Thursday, 3 September 2009

Sixties Sleaze Double Bill:
The Thrill Killers (1964)
Confessions of a Psycho Cat (196?)

Well I haven't just been watching fancy movies down on the South Bank y’know…

The Thrill Killers was Ray Dennis Steckler’s third film as writer/director, following the all-round-entertainment classic ‘The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies’, and whatever the hell ‘Rat-Pfink A Boo-Boo’ was supposed to be (a film so cheap they couldn’t be bothered to add the missing ‘nd’ to the title card, amongst other things). This one was also released under the title ‘The Maniacs Are Loose!’, which conveniently saves me having to write a plot synopsis, because that essentially is what ya get. (I love how the poster reproduced above goes so far in its blood-curdling pronouncements, it has to backpedal with that little notice reassuring you that it’s all in good fun.)

Shot in black & white, Thrill Killers is a tighter, darker and more concise picture than Steckler’s previous opuses (seemingly with an even tighter budget too, if you can believe that). No technicolor, dancing girls, rollercoasters, hypno-wheels or rock n’ roll are in evidence here, but, as with most Steckler films, Thrill Killers still manages to be an absolute hoot, transcending its rank stupidity by vestige of good, no nonsense filmmaking and sheer, goofy enthusiasm.

A portentous opening monologue introduces us to some guy who has moved to Hollywood and is trying to further his acting/producing career beneath the disapproving glare of his wife, who thinks he should get a proper job. Why, his life is nothing but a fantasy, we’re sanctimoniously informed by our narrator. He is living in non-reality! By way of contrast, next we meet another guy whose life is very real, you understand - a hardworking salesman with a big family to support, and – hey hey - it’s Steckler’s prematurely aged buddy with the big quiff from ‘Incredibly Strange Creatures..’! He doesn’t get to stick around for long though, as we see him stop his car to pick up a hitchhiker, Steckler’s ubiquitous on-screen alter-ego Cash Flagg, who guns him down for no apparent reason as the film proper begins.

Flagg/Steckler portrays the memorably named Mort ‘Mad Dog’ Click, a guy who… well he just likes to go around killing people, I guess. “But why?”, screams a girl he’s picked up in a bar, shortly before he stabs her to death with a pair of scissors. “People ain’t no good”, Mort reasons with a shrug, inadvertently inspiring one of my favourite Cramps songs in the process. And that’s about as far into the realms of psychological motivation as ‘The Thrill Killers’ ever dares to venture.

Armed as he is with creepy, lizard-like features, a complete lack of charisma, a vacant, bored expression and the same scruffy hoodie he seems to wear in all his movies, Cash Flagg is far more convincing as an nihilistic psychopath than he ever was as a leading man, but surprisingly Mad Dog isn’t even the main focus of our tale this time around. That honour goes to the aforementioned wannabe movie star guy and his long-suffering wife, who are busy scouting locations in the company of the film’s real life producer George Morgan, who is good-humoured enough to play himself. They’re hanging out in the remote desert diner owned by movie-guy’s sister-in-law (Erina Enyo, whom you’ll no doubt recall from her turn as the sultry Carmelita in, oh go on, guess which movie…) when they hear an alert on the radio about three dangerous maniacs who have escaped from a nearby asylum and are, yes, on the loose!

And boy, what a gang these maniacs are! They’re led by this jittery, wise-ass guy who’s rocking that kinda sleazy, early-‘60s beatnik/drug fiend look to perfection – y’know, ill-fitting Hawaiian shirt, shades, receding hairline – admittedly, it’s more of an attitude than a ‘look’, but you get what mean. The other two comprise a big, childlike lummox and a tormented Norman Bates type, and what fun they all have when they get together. We’re introduced to these guys in an extended sequence – potentially disturbing, but actually just kinda funny – in which they do away with a honeymooning couple they’ve cornered in an abandoned building, lopping off heads (off-screen mind you, this isn’t really a gore movie, although it’s pretty damn nasty for 1964) as they bicker and cavort like the three stooges.

It’s shortly after this that our happy maniacs casually stroll into Erina’s diner and order some beers in the most suspicious manner imaginable (one guy is carrying a huge axe that he puts across his knees under the table!). We follow beatnik guy as he cuts out to make a phonecall, and guess what - it turns out he’s Mort ‘Mad Dog’ Click’s brother! You’d have to wonder what kind of family background served to independently produce two separate raving psychopaths, but you can wonder about that in your own time buddy, cos this is only a 75 minute movie and the clock’s ticking.

So Mad Dog reluctantly agrees to head down and help them out (in exchange for hard cash of course – such a fiend is Mort that he won’t even help his brother and fellow maniac out of a tight spot without something to make it worth his while), and inevitably the psychos start getting fresh with our cast of diner-based protagonists, as the rest of the movie flies by in a series of tense confrontations and daring desert showdowns (“an innocent rancher, slaughtered for his horse!”), pretty much acting as a “what NOT to do” guide for any escaped crazies, topped off with a cheesy, heartwarming conclusion and an out-of-nowhere goofball comedy twist to send us all home smiling.

So what did you make of all that, mr. hypothetical ‘60s drive-in patron? Well you paid for Maniacs on the Loose, and you damn well GOT maniacs on the loose, which is more than can be said for that time you went to see Horror of the Blood Monsters. Say what you like about Mr. Steckler’s dubious talents – the dude knew how to deliver! He put in the effort, threw in some character and humour, and even took the time to learn how to direct stuff reasonably well after a fashion, which certainly sets him apart from some of his contemporaries in the field of barrel-scraping trash. In conclusion, Thrill Killers has yucks aplenty, and it’s hard to imagine a low-brow / low expectation audience walking out unsatisfied, then as now.

Much the same can be said of Confessions of a Psycho-Cat, an intriguing (well I found it intriguing anyway) obscurity that also inspired a late-period Cramps song, offered up to us by Something Weird video.

What we have here is basically a bit of a mish-mash. It seems that at some point in the mid-60s, some inspired soul decided to make a totally wigged out version of the old ‘Most Dangerous Game’ scenario, staring Eileen Lord as the cackling, insane sister of a big game hunter, stalking human prey around contemporary New York.

Perhaps that film was never completed, or perhaps it wasn’t deemed eligible for release by some tedious, tinpot distribution company, or perhaps it even WAS released, and was recut into this thing just for the hell of it after the original version sank without trace… who knows. Regardless, the masterminds behind ‘Confessions of a Psycho-Cat’ seem to have taken some chunks of that movie, added some hippie-era nudie inserts (almost certainly shot at a later date but maintaining one of the same actors to establish some shaky continuity), and glued the resulting mess into an almost, but not quite, coherent whole, all brought to us in mono sound and varying degrees of authentic fuzz-o-scope black & white. Magic!

So basically, ‘..Psycho-Cat’ would have us believe that there’s this apartment full of circa ’68 lethargic hippie/junkie types who are waiting around for one of their number – an out of time street-husslin’ hep-cat straight out of ’59-’63 - to return with ‘the stuff’ so they can all get a fix. And in the meantime, they do what comes naturally to such cinematic deviants and start sordidly stripping off and gettin’ it on with each other. Damned beatniks! Dunno when this was filmed, but the ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ poster on the wall pins it down to ’67 or later.

So what’s happened to their man anyways? Well, cue dramatic change in filmstock and sound mix, and it turns out he’s in Central Park, running for his life with a crazed brunette dressed in a foxhunting outfit wielding a crossbow, and her mute manservant, in hot pursuit! Whoa!

(Our hustler friend looks like a total cat by the way – a master of the same kinda look the jittery guy in ‘Thrill Killers’ was going for; skinny, unshaven, receding hairline, and he spends this whole movie clad in tight black jeans, aviator shades and a torn, short-sleeved shirt with the words “THE DEVIL MAKES WORK FOR IDLE HANDS” printed all over it.)

And thus begins the ‘Most Dangerous Game’ part of our tale, as we learn in flashback about how hustler/junkie guy is one day summoned to a fancy uptown residence, where he finds himself waiting in a room full of hunting trophies in the company of a hammy Shakespearean actor, and a champion wrestler by the name of Rocko (played by Jake LaMotta – yes, the ‘Raging Bull’ guy).

What do The Junkie, The Actor and The Champ have in common? – why, they’ve all been chosen by mad Virginia as prey in her urban safari! She tells them that at some point in the near-future, they will each receive a special delivery, a cheque for $100,000 post-dated by one day, and from that moment the chase is on – they can collect the cash if they manage to stay alive in Manhattan for 24 hours. Why have these three been chosen? - because they’ve all committed murder in the past and got away with it!

So that’s our set-up. After cutting back to the love-in for some more beatnik humping, we subsequently get an extraordinary series of flashbacks (basically this whole bloody film is done in flashback) detailing firstly how our unlucky trio came to kill in the first place, and then how Virginia hunts each man down.

And it’s these brief set-piece scenes (along with the initial Central Park chase) that really bring the film to life. They’re brilliantly put together - truly crazed punk rock film-making, full of zooming, free-roaming camcorder work, dramatic and disorientating camera angles, lurching pre-MTV jump cuts, weird lens filters and a cavalcade of demented, OTT imagery. Fantastic stuff, and all soundtracked with a load of warped library music cues that range with mariachi bombast to ‘poignant death scene’ to a great chunk of ‘walkin’ around jazz’ (it sounds a bit like Dolphy’s ‘Hat & Beard’).

It’s this Sam Fuller-via-Russ Meyer mode of operations that brings us such highlights as the scene where The Actor flips out and razors to death the interfering husband who blundered in on him and his married woman (blood and screaming faces in a claustrophobic black tiled bathroom), and the bit where The Junkie accidentally kills a girl he’s shacked up with by administering an overdose of H (desperate, bulging eyeballs, camera circling the ceiling and lurid paperbacks visible under the mattress). Boy oh boy, this is some cinema, right here!

Perhaps the film’s overall high point comes when Virginia lures The Champ back to her lair, and, dressed as a matador, engages him in a full-on bullfight, camera swirling as she howls with laughter, hearing the roar of an auditorium crowd in her head as the poor, washed up boxer crawls across the floor like a stuck pig. Somehow I don’t remember this aspect of LaMotta’s career getting a mention in Scorcese’s movie.

Actually, Jake is served pretty badly by the film, and vice versa. It seems as if they basically didn’t have much footage of the guy, so in good Ed Wood style they just managed to make do. One scene comprises a shot/reverse shot exchange wherein a bored, topless hooker (presumably shot at the same time as the other nudie footage) taunts Rocko for his laziness and lack of manhood, her attempt to make it seem like a conversation aided only by fuzzy, poorly framed cut-in shots of LaMotta saying stuff like “you ged outta here” and “I’m da champ”. Assuming Jake wasn’t actually a comedic big lummox, he’s doing a very good impression of one.

My absolute favourite scene though has to be the bit where, in between being chased through the streets by Virginia, the Junkie finally scores, and locks himself in a toilet cubicle to make his hit. Why is it so great? I have no idea. I mean, it’s just a scene portraying some guy shooting up in a (surprisingly clean and shiny looking) public bathroom. But the way it’s shot, with the weird, menacing angles, the handheld camera zooming around him like an insect, capturing his mixture of fear and euphoria, the constant sense of his death lurking just around the corner – it’s just fucking ace, a lost moment that throws a lasso around that whole Warhol/Morrissey/Fuller/Waters continuum of New York art/trash crossover, like a tentacle of the ‘real’ underworld slithering into the faux-underworld of the exploitation movie and…. er, yeah; sorry, what were we talking about again?

Oh yeah, so Lord actually turns in a great performance as Virginia, charming, mannered and determined, yet clumsy, tense and barmy, she’s like Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys’ gone completely nutzoid, cackling with manic glee as she stalks her victims. “Her bed was her lair”, the ads proclaimed; an utterly meaningless tagline given that, surprisingly, Virginia is never sexualized at any point by the film – she’s portrayed more as a single-minded force of nature, much like a Batman villain. And, just like most Batman villains, she ends her days laughing manically in a straightjacket, after her psychiatrist (er… good work fella) and brother team up to put a stop to things.

Oh, and unlike ‘The Thrill Killers’, we get some choice psychological motivation to chew on here too, as it is revealed – in another amazing, fisheye lensed flashback – that Virginia’s problems stem from the trauma of seeing that bastard brother of hers cruelly throw her pet puppy from the top of a skyscraper when they were both kids! Seriously – the camera briefly plunges over the edge too, and we see the poor mutt hurtling to its death! Jeez!

“Daddy knows who’s guilty, Daddy knows who the killer is!”, she yells as they drag her away, whilst Mr. Psychiatrist presumably dusts himself off and congratulates himself on another successful day as a two-fisted kicker out of the Freudian jams, and everyone goes home for tea, or heroin, or whatever. Who knows, maybe next time he’ll even get his psycho in the rubber room before they charge around town killing everyone.

In case it wasn’t clear enough already – man, I love this movie! If it existed in its original form without all the boring naked people, I’m sure it would already have found itself climbing its way up everybody’s list of ‘cult classics’, but even in its current state, it’s a real unique film and an absolute blast for any connoisseur of low budget, high energy weirdness. And I confess, even the nudie scenes have their own sordid charm - there’s a certain sense of honesty and aesthetic/historical interest in watching these tough, angry-looking New York chicks and scruffy street corner slackers slouch through their scenes, almost visibly waiting for someone to shout ‘cut’ so they can bust out with “alright, is that it, do I get my fuckin’ paycheque yet?” In some weird way, this warped sense of authenticity almost serves to counteract the utter sleaze of the endeavor. I mean, hey, at least nobody’s pretending to be anything they’re not here, which is more than can be said for just about any other sexploitation/porno footage ever shot.

History and production details behind this movie may be sketchy to say the least (writing/direction is credited to ‘Eve’), but one thing’s for sure: no archetypal 42nd street patron would have walked out of this cocktail of sex, violence, black humour and outright craziness disappointed, and if anything I’ve described above sounds remotely appealing, neither will you.

Whilst neither ‘Thrill Killers’ or ‘Psycho-Cat’ are quite the same league as a classic like ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ (or indeed ‘Incredibly Strange Creatures’), they’re still happily cruising outside the same psychotronic ballpark – pure stupid/awesome/funny crack-brained entertainment, realized with a flair that places them a fair few rungs above your average sleaze/trash fare.


© Deliria said...

Talk about something weird, we took almost identical screenshots from PSYCHOCAT!

Ben said...

Yeah, sorry about that... I don't have any means of taking screenshots from non-Region 2 DVDs, so I'm usually reduced to finding some via Google image search, so I guess yours turned up that way as the best ones available!

Hope you don't mind - looks like an excellent blog you've got there btw, although it's a shame the language barrier means I'm unable to read it.