, which ends on a visually impressive note, strives for a ‘Twilight Zone’ vibe but comes across as ‘Black Mirror’ copyism.

Granted, it’s a better Christmas film than anything that’s been shown at 2pm on BBC2 this year, but it sure as hell ain’t no ‘Calvaire’, ‘Rare Exports’ or ‘Black Christmas’.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Sisters of Death


Reviewing ‘Truck Stop Women’ and ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ in quick succession gave me a yen to search out another Claudia Jennings film. So I cracked a beer, resigned myself to the shitty print quality of an online copy and sat through the hour twenty-seven minutes of ‘Sisters of Death’.

I kind of wish I hadn’t bothered.

As a 70s B-movie that stars Claudia Jennings, Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher and Sherry Alberoni, you’d have every right to think that sexploitation shenanigans were guaranteed, but there’s not the faintest glimpse of even a nipple. As a horror movie, it’s bloodless, ridiculously contrived, hugely illogical and it fails to deliver any scares. As a single location thriller, it’s devoid of tension and suffers from a uncharismatic antagonist.

But watch the motherfucker I did, and I need to make up the numbers for this year’s Winter of Discontent, so I’m going to gnash my teeth, sling another beer round my gullet and pound out a review anyway.


The set-up’s pure simplicity: Judy (Jennings) and Liz (Elizabeth Bergen) are inducted into a sorority via a ritual which involves a test of courage – a blank loaded into a pistol, said firearm aimed the inductee’s head and the trigger pulled. Both participants know that the shells are blanks, so quite how it counts as a test of courage is the first of many things about the film that don’t make a bit of sense.

Anyway, hands up everyone who thinks that the ritual goes tits up and one of the girls gets shot for real? And hands up everyone who clocked Jennings’ name above the title and made a safe guess that it’s Liz who buys the farm? And hands up everyone who’d put money on the film immediately throwing up a “X years later” title card? And hands up if you have a mild inkling that some weird set of circumstances is engineered whereby the girls are thrown together in an isolated location and start getting killed off?

I’m tempted to say keep your hands in the air if you’re reasonably confident who the final girl is, but we’d be getting ahead of ourselves …


Anyway, all five of the sorority sisters present at the accident are, seven years hence, summoned to a reunion. They are all deeply suspicious and nobody admits to being the individual who organised it; but they all go along anyway. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 1.) They’re met at the rendezvous point by two slimy lover boys who tell them that they’ve been paid to drive them to the venue but they can’t say where it is and they don’t know the identity of the person who engaged them. Judy and her pals take half a millisecond to assimilate the logistics of this well dodgy scenario, then happily pile in the car. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 2.) The back windows of the car are blacked out and the location they’re taken to kept under wraps. One of them is mildly perturbed. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 3.)

The venue turns out to be a rambling hacienda with a swimming pool. There’s no sign of their host and still no indication of why they were brought together. And, as the drivers depart, no means of egress. Plus there’s a fucking big electrified fence around the property. They take a nano-second to assimilate the terrible implications of all this, then throw on swimsuits and have a pool party. (Facepalm-o-meter score: well into the double figures by now.)

Director Joseph A. Mazzuca – in his fourth and final outing as director – shifts gears at this point from unsuspenseful suspense thriller to lowbrow comedy as our oily Romeos decide to sneak back into the compound (managing to do so just before the electrified fence is switched on) and try their luck with the bevy of beauties. Briskly brushed off by the bevy of beauties, they’re beholden to bad luck as the brains behind the business at hand behoves it beneficial to blow the gaff on his identity and motive. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of synonyms for “identity” and “motive” that start with “B”. Which kinds of fucks up the alliterative flow of that sentence. I have failed you, o my readers.)

So, anyways, the big bad behind it all turns out to be Edmond Clybourn (Arthur Franz), Liz’s bereaved and vengeful father. And, y’know, kudos to Mazzuca and scripters Peter Arnold and Elwyn Richards for just coming straight out with it. Trying to string it out to the hour and a half mark before laying Edmond’s (entirely predictable) big reveal on the audience would have been the kiss of death for a movie that doesn’t have much life in it anyway.


However …

Rolling Edmond onstage forty minutes in and having him give it some “my daughter’s dead and one or more of you wanton harlots is responsible and I’ll have the truth from you tomorrow, so help me God” (not his exact words, but depressingly close enough) creates its own set of problems.

Problem the first: everyone’s confined to the same premises and Team Judy clearly has superior numbers over Team Edmond, their odds favoured by the fact that Edmond has got to sleep at some point, yet it never occurs to anyone to create a distraction (or several distractions), lure him out and jump him.

Problem the second: at least two nights pass without Edmond making his dramatic re-entrance (unless someone dropped a day-for-night shot in the wrong place during editing) and in all this time, with everything in the hacienda at their disposal, nobody posits a useful escape plan (such as, oh I don’t know, unscrewing all the wooden doors from their frames, piling them against the fence until it bows under the weight, then scrambling over on them given that wood doesn’t fucking conduct electricity) Also, Edmond gotta take a nap sometime (see above).

Problem the third: while Edmond’s fucking around making bullets and playing the flute – it’s revealed late in the game that he’s a famous conductor – the sorority sister responsible for Liz’s death starts killing off the others. The script is kind of fuzzy re: motivation here, and in fact the last fifteen minutes or so goes overboard with its bluff/double bluff/triple bluff rug pulls, but I’m guessing the prevailing logic would be: guilty party kills off the others to prevent them from revealing her as the guilty party. Hands up everyone who thinks there might just be an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny, ickle-wickle flaw in this plan? (That noise you heard was the facepalm-o-meter blowing up.)


Problem the fourth: would a famous conductor really make his own bullets and cut loose with a gatling gun? Okay, so maybe Karajan would, because once you’ve climbed a mountain, flown a jet, sailed a yacht and recorded complete Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner symphony cycles for the ages, I guess you’ve got to do something to blow off steam. Okay, and maybe I can see Solti doing it just to clinch that Chicago Symphony Orchestra interview. And maybe Kleiber. Anyone who demands a top-of-the-range Audi as a concert fee probably owns a shooter. But Sir Adrian Boult or Sir Neville Marriner or Sir Mark Elder packing heat? Nah, just can’t see it.

And now I’ve typed that paragraph, I find myself plunging down the rabbit hole of an alternative version of this film in which Edmond is driven to psychotic excess not by the death of his daughter but because conducting symphony orchestras just plain makes you a badass motherfucker. Somebody get Roger Corman on the phone. Does Christian Thielemann have any acting experience?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Great Smokey Roadblock


When Kirk Douglas starred in David Miller’s classic contemporary western ‘Lonely Are the Brave’, he remarked that it should have been called ‘The Last Cowboy’. One of the alternative titles that John Leone’s ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ goes under is ‘The Last of the Cowboys’. There are other parallels between the two films … and some significant differences, not least in the approach to the material and the overall tone of the piece.

There’s also a touch of Kurosawa’s ‘Ikuru’. Its other alternative title is ‘The Goodbye Run’: the plot centres on a terminally ill truck driver, “Elegant” John (Henry Fonda) stealing back his repossessed Kenworth and setting out to find a load. He’s been a trucker all his life, a gentleman of the road, never made a late delivery or got so much as a single speeding ticket (how these two feats reconcile is something the script, perhaps wisely, opts not to explain), and damned if he won’t be a trucker to the very end.

The load he ends up with – more traditional freight being denied him when load bosses twig that he’s driving what is in effect a stolen vehicle ergo he’s a major insurance risk – is human cargo. To whit, brothel madame Penelope (Eileen Brennan) and her girls, including the pragmatic Ginny (Susan Sarandon, who also co-produced the film). Penelope and co. have found themselves undomiciled and on the run following a vice bust.


But even before “Elegant” John offers the remarkably spacious square-meterage of his tautliner as a mobile knocking shop, he picks up devout hitchhiker Bilbo (Robert Englund). I’m not sure if the script means to portray him as Amish or Quaker, but he’s sure as hell, ahem, I mean sure as heaven big on the love/fear of God and pious self-denial. The scene in which Bilbo bags a lift is basically the first chapter of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ but with a frickin’ great Kenworth. It was at this point that it struck me just how odd a movie ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ is.

I’d had an inkling of its oddness during the dream-sequence opening credits wherein “Elegant” John, all frail and distraught in a hospital gown, claws at some chainlink fencing then flits around a pitch black interior calling “Eleanor … Eleanor … I’m coming for you, Eleanor”. Eleanor turns out to be his truck, named for Eleanor Roosevelt. “Elegant” John has a monologue about the First Lady that gifts Fonda with his most poignant – and beautifully underplayed – moment in the film. But I digress: the credits scene plays out like some weird art film, only with a title that suggests adherence to the ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of drive-in aesthetics.

(Interestingly, although it was released in 1977, the year that Hal Needham’s ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, Don Hulette’s ‘Breaker! Breaker!’ and William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ made their debut, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ was actually shot three years earlier. It essentially predates the late 70s/early 80s slew of trucking movies which proceeded from the massive box office kerrr-chiiing of ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, which raked in $300million from a $4.3million budget. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Convoy’ and Norman’s Jewison’s ‘F.I.S.T.’ followed in 1978. It’s tempting to evaluate ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ as the film ‘Convoy’ could have been if Peckinpah had been in ‘Junior Bonner’ mode and not coked up to the gills.)

Now, after six paragraphs and 560 words, you might be thinking to yourself: Well, all that’s fine and dandy, Mr Agitation, and you’m sho’ is the film historian, but ain’t ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ a little, uh, vanilla for inclusion in the Winter of Discontent? Sho’, it’s got big rigs and hookers but there ain’t none of kit-offery that you get in them Claudia Jennings films, and there ain’t a hint of violence, and the most graphic thing that happens is some cop cars get bashed up on account of a Kenworth failin’ to stop for the roadblock of the title. An’ why don’tcha admit it, Mr Fancy Pants Movie Critic: for a movie that’s called ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’, the roadblock itself is kinda pitiful?


And if you were thinking thoughts that were travelling along those kind of lines, I’d avow that, yes indeed, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ doesn’t tick a whole lot of Winter of Discontent boxes. Hardly any, in fact. And yes, the eponymous roadblock is about as effective as an ice sculpture of a shovel employed on the footplate of a steam locomotive. And yes, I am aware that constitutes the transportation equivalent of a mixed metaphor.

I’ll also admit that I watched ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ on a whim, figuring if nothing else that the title chimed with ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’. Half an hour in, I was acutely aware of two things: (i) content-wise, there was little Winter of Discontent’ material on offer; (ii) considered within even the sketchiest critical perameters, it was bonkers enough to demand Winter of Discontent privileges.

So how off-the-wall is it? Well, it’s a comedy road movie that provides a treatise on age, death and morality. The only x-meets-y comparison scenario it invites relies on movies it predates (it’s basically ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ meets ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ with the heart and soul of ‘The Straight Story’ only with a fuckton more horsepower). Its intellectual antecedents are Steinbeck and Kurosawa. Its cast includes one of yesteryear’s greatest square-jawed tough guys, one the 70's smartest and sultriest sirens on the cusp of stardom, and the future Freddie Kruger playing a man of God. Not to mention Peckinpah regular Dub Taylor playing a corrupt cop named Harley Davidson (“like the motorsickle”).

It is, by turns, emotionally devastating and cringingly amateurish, perfectly pitched and appallingly misjudged, finely nuanced and thuddingly heavy-handed. It’s a mass of aesthetic contradictions, a total mishmash, and there’s no way on God’s green but highway-riddled earth that it has any right to hang together, let alone lay claim to the status of a one-off little gem, but by some miracle of the truck stop, whorehouse or two-lane blacktop it coheres into a piece of work that doesn’t so much equal the sum of its parts as tear up the delivery note and throw the pieces out of the window and breathe a sigh of relief that you’ll never know how close it came to being an abject disaster.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Great Texas Dynamite Chase


Michael Pressman’s debut film is one of the most good-natured and endearing exploitation flicks I’ve ever seen. Except for the frequent nudity and the fact that it proceeds from the argument that robbing banks is generally a good idea, it’s as wholesome a slice of 70s drive-in fare as I’ve come across. Seriously: there’s no real violence, there’s no rape, the female protagonists are never significantly in peril, nothing graphic or visceral happens, and there isn’t a bleak/cynical denouement.

I tells ya, folks, I had to double-check the movie’s credentials just to make sure it belonged in the Winter of Discontent stable. Fortunately, it ticked three crucial boxes – cops ‘n’ robbers, C&W on the soundtrack, Claudia Jennings in a lead role – and the Agitation of the Mind arbiter of bad taste (i.e. me) was satisfied that it is quite definitely a hick shitkicker movie.

So here we are.

‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ begins not so much in media res as absent its first act. Candy Morgan (Jennings) has broken out of jail, rendezvous’d with her sister Pam (Tara Strohmeier) and, as the opening credits play out, some scheme they’ve concocted to raise funds to prevent the foreclosure of their father’s farm comes to nothing and Candy, advising Pam to make her own way home, pulls off a risky heist at a local bank using only two sticks of dynamite, one with a nerve-rackingly short fuse.

Let’s pause here for a couple of observations. One: I love the name Candy Morgan, it’s like a nymphet/pirate combo. In an alternative universe, there’d be a late-night pay-per-view spin off with a title like ‘The Wicked Life and Fast Times of Candy Morgan’. Two: Strohmeier gets a pretty high billing in the credits and it strikes me that an early draft of the script might have had Candy and her accomplice as sisters until somebody realised that’d put the kibosh on the free-spirited love scenes with their eventual hostage-turned-willing-accomplice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


Just prior to Candy’s intercession at the bank (‘The Heists and Times of Candy Morgan’: that’d be a good alternative title for the sadly-non-existent spin-off), the film shifts perspective to introduce our other anti-heroine, Ellie-Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) and holy moley, where the hell has Jocelyn Jones been all my movie-going life? (The answer, courtesy of a rather anti-climatic couple of minutes on IMDb, is: not in much else, actually. Although ‘Tourist Trap’ – also starring Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts – might be finding its way onto the Winter of Discontent’s roster pretty soon.) Jones is some kind of awesome, shimmering through the movie with the incandescent allure of every girl next door ever if every girl next also had a hint of every devil women ever bemoaned by every bluesman ever. If you get what I mean. Priest/stained-glass-window/roundhouse-kick, that kind of thing.

I SAID Ellie-Jo Turner is introduced in a vignette where she’s late for work owing to the combined ministrations of some anonymous stud muffin in her bed and a malfunctioning alarm clock. I feel for the girl; I hate it when that happens. She shows up and is promptly chewed out, in the non-cunnilingus sense of the word, by her boss. Her job? Bank teller. At the same bank that Candy’s about to rob? Surely not! Well, actually, yes. And you know what? Dickens threw out bigger coincidences so fuck ‘Dombey and Son’.

But I digress.

Ellie-Jo gets sacked seconds before Candy holds up the joint, and has a high old time flipping off her former boss by assisting Candy in emptying the registers. Candy’s haul safeguards her dad’s farm, her family declare how proud her they are, and before you know it she’s winding her way out of the county via the back roads, the better to evade recapture as an escaped prisoner.

Let’s pause again for a second. We’re about ten minutes into the movie at this point. The plot so far has been “hot chick breaks out of prison and pulls off bank heist to prevent foreclosure on family property”. This, for most writers and directors, would be enough for a film entire. Let’s face it, the first ten minutes of ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is basically ‘Hell and High Water’ if Chris Pine had an hourglass figure and wore hotpants. One would logically expect everything that follows to build on this fast-paced explosions-and-exposition opener.

But no.


What Candy was inside for (‘Candy Morgan: Jail Bird Queen’ – seriously, why didn’t anyone commission a series?) is never stated or even mentioned again. Her family? They depart the production here and similarly pass into the collective amnesia of the creative team. One would assume that the local law enforcement types would equate Candy’s escape from prison, the robbery of a bank close to the old Morgan homestead, and the sudden, unprecedented and in-cash payment of her family’s entire mortgage arrears and arrive at a certain conclusion.

One would then expect the cops to go sniffing around the old Morgan place, and from there commence their pursuit of Candy. Y’know, the movie having “chase” in its title and all.

Granted, the police officers on display in this movie are the kind of intellectually-challenged individuals who, by comparison, give Mr Bean the combined IQ of a think-tank compromised of Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse and Stephen Hawking. But still!

So, with every bit of business scrupulously established in the opening scenes tossed out of the window – except, of course, the bit involving Ellie-Jo – how then does ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ develop? Well, it has the now unemployed Ellie-Jo blowing off her loser boyfriend, in the non-fellatio sense of the word, and hitching out of town just as Candy makes her departure. And whaddaya reckon happens next? Damn tootin’: bank robber and former bank teller breeze through Texas pulling off robberies and blowing up the odd cop car. Oh, and they dally with a coupla fellas en route. Including some bland dude in a cowboy hat who starts off as their hostage before throwing himself enthusiastically into their lifestyle having given a whole three and a half seconds to thinking it over.

And that – after the backstory-packed first ten minutes – is pretty much the entirety of the subsequent eighty. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, a movie in which there’s one car chase of any significance and one foot chase (occupying a combined two and a half minutes of screen time), follows the ‘Big Bad Mama’ and ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of structure and narrative, which is to say that it unspools a sequence of loosely connected vignettes – gasp as Candy and Ellie-Jo get tooled up! guffaw as they humiliate a nitwit deputy! drool as they behave licentiously in an upmarket hotel – and doesn’t pause for long enough to bother about coherence.

Pressman makes a few weird flirtations with a more serious approach, particularly in the last twenty minutes or so. The media play up the pair as killers when they aren’t; a secondary character is dispatched in blunt fashion (the film’s only fatality); and the finale seems for a moment to point towards a Bonnie and Clyde style last stand. But then he doesn’t so much pull back from these decisions as run in the opposite direction as far and fast as he can. Which isn’t to say that this wasn’t a good move – ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ doesn’t have a serious bone in its body, and you arrive at the final act wanting a big dumb audience-pleasing send off – but it’s curious that the film makes so many hints at such tonally different possibilities yet ultimately does nothing with them.

Still, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ offers so much to enjoy that this quibble hardly matters. Jennings sashays through what, next to Desiree in ‘Gator Bait’, is her signature role. Jones walks away with at least a dozen scenes, coquettishly glancing back over her shoulder to dare you to do something about it. The lowbrow comedy is balanced effectively with the actionful stuff. Production design and cinematography emphasise an evocative sense of place. The pace is commendable. I’ve noted in many a Winter of Discontent review that the cardinal sin of an exploitation movie is to be boring. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is never boring. It’s too full of hot chicks and hijinks to even know what the word “boring” means. It’s the kind of thing that gives exploitation cinema a good name.

Monday, December 11, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Truck Stop Women


Writing about Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ for last year’s Winter of Discontent, I opened my review with this homily:

“Let us consider the hick shitkicker film as an exemplar of anti-narrative. Or at least semi-narrative. Or, perhaps more accurately, narrative as something that the script writer was vaguely aware of but without actually harnessing the concept …”

If the enquiring academic were of a mind to seek out a control subject against which to benchmark the above catch-all, they could do a lot worse than Mark L Lester’s ‘Truck Stop Women’. It is most definitely a hick shitkicker film. How so? Let us count the ways. It has the words “truck stop” and “women” in its title – hell, the words “truck stop” and “women” are the motherlovin’ whole of its title. Its soundtrack is entirely country & western. And it stars Claudia Jennings, whose appearances in ‘Gator Bait’, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ and ‘Moonshine County Express’ pretty much made her the poster girl for the hick shitkicker film in the same way that Edwige Fenech became the poster girl for the giallo, Shannon Whirry for late-night pay-per-view and Greta Gerwig for self-conscious indie noodlings.

So, having established its credentials, let’s move right on to the matter of ‘Truck Stop Women’ and its embrace (or otherwise) of narrative tropes. What did I say about the academic approach? I’m laying down words like “tropes”, motherhumpers.

‘Truck Stop Women’ starts in media res with a gentleman being gunned down while taking a bath. He’s taking a bath with a buxom and significantly younger women, and a swifter “hoooey, this is my lucky day” to “oh shit, my luck is fucked” transition it’s difficult to imagine. The young lady gets an equally bad deal since the two gunmen demonstrate a marked disinclination to leaving witnesses.


This twosome – Smith (John Martino) and Rusty (Speed Stearns) – are then seen reporting to Mr Big (Nicky Blair) who castigates them for a messy job and for leaving their target comatose rather than deceased. The way this was edited makes it seem like an ambulance was summoned for their victim (by whom, since his consort is also plugged, is left unhinted at), hospitalisation occurred, his vital signs were stabilised, and his bang-up-to-date medical notes purloined and delivered to Mr Big in the exact same time it took for Smith and Rusty to drive to Mr Big’s crib.

So, yeah, Mr Big tears Smith and Rusty a new one for being total fuck-ups and then inexplicably gives them control of a whole new territory, presumably in New Mexico since that’s where the movie was shot. His last words before they strut their way out of his office is to warn them that some chick named Anna who owns a truck stop already has dibs on said territory.

Narrative wise, we’re definitely in the arena of the crime/thriller genre and the production is certainly wearing its exploitation heart on its sleeve. But we’re still only three minutes in and the next scene – which segues into the opening credits sequence – offers up a different perspective. Here we have two curvaceous young ladies in hot pants – Rose (Jennings) and Tina (Jennifer Burton) lookin’ all helpless by the side of the highway, the hood of their station wagon popped and no idea as to the automotive diagnosis. An obliging (and self-evidently lecherous) trucker offers to take a look. For his pains, he gets a monkey wrench applied to the back of the neck and his HGV stolen. Rose and Tina pick up a hitchhiker in the purloined vehicle and Tina entertains him in the sleeper cab, after which he’s unceremoniously kicked out and they complete the journey to their destination.


We’re still only about six minutes in at this point, and for the sake of not developing RSI on the review of a Mark L Lester film, I’ll throw this here plot synopsis into overdrive.

Said destination is the truck stop owned by Anna (Lieux Dressler), a blowsy crime matron who is both the ruthless competition Mr Big warned Smith and Rusty about, and Rose’s mother. That ‘Truck Stop Women’ swiftly develops into a story about a turf war – Anna and her hick crew vs slick besuited Syndicate types – is obvious from the outset, but the narrative peregrinations by which it gets there are frankly bonkers.

Initially, it comes on as broad comedy and salacious thrilleramics, as if ‘Convoy’, ‘The Cannonball Run’ and that episode of ‘The Sweeney’ about lorry hijackers had got dumped into a blender with the edited highlights of ‘The Benny Hill Show’ and a Christina Lindberg skin flick. Lester – co-scripting as well as calling “action” – throws an immediate narrative curveball by having the disaffected Rose throw in her lot with Smith (a curious name for a character who is written and played as Italian-American) before establishing all manner of character dynamics within Anna’s hick shitkicker crew, suggesting epic quantities of backstory, but never developing any of it.

The middle section morphs into a weird-ass kind of Greek drama (if, that is, the classics of Euripides and Sophocles had been written with a soundtrack in mind that included ‘Hello, I’m A Truck’* and ‘The Bullshifters’) that basically deals with the battle for Rose’s soul. Anna, every inch the bad-ass matriarch willing to take on the big boys and show them who’s boss, nevertheless can’t entertain that Rose might just be a scheming and self-interested harridan and tries at every twist and turn to get her back. This back and forth achieves its most jaw-dropping moment when Anna and one of her crew drive out to a rival truck stop; Anna discovers Rose playing pool while wearing a bikini, slugs her, and carries her unconscious form back out to the forecourt, slings her in the back of a truck then goes tearing off hellbent for leather, pursued by Smith’s goons.

Granted, when my Dad was running a haulage business in the 70s, the cultural touchstones in the UK were very different from the States – lorry parks (i.e. an acre or so of hardstanding where drivers could park up for the night) were our equivalent of truck stops and they were devoid of amenities – but I’m having a hard time imagining that nubile women in bikinis hung around truck stops playing pool. Playing something else for cold hard cash in sleeper cabs, maybe. But even then dressed in something than would allow for the secretion of a money belt.


Ahem. Anyway. Back to the review. It hardly needs pointing out that Anna’s inability to cut Rose loose is her Achilles’ heel. Just as Hamlet’s procrastination is his. And here we segue from Greek to Shakespearean tragedy, though the touchstone, come the rushed and tonally discordant final act, is more Lear than Hamlet. But that, evidently, is how Lester wants to play it. And what has, for more than an hour of its 88 minute running time, been an entertainingly stupid if needlessly over-plotted slab of drive-in fodder, suddenly and obstreperously lurches off in pursuit of a poignant and emotionally shattering finale. That it doesn’t earn said denouement is like saying that ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, with five minutes of running time left, passionately and whole-heartedly decides it wants to be ‘Andrei Rublev’ then gets all upset that it’s not being hailed as an art-house classic.



*The film is so enamoured of this particular ditty that it basically stops, somewhere around the midway point, and becomes a de facto music video.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Mad Bomber


Bert I. Gordon has an eclectic filmography: his first film as director, in 1955, was ‘King Dinosaur’; his most recent, ‘Secrets of a Psychopath’, made two years ago, was billed as “ ‘Psycho’ meets the Craigslist killer”. Inbetween, he’s chalked up such trash classics as ‘How to Succeed with Sex’, ‘The Empire of the Ants’ and ‘Satan’s Princess’. Not to mention the scuzzy 1973 opus under consideration today: ‘The Mad Bomber’, a.k.a. ‘The Police Connection’.

The film opens in ‘Dirty Harry’ fashion with a driven cop who disregards the rule book tracking down a psychopath who’s terrorising the city. Let’s meet our antagonists. The obsessive cop is the marvellously named Lieutenant Geronimo Minelli (Vince Edwards); we learn nothing about him other than that he has a failed marriage in his past and that he hates sex offenders with an almost messianic intensity. The psychopath is William Dorn (Chuck Connors), an ostensibly buttoned down wage slave who flips after his daughter dies of a heroin overdose and sets out to settle the score with everyone – be they individual or institution – with whom he has a perceived grudge. Unlike Andy Robinson’s Scorpio killer in ‘Dirty Harry’, taking out his targets with a sniper rifle, Dorn plants bombs.


“I’m the nothing face that plants the bomb and strolls away” goes a Meticalla lyric, and ’Tallica could have had Dorn in mind when they wrote that. Connors – remembered primarily for his small screen work, particularly in the western genre (‘Tales of Wells Fargo’, ‘The Rifleman’) – turns in a performance that’s taut, understated and genuinely unsettling. The character, as written, could easily be a twenty-years-early sketch for Michael Douglas’s D-Fens in ‘Falling Down’: they share the same bland office attire; D-Fens has a briefcase, Dorn a brown paper bag; both rail at the devolution of standards and civility in modern life; and neither hold back in challenging the people they see as being responsible for it. Dorn’s stern lecturing of a rude waitress in a coffee shop exists in the same thematic space as D-Fens’s disapprobation with the poor service and product at the fast food outlet.

Connors’s tight-as-a-watch-spring performance is matched by Edwards’s: everything we learn about Minelli as a man and a cop comes from watching him do his job, whether it’s his world-weary interaction with a suspect’s wife, his altercations with superiors, his curtly delivered instructions to colleagues and subordinates or his heavy-handed treatment of lowlifes.

And speaking of lowlifes …


Dorn’s second bombing, of a hospital – the first was a school – gives Minelli his first clue. Transpires Dorn wasn’t the only individual at the hospital who shouldn’t have been there. While Dorn was exiting after planting explosives, the utterly charmless George Fromley (Neville Brand) was hiding in a storeroom prior to raping a mental patient. The only witness to Dorn’s presence at the hospital, Fromley isn’t about to come forward and give the cops his unfettered assistance.

At this point, ‘The Mad Bomber’ goes haring off into its middle third with a new antagonist, a new focus for the investigation (nail the rapist; get him to spill on the bomber), and a tonal shift from the procedural narrative of the first act to the kind of scuzzy thrilleramics that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The New York Ripper’ or any of the ‘Death Wish’ sequels. Fromley, almost entirely offscreen during the hospital attack – the scene focuses entirely on his victim – is introduced properly as he kidnaps and assaults a young woman. Quite apart from prefiguring the ‘Eden Lake’ poster by three decades …


… this sequence proves to be one of the sleaziest victim-attempts-to-run-from-aggressor scenarios committed to celluloid. It has nothing to do with the main plot and as a means of establishing Fromley as a rapist sack of shit, it would have done so just as effectively if Gordon had shouted “cut” five minutes earlier. It’s needlessly protracted and swerves what had, up to this point, functioned as a mainstream thriller so far into exploitation territory that it never fully rights itself.

Almost immediately afterwards, we get Minelli – a fervent hater of sex crime offenders, don’t forget – outlining his plan to catch Fromley in the bluntest of terms: “I want the streets flooded with every policewoman looking like they’re begging to get raped”.

Ladies and gentleman, ‘The Mad Bomber’.

There follows a montage, scored to what I can only describe as wakka-wakka porn music, of various female members of the police department giving it their best street bait sashay in the city’s least salubrious areas …



… until some lowlife douchebag makes a move on them, whereupon uniformed cops leap from doorways or behind bushes and make the arrest. Minelli eschews the wrestle-the-scumbag-to-the-ground-and-cuff-him approach beloved of his comrades for the more expedient method of punching the arrestee in the face a couple of dozen times. Dubbing in the Benny Hill music is perhaps the only aesthetic decision that would make this section of the film any more jaw-droppingly offensive than it already is.

Then, just as suddenly again, the film shifts into cat-and-mouse territory as Fromley, finally arrested, pits himself against Minelli, determined not to let the cop break him. What redeems ‘The Mad Bomber’ is its quality performances, and Brand – already an Agitation of the Mind veteran for his appearances in ‘The Ninth Configuration’ and ‘Killdozer’ – brings his A-game in his scenes with Edwards. I’ll go as far as to say that if Sidney Lumet had made ‘The Offence’ with Vince Edwards and Neville Brand instead of Sean Connery and Ian Bannen it would still have been every inch the powerhouse.

Of course, ‘The Offence’ was written by acclaimed playwright John Hopkins while ‘The Mad Bomber’ was written by Gordon himself from a story by Marc Behm (‘Trunk to Cairo’, ‘The Blonde from Peking’) and that more than anything is the difference here. ‘The Mad Bomber’ has strong performances, decent cinematography, good location work and some memorable scenes – the incongruity of the bright yellow motorcycle and sidecar that Dorn steals, Fromley’s man cave decorated with nude b&w photos of his otherwise dowdy wife, Dorn hallucinating a pedestrian as his deceased daughter – but its script is often terrible.


Still, it’s pacy and entertaining and even in its stupider moments – the flashing lights and ludicruous “bloop” noises on the computer that profiles Dorn; the multiple cuts to a flashing white screen when the script calls for something to be blown up that the budget can’t stretch to – it’s never less than watchable. The makers of ‘Falling Down’ sure as hell gave it a fair few viewings.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Angel of Destruction


There are certain pleasures to be had from DTV thrillers made in the 80s and 90s. Chief amongst them is their attempt to be all flash and stylish and action-oriented – one can imagine their directors being hooked on ‘Miami Vice’ and ‘Airwolf’ – despite having the production values of a McDonalds commercial and budgets that would probably buy one suit for Don Johnson or two minutes of Jan-Michel Vincent in a helicopter.

Andy Sidaris was pretty much the leading light of this … well, “movement” is too grand a word, so let’s settle for “tendency”. Sidaris was the T&A auteur behind the likes of ‘Malibu Express’, ‘Hard Ticket to Hawaii’ and ‘Savage Beach’, opuses which traded on fast-moving narratives, gunplay, fisticuffs, pneumatic women and glamorous locations, and which still command a cohort of loyal fans despite the fact that they’re basically crap.

But it wasn’t just Sidaris who was happy to kid himself that he was shooting 007-style epics when it was perfectly obvious that the producers simply wanted oodles of nudity from Sibyl Danning or some Playboy pet in her first acting role, and the rest of it was just so much padding to get the running time past the 90 minute mark. Even Jag Mahendra and Fred Olen Ray were churning out wank-fodder as if the style-over-content ratio would guarantee their product a worthier fate than the grindhouse or the top shelf at the video store. And let’s not forget that half-decade or so when Zalman King honest-to-God had a big-screen career. Sidaris, Mahendra, Ray, King: to this roster add Jim Wynorski, Gregory Hippolyte, Charles Band, Albert Pyun, a dozen or so others.

And let us not forget Charles Philip Moore, either.


Who? I hear you ask.

Charles Philip Moore, I repeat. Charles Philip Moore who, between 1990 and 1994 notched up no fewer than four movies as director. Four, I tells ya.

He made his debut with the inauspicious monster movie ‘Demon Wind’ before finding his niche, two years later, with the sleaze/murder/topless-gyrations epic ‘Dance with Death’. In fact, 1992 was his annus mirabilis as he also made ‘Blackbelt’, in which chop-socky expert Don Wilson protects provocative singer Deidre Imershein from a nutjob stalker. In many respects, ‘Blackbelt’ is the quintessential Charles Philip Moore film. Well, in one respect actually: he liked it so much he remade it, two years later in his final outing as director.

This being The Agitation of the Mind, where your humble chronicler of all things dodgy is nothing if not idiosyncratic (or, as his father has oft been known to call him, “an awkward bogger”), it won’t be the heights of ‘Blackbelt’ that we consider today, but the somewhat different pleasures of ‘Angel of Destruction’, a title that makes little sense and was probably something of a compromise given that ‘Angel of Vengeance’ was already taken.


The film opens with ex-special forces type Robert Kell (played with plank-like intensity by Jimmy Broome) taking a hooker to a hotel room; excusing himself that he’s left something in car, he wanders down the hall, invades another room and, unarmed, takes down half a dozen types in suits. He’s aided in his agenda by the fact that at least half of these individuals sit around in easy chairs while he’s happily putting a massive beatdown on their compatriots and only react – and then not very effectively – when it’s their turn to feel the hurt. And what is our bug-eyed hunk of timber’s agenda? Just before he punches the last of his victims through a window – the room is several stories up – he delivers this deathless piece of dialogue: “You left me and my men to die in Angola. I didn’t like that.”

But before we can get into any ‘Punisher’-style narrative of a damaged military man bringing his own personal war back home, Kell wanders back to his room and starts acting all creepy around the hooker. Then we cut to a scene involving another hooker, this one being rescued from a potential gang rape by hard-ass private eye Brit Alwood (Charlie Spradling). Brit takes down the rapists-in-waiting with the same ruthless efficiency that Kell demonstrated against his antagonists, and for a moment ‘Angel of Destruction’ finds itself in a dramatic stasis that whereby two paths seem possible: Kell and Brit as antagonists or Kell and Brit in an uneasy alliance. Either would have been fine by me, as I was happily recalling Spradling’s turn in the Sherilyn Fenn starrer ‘Meridian’ and looking forward to 85 minutes of her in a lead role.

Charles Philip Moore has other plans, however, and this is how things pan out: Kell is revealed in short order – so short that it doesn’t even count as a spoiler to reveal it in this review – as having an unhealthy obsession with raunchy soft-rock singer Delilah (Jessica Mark in her only film role). That’s unhealthy as in breaking into her dressing room and leaving a severed finger as a token of his affection, by the way. Brit is hired as bodyguard by Delilah and her backing singer/dancer/sometime lover Renee (Chanda, whose enigmatic mononym vouchsafed her a film career that included ‘Emmanuelle, Queen of the Galaxy’, ‘Erotic Boundaries’ and ‘Men Cry Bullets’). But no sooner has Brit taken the gig than Kell shows up at her office and (only mild SPOILER) offs her (minor SPOILER ends).


Enter Brit’s younger sister, undercover cop Jo (Maria Ford), and her rumpled ’tec partner (and occasional lover) Aaron (Antonio Bacci). Jo takes up where Brit left off and finds herself plunged into Delilah’s dysfunctional world. Delilah performs a Lita Ford-style brand of soft rock pepped up with the kind of stage show you normally get at the kind of place that boasts a bouncer on the door who used to work for the Krays, a three-drink minimum, and a stage with a pole. Her last two albums bombed and she’s putting up with the demanding ministrations of manager Danny (James Paolelli) – whom she intends to “drop like a greased pig” as soon as her career revivifies – who is himself in a fractious relationship with Sonny (Bob McFarland), a mobster who has sunk $2 million of his paymasters’ money into Delilah’s career and isn’t impressed with the lack of return on investment.

There’s so much going on in ‘Angel of Destruction’ that it’s probably for the best that the main Delilah/Kell/Jo conflict is so streamlined. Between Kell’s obsession with oriental hookers, Jo and Aaron’s patented investigation technique (smack people around till they spill the beans) and Delilah’s stage persona (seriously, she makes The Pretty Reckless’s Taylor Momsen look like Mary fuckin’ Poppins), there’s a shoot-out, hand-to-hand combat bout, or hot chick popping ’em out every five minutes.

There are a lot of criticisms you can level against ‘Angel of Destruction’ – its lousy performances, the trade-down in protagonist from Spradling to Ford, the over-reliance on bland hotel rooms and anonymous corridors as settings, the fight scenes that seem contractually obliged to shoot the coup-de-grace from at least three different angles and repeat one after the other in fetishistic slo-mo – but you sure as hell can’t accuse it of being dull. Oh, and it has an extended scene of Ford kick-boxing a couple of dozen antagonists into a coma whilst sporting nothing more than a g-string. You’re welcome, folks; happy to take one for the team.