Back in the '70s, when cable TV first came to Northeastern Pennsylvania, subscribing meant the addition of three channels: WPHL 17, out of Philly, WPIX 11, out of New York, and WORTV 9, also out of New York. For an adolescent horror fan, however, these channels were a dream come true, with Dr. Shock's Horror Theater and Mad Theater on Channel 17, WPIX's Chiller Theater (with the six-fingered hand emerging from a pool of blood), and Channel 9's Fright Night at 1 a.m. on Saturdays. It's this last program where I first saw "Deathmaster," and at the time, I was too young to understand why it would be considered a bad movie. I didn't understand he plethora of exploitation genre it, well, exploited (biker movies, kung fu movies, hippie movies, etc.) I was - thankfully - unaware of the Tate-LaBianca murders. I watched this movie with no prejudicial baggage at all...and it scared the hell out of me. This was largely because of atmosphere. This movie is very emotionally claustrophobic. It's more grim than you'd expect. There's no comic relief, and as the film progresses, things get more and more desperate. There's no happy ending, and the final despair stayed with me a long time after that first viewing. Even now, just listening the very '70s score by Bill Marx (Harpo's son, by the way), I can feel the atmosphere closing in on me...which is a good thing, a sign of the film's effectiveness.
Listening to Robert Quarry's recollections on the DVD release was very disappointing, since this movie - which I've been seeking for years - seems to have been an afterthought by everyone involved with it, a way to make a cheap buck, with no real love or ambition invested in it. Too bad. I have to wonder what it would have been like had it been helm-ed by people who really wanted to make a great movie.
I don't know that I'd recommend this film to anyone unless. Unless you're the sort of person who, after hearing a brief description of the plot, would be curious, it's probably not going to satisfy you, or come across as being silly. It's only the few of us who were there, eyes glued to the screen on those late Saturday nights, who are going to have a true appreciation for this long-lost gem.
We can thank the DVD revolution for helping preserve not only cinematic masterpieces but also the lowest dreck the industry has ever produced. There is, in fact, a thriving market for such material, the cinematic equivalent of releasing footage of train wrecks: there are enough folks out there who won't be able to look away (or, in this case, plop down their twenty bucks for the experience).
Exploitation cinema offers the richest vein of such material - understandably - and video distribution companies like Something Weird, Blue Underground, and Synapse Films continue to show just how much of it was created throughout the years. To watch some of these bottom of the barrel creations, however, a question comes to mind: In spite of what they are, why do they have to be so consistently awful.
The modern-day independent cinema community, for instance, is crawling with talent, brilliant filmmakers who, for want of that one big break, could easily usurp the Spielbergs and Scorceses of the world. Even given the lurid, by the numbers requirements of exploitation films, it's almost certain that these unsung geniuses could turn out compelling, interesting work. Why then, did exploitation distributors of the 60s and 70s put their films in the hands of such incredibly untalented hacks as Doris Wishman, the director of "Let Me Die A Woman," undoubtedly one of the worst pieces of cinematic garbage that's ever been committed to celluloid? The transsexual phenomenon is an easy subject to exploit. Right from the beginnings of sex reassignment surgery, the details have been lurid enough to hold fascination even in mainstream media. One would have to be utterly inept to make a film on the subject which would be boring, uncompelling, and insulting to the viewer, which is exactly what Wishman created with this film. Sitting through this monstrosity, we get the impression that Wishman had a list of bullet points she knew she had to touch upon, and plowed through each and every one of them with only the slightest thought about weaving them into a cohesive package. In a sadly appropriate way, the film's inept structuring almost compliments the consistently awful performances of the actors. If this film works at all, even as exploitation, it does so in spite of every effort of the director.
"Let Me Die A Woman" doesn't even warrant a viewing as the nadir of exploitation cinema. It is one train wreck even the die hard enthusiasts might want to avoid.
I find it very difficult to sit through the "normal" Troma film. (This might be the only living example in captivity, by the way, of the words "normal" and "Troma" coexisting side-by-side.) I find them intolerably busy, erratic, and annoying. At the same time, I am utterly fascinated and impressed by the irrepressible Lloyd Kauffman,the "face" of Troma, one of the most charismatic figures in all of cinema. Given these preferences, "Terror Firmer" becomes a Troma film worth watching, because buried deep within this highly fictionalized account of what it takes to put together a Troma film are, one would assume, many, many kernels of truth, isolated and blown up way out of proportion in Troma's over-the-top style.
Even more interesting than the film, however, is the director's commentary track by Kauffman himself, which carries the "film within a film" concept to even deeper depth (because you know Kauffman is "performing" throughout).
I haven't quite decided whether Kauffman and Troma are the best thing to ever happen for independent cinema or the worst. While Troma proves that it can be done and that such a company can endure, the quality of Troma's product might work against independent cinema by implying that the company's profitability comes from the public's acceptance of low-budget, badly conceived and executed drivel.
Hats off to Lloyd Kauffman. Just don't expect me to like what you put out.
There's something wrong here, even for an exploitation film
Anyone whose tastes run towards exploitation films kind of knows "the drill," the recurring themes, methodology, and clichés of the genre. We embrace them, and an exploitation film which effectively "plays the game" can get away with a multitude of since which would be unforgivable in mainstream cinema (bad acting, bad writing, bad production values, etc.).
By those standards, "Bloodsucking Freaks" should be hailed as a masterpiece of the genre, and, judging by its enduring cult popularity, it is. Still, there's something about this film which limits the viewer's ability to enjoy it for what it is, and, thus, limits itself. At first, it's hard to put one's finger on exactly what it is, but I think I've finally worked it out. Simply put, filmmaker Joel M. Reed made a film whose spirit is as mean-spirited and diabolical as what we see up on the screen.
"Bloodsucking Freaks," as often as not, plays its numerous horrors for laughs. (Indeed, Sardu and Ralphus occasionally come across as a kind of nightmarish stand-up comedy act.) The trouble is, the intention behind the humor is anything but good-natured. Any viewer with any kind of decency at all can't relate to the motivations behind what they see, and this diminishes the fun of watching this movie to a great degree. For exploitation fans, there is a fine line between brutal and unwatchable, and there are many times during which "Freaks" sinks below that line. And so while this film is an absolute must-see for fans of the genre (although how many such fans have not seen this movie?), it's not going to be one of the films in their collection which can be revisited often.
The perfect ten rating I gave this film has nothing to do with its technical merits. It's not a particularly well-written film at all. The acting, for the most part, is wooden (with one BIG exception). The music is strictly canned library music. But it's still at ten. It's a ten because, as a cinematic experience, there is nothing else quite like watching the work of Michael and Roberta Findlay. Nothing else compares. And if the goal of cinema is to take you into another world, this is the film that will do it, albeit a sick, claustrophobic, dirty one which will leave you drained and in desperate need for a shower.
Other reviews cover the plot of this film sufficiently. What I'd like to focus on is the way this movie feels. Like other low-budget but truly inspired masterpieces - "Last House on Dead End Street" comes to mind as the perfect example - this film's technical flaws add to its creepiness. This film has no gloss with which to reassure us, and its starkness makes it that much more compelling.
The standout performance I mentioned at the outset of this review is, of course, that of Michael Findlay. The fact that he stars in this film is no coincidence. In fact, nobody else could have done it, since what we're seeing in this film - as in most of the Findlay collaborations - is a very, very personal vision, a celluloid representation of the dark demons haunting one man's mind. While no one is suggesting that Findlay was anything like the obsessed monster of a man he portrays on the screen here - there is much evidence to the contrary, in fact - there isn't any doubt that Findlay wasn't exorcising demons from his own psyche with these films, which, for me, is what makes them so compelling. On screen, Findlay's hammy, bloated performances would be laughable if you didn't know you were watching someone acting out of the depths of his mind, which makes them both disturbing and compelling at the same time.
An interesting experiment in watching these films is to compare it to similar, contemporary films, such as "Saw." While the violence in the latter movie is much more graphic, there's an intensity in Findlay's work which it can't even come close to.
I say all these things only to the special few with the capacity to digest film this way, and I don't expect that to be a particularly large group. You know who you are. And you'll see this film for what it is.
Who says movies have to be expensive to enrapture the viewer?
The appeal of "reality television" is, on the surface, easily explainable: there's an undeniable intensity to any viewing experience where the viewer can't tell himself, "it's only a movie" (or TV show). It ups the ante for the viewer, and is infinitely more compelling. Since this intensification is applied across the board, its presence in television is a match made in heaven, since it allows lazy producers to present half-baked contents and still make them effective.
This movie eschews the aforementioned ineptitudes and presents an already compelling topic and cranks up the intensity meter almost past the level of endurance. The "Blair Witch" way in which this film is presented - is it real, or isn't it? - is brilliantly done and genuinely convincing, and the first viewing of this movie, particularly if the viewer is unfamiliar with any of the production details, can be harrowing. To our mind, this really is happening on the screen.
And here's the spoiler which sums up the way the movie affected me personally: All through my first viewing, I couldn't get it out of my head that this all could be the real thing flickering on my screen. This movie never "blinks," it never tips its hand to let you in on a camera trick, or a jump cut...until the very end.
The very last scene, where the filmmaker himself seems to get murdered by his partner, looks as real as all which has come before it. Unless, that is, you focus your eyes on the trees in the background, and you see the tiniest jump of the leaves where the real footage and the fake death were masterfully spliced together. Watch for it, and instead of seeming like a flaw, you realize just how brilliant the cutting was.
However, considering that, immediately before this scene, the two filmmakers are discussing faking the death in that exact way, it still doesn't represent a break in the film's veracity. Masterful. Really masterful.
This isn't a fun film. But it's a film you won't soon forget, either.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when this picture was being written. (And the word "written" is generous.) The first time I watched this, I could do little more than gape at the screen. It appeared to be some kind of twisted joke, as though the filmmakers were simply seeing what levels of ridiculousness they could get away with. The ineptitude involved in this film makes it a camp jewel, to be sure, but viewed as a film project that people had to write and produce, and edit, and plan...you have to wonder exactly what these people were thinking. Obviously, this is a stew of elements which, at the time, were expected to make a good (okay, adequate) exploitation film. The problem comes in that the way these things were added to the storyline are almost completely incongruous. If you want a better explanation for the word "gratuitous," you'll have to go a long way.
There's no point in discussing the plot, the actors, the directing, or any other element of this...thing. There's no way to put it into words. I highly recommend this film simply as a unique viewing experience. You have been warned.
Why this movie is scarier than anything you've ever seen before...
You'll read plenty about the background of this movie, how it was nearly lost, miraculously saved and lovingly restored. You'll read about the trials and travails of Roger Watkins in the making of this film (much of it revealed by the excellent deluxe edition DVD release; nice work, Barrel Films). But what you might not read about is exactly why this film works as well as it does.
The thing is, it really shouldn't work at all. The viewer should be scoffing and snorting from scene one at the appalling acting, the flimsy plot (especially in the first half of the film, where the plot has to hold us), the muddy sound, poor lighting, and so on. This film should be dismissed out of hand and roundly ignored.
Just try it.
If you allow yourself to be carried off into this film, however, you'll find something so utterly engrossing, so roundly terrifying, that you may very well have to tell yourself, "It's only a movie...it's only a movie." In its weird, hell-bent way, the film's inadequacies trap the viewer in the madness on the screen. Unlike a normal slasher film, the viewer doesn't get a chance to step out of the horror to rate the special effects, or even to laugh at the badness of the thing. This movie grips you by the throat and doesn't let go.
I've read comments about this film saying that the first half of this film is the worst horror film you'll ever see and that the second half is the best horror film you'll ever see. That's a very accurate assessment, and it's this aspect of the film which adds to its impact. By the time the real horror starts, the viewer is unprepared for its intensity.
Watch this film in a dark room, all alone. Let this film pour over you and drown you in its madness, and it'll scare the hell out of you more effectively than anything else you've ever seen. This movie is unique. There's nothing else like it, nor will there ever be.
The preservation of Mike & Roberta Findlay's cinematic extravagances (thanks mainly to Mike Vraney at Something Weird Video) is the result, undoubtedly, of their camp value. These films aren't well-made by anyone's standards (though Roberta was no slouch as a cinematographer, in my opinion). The dialog is patently awful, the story lines thin, the acting atrocious. We accept that. But the reason to watch these films isn't to have some "so bad it's good" fun. Instead, the real reason these films should fascinate the viewer is that we're getting inside the mind(s) of some really disturbed folks.
I see Mike Findlay as a guy with a lot of inner demons swimming around inside his (formerly attached) head and who got a chance to bring these demons to the screen. This wasn't a hack churning out movies he didn't believe in. Rather, you get the sense that this guy was completely into what he was putting up on the screen, much more so than he had to. "A Night of A Thousand Pleasures" particularly illustrates this concept, since the perversions taking place on screen are so intense in their fetishism and tied together by the thinnest possible threads. It's as though Mike Findlay had the means to bring his darkest fantasies to a vision and is allowing us inside his twisted head (with the same lack of regard to continuity that real fantasies have). That Roberta was his willing partner makes the matter even more deeper and complex, and inspires tremendous curiosity as to the nature of their relationship. (Add this to the fact that so little is really known about them - singularly or individually.) Don't watch this film for the plot. Don't watch it for the gratuitous sex and violence. Don't watch it for any sort of technical cinematic curiosity. Watch is to see inside the head of a madman.