Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Film Review: POOR PRETTY EDDIE (1975, Chris Robinson & David Worth)

Stars: 4.3 of 5.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Shelley Winters, Slim Pickens, Leslie Uggams (Tony award winner, also acted in ROOTS, SUGAR HILL), Michael Christian (THE GREAT GUNDOWN, HARD KNOCKS), Dub Taylor (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III), Ted Cassidy (Lurch on THE ADDAMS FAMILY). Written by sometime CHARLIE'S ANGELS, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, and BONANZA scribe B.W. Sandefur.
Tag-line: "All He Wanted Was A Friend."
Best one-liner: "Did he bite you on the titties?"

Directed by David Worth (KICKBOXER, SHARK ATTACK 3- yes, that SHARK ATTACK 3, also the cinematographer here) & Chris Robinson (THUNDER COUNTY, CHARCOAL BLACK); and marketed as a hicksploitation/blaxploitation revenge flick (REDNECK COUNTY RAPE!), one might assume that they'll know exactly what sort of film to expect. Well, unless you guessed "an utterly bizarre mashup of 60's Euro-arthouse aesthetics (from Bergman to Antonioni) in the milieu of then-recent horror flicks (by the likes of Craven and Hooper) that also happens to be loosely based on the revolutionary 1957 Jean Genet play, THE BALCONY," then you'd be wrong.

Because POOR PRETTY EDDIE is all of those things... and more. Perhaps a better title would have been something like LAST HOUSE AT MARIENBAD ON THE LEFT. (And as an even weirder side note, Shelley Winters also starred in the official 1963 film adaptation of THE BALCONY!)

But, first, let's see if we can hash out a general idea of the plot. On an anonymous, dreamlike football field (I could definitely see this film as being an inspiration for David Lynch), Liz Wetherly (Leslie Uggams) sings the national anthem,

then embarks- via montage- on a road trip/vacation through the seedy back roads of the American South. Out in the wilderness, a gargantuan wheel turns and squeaks and groans, its purpose unknown. Uggams' car dies and she ends up at "Bertha's Oasis," a rat-trap, dead-end dive, run by Bertha (Shelley Winters) who has a propensity for gazing longingly at old Hollywood 8X10s and dressing like a drag queen.

Her kept man and resident Elvis impersonator Eddie (Michael Christian) has eyes for the marooned pop star, and after a few mind-boggling encounters, rapes her repeatedly. She reports the assaults to Sheriff Slim Pickens, whose responses are to

A. Suggestively ask if she'd like to bite a tomato, B., draw dirty pictures on the police report, and C., inquire "Did he bite you on the titties?" and, if he did, could he see the bite marks please if it's not too much trouble.

Then a whirlwind of events ensue, including, but not limited to: a kangaroo court held at a VFW hall and presided over by a man in a Pabst Blue Ribbon T-shirt:

a (literal) shotgun wedding, Slim Pickens beating his full grown son at the (red, plastic, checkerboard tablecloth-covered) dinner table, and Ted Cassidy fed his own dog (as screaming ladies are draped in dog hide) just to bump him down a notch.


Yes, this movie is insane, and yes, I think it's terrific.

For a movie which could have easily centered its focus around the staging of rape scenes, POOR PRETTY EDDIE is far more interested in the power dynamics between its characters and the aesthetic delivery of said ideas. The existing relationship between Bertha and Eddie at the film's start is quite fascinating: Bertha is the matriarch of this community- at least until the foundations of her own self-esteem slowly begin to crack.

She's also an insatiable starfucker stuck in a town populated by about two dozen yokels, so she has to make do with what she's got- apparently she's made it her life's work to transform the young, impressionable Eddie into something approximating 'Elvis.'

Perhaps it's this learned, overinflated sense of celebrity and self-importance which leads him to believe that the famous, metropolitan, and most importantly stranded Liz Wetherly will want to drop everything and settle down with a backwoods boy who likes to play dress-up. Of course, in this isolated, middle-of-nowhere sphere, if you want something and you're capable of taking it, and you think you can get away with it- well, then, the world is your filthy oyster.

The rape scene itself is extremely stylized- shot in grainy, slowed-frame-rate slow motion (with distorted, drawn-out audio), we simply see two human forms struggling with one another across a gridwork of bright oranges and deep blues.

This is crosscut with a bevy of Southerners (led by Ted 'Lurch' Cassidy laciviously gazing upon dogs having sex with one another in the mud. And this is by no means the strangest occurrence of vaguely psychedelic cross-cutting in the film. (Upbeat, Karen Carpenter-style pop music and disorienting wide-angle shots often accompany these juxtapositions as well.)

Wait- more whipping in psychedelic montages? What is this- GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE?

We then enter a hazy world of make-believe, where a camera snapping photos can become a gun, blasting away- an instrument of impossible revenge.

But these are short-lived. POOR PRETTY EDDIE will not indulge your rape-followed-by-revenge fantasies. Something emerges which is a little closer to Stockholm Syndrome, but it's dipped in alienation and deep-fried in violent slowmo dream logic- it's like we're peering through a window and seeing a glimpse of Sam Peckinpah's flickering nightmares. I am aware that this review appears to be making less and less sense as it goes along, but that's simply the state of mind to which POOR PRETTY EDDIE lends itself. "Their cookie jar done been removed and the cookies taken care of..." says a local who's apparently referring to the act of rape. Slim Pickens schlerps on a tomato, Shelley Winters takes a drag of her smoke from an impossibly long cigarette holder, there's a nauseating makeout session, somebody says "What's that juicy pickininny doin' in my cabin?," there's a Baltimore reference (was John Waters somehow involved?...I would believe it), there's homage to Tennessee Williams, Shelley blurts out "I need some more vodka," the wedding march is played out of tune on a fiddle, there's a final coup de grace of absolute and utter brutality, and then the movie simply... ENDS. Maybe the print I saw was edited, but it just ends. No credits, no distributors, no nothin'. Cut. Blackness. And somehow that is the perfect finale to a movie whose simultaneously low and high brow batshit craziness approaches a sort of twisted avant-garde backwoods perfection. Amen.

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

This sounds like a serious F'ed up film! But hey, you got Slim Pickens and Ted Cassidy so, there's that. Weird, wild stuff. Reading about these kind of films really makes me wonder how the hell things like this ever get made?

Sean Gill said...

Now, I'm of the opinion that this is probably more Chris Robinson's film than David Worth's (just given their filmographies), but even weirder is that Robinson was allowed to do this sort of thing more than once. A perennial TV actor and evidently a buddy of Ted Cassidy, he had directed two films prior to POOR PRETTY EDDIE (which I have not seen) called CHARCOAL BLACK and THUNDER COUNTY, which starred respectable actors (including Cassidy in both) and were marketed as hick/prison/blaxploitation flicks. I can't find much info on them or many people who have even seen them, but I have to imagine that they, too, surpass their B or even C-movie trappings.

Unknown said...

To paraphrase GHOSTBUSTERS, Robinson is either a certified genius or a demented wacko.

Sean Gill said...

Yeah- I'm definitely gonna make an effort to hunt down his other films- a task made even more difficult by all the different names the films were marketed under. But my pure, unfettered desire to see avant-garde hicksploitation trumps any inconvenience.