Monday, November 22, 2021

"I believe you; thousands wouldn't."

A preface: The following essay will be detailing almost every major plot revelation in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, as well as that from another well-known Italian thriller by  a name director. I don't personally believe that knowing all the details will ever hurt a first-time viewing of a movie if the story is good and the direction well-executed, but there is definitely a specific pleasure to be obtained from going into discovering a previously unviewed film with a blank slate. So use that information as you will...

It lay buried here, it lay deep inside me
It's so deep I don't think that I can speak about it
It could take me all of my life
But it would only take a moment to
Tell you what I'm feeling
But I don't know if I'm ready yet
You come walking into this room
Like you're walking into my arms

Longtime readers of this blog know from previous writings that I am openly and unashamedly in the tank (or should that be in the boot?) for Edgar Wright. There is the surface appeal, which is his genial cinemania, both on display in his films via creatively repurposed homage, and in his public profile, refusing to engage in cultural gatekeeping by politely observing that those who have never seen any of the canonized classics have the unique gift of seeing them with fresh eyes. But always beneath the playful visualizations, there has been serious reflection on the difficult moments faced in a life, usually involving taking responsibility for bad choices amidst increasingly calamitous circumstances. In a sense, he is the current master of delivering potent medicine inside the most delicious candy coatings.

Yet even by that metric, LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is a striking variation on the Wright template. There is still virtuoso composition at work, but with much more discipline than the comical quick cuts in his comedies. For that matter, while hardly bereft of levity, there's little comedy at all in this production, with those being Laugh Quietly To Myself rather than Laugh Out Loud incidents. There is allusion to influential works of the past, but most are not so direct as to be pointed to by Rick Dalton watching himself on TV. Notably, it is his first film with a female lead, who also happens to be his youngest as well. And for once, the protagonist is not faced with having to change and adapt, it is the environment around her that is shown to be mired in stasis.

Ellie Taylor (Thomasin McKenzie), in the tradition of several Wright heroes, is living with the loss of her mother, made particularly painful in that the parent took her own life, as opposed to dying in accidents as Baby Miles' in BABY DRIVER or Danny Butterman's in HOT FUZZ, or being dispatched after zombie infection as Shaun's in SHAUN OF THE DEAD. However, the girl regularly senses her presence in mirrors, a mixed gift which alternately gives the comfort of feeling the absent parent is witnessing her still but leaves her worrying if she too will succumb to the same emotional turmoil that drove that end-of-life decision. When she moves to Soho, and embarks on a path of dream-state journeys with her Swinging Sixties avatar Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), Ellie receives physical sensations of the experiences, driving her to investigate if they're based in real events. And after an initial run of piquant encounters, the increasingly bleak and violent turns of Sandie's circumstance bleeds into Ellie's waking consciousness too, making her sense threats around her even she's in no outwardly perceivable danger. Effectively, her concerns about subsuming her mother's psychosis have now been replaced by inheriting the mounting paranoia of a kindred spirit and fearing that she too will be consumed by that darkness. To paraphrase an otherwise tired cliche, once you've been struck down like a nail, everything that comes at you looks like a hammer.

In short, if there were a giallo-appropriate alternate title for this tale, it should be The Girl Who Felt Too Much. The same internal chemistry that buoys her when she listens to '60s Britpop is what inspires embarrassment when her mother's energy is present, making her lie to her grandmother about how recently she's had the sensations. When initially thrust into a a clique of Mean Girls, she can't just blow off their catty insults or ignore the noise they make; it's directly injurious. Yet in the deceptively quiet confines of the quaint bed-sit she moves to, in the absence of people and cacophony, she ingests the energy of lingering memories that only near the end, she realizes were indeed based in reality; the life of her outwardly taciturn landlady...Alexandra Collins (Diana Rigg). Like Ellie, she too had pendulum swings of elation and paralyzing fear, but somehow Ellie never realized that Sandie resolved that problem by killing everyone who threatened her...because that's when Sandie stopped feeling anything anymore.

If you can't tell your sister
If you can't tell a priest
'Cause it's so deep you don't think that you can speak about it
To anyone
And you tell it to your heart?
Can you find it in your heart
To let go of these feelings
Like a bell to a Southerly wind?
We could be like two strings beating
Speaking in sympathy

Different viewers have been gleaning different themes from the film, mostly about the dangers of the big city, or of romanticizing the past. But these readings seem facile. Yes, London may be an overwhelming place for a sensitive "country mouse" as Ellie, but as Gary King might attest, small towns are just as capable of callous behavior since they tend to be the kind of place where everyone knows your business and has an unsolicited opinion about it, regardless of whether or not they have been absorbed into a giant alien consciousness. While the nightmare sequences well demonstrate how the surface image of smashing birds cavorting on Carnaby St. disguised how many women's throats were under the heels of Beatle boots, the present day sequences involving a creepy cabbie, space invading male students, and indifferent police, make it clear that not only has the misogyny not gone away, it's even more blatantly out in the open. Even when retired vice squad punter Lindsay (Terence Stamp) is revealed to be roughly benign, he is hardly a model of chivalry: telling Sandie in the midst of her sex work that "you're better than this," without offering any sort of direct route to that mythical better opportunity, is not the compliment he thinks it is, and the condescending tone he takes in conversation with Ellie suggests his attitude toward women may not be malicious, but it's not nuanced either. And for a vulnerable girl in any incarnation of the city, getting people to take them seriously when they claim powerful men have abused them is often met with as much resistance and ridicule as, well, claiming to possess paranormal capabilities.

However, people suggesting that Wright has made an opportunistic "#metoo" story are neglecting that in all his major works, the comedy may have the appearance of "lads being lads," but there's always been criticism of that mindset. Baby Miles Driver is often too clever for his own good, his impulses to show off in the face of threatening parties puts those he ostensibly cares about further in harm's way; even with all the people who vouch for his integrity, he's still going to have to do that prison sentence to get some perspective. When Scott Pilgrim meets Nega-Scott, and his antithesis offers to buy breakfast, it's pretty clear that the doppelganger was the "good" Scott all this time. Shaun may be easily distracted and Ed an enabler, but it is jealous jockeying by Liz's flatmate and unrequited lover David that brings the most cataclysmic battle of their zombie exodus. Danny Butterman ultimately stands up to the martinet classism, racism, and outsider demonization of his police chief father, but he and Nick employ the same militarized tactics to eliminate the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, and its hinted that much like the meme of a bomber plane painted with a rainbow flag, Sanford is going to have a more virtuous but not less violent police force. And Gary has found sobriety and consideration for others and asserted the worth of the individual (even alien clones), but he's forced the rest of mankind to return to hunter-gathering in the process. You could love all these men if you knew them in real life, but you would confess privately to those friends of yours whom they don't know that they're a handful.

In contrast, Ellie stands out not just by her youth and gender, but her willful reserves. She is still raw about losing her mother, but is secure in the knowledge she did not take her presence for granted like Shaun did, and unlike Danny, who has cocooned in childish police cosplay after his mom's passing, or Baby, whose tinnitus from a car accident may as well be mentally obscuring the memory of his mother's death throes, she presses onward with her goals. She must sometime retreat to herself when the world is hostile, but she has activated her self-respect a lot sooner than Scott Pilgrim has. Despite the mounting phalanx of horrors in her head, she soldiers through researching the forgotten crimes of the past, confronts the enigmatic Lindsay, and saves herself.

Thus, Wright and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns demonstrate that in many circumstances, women cannot and do not take the luxury of stewing in their sorrows like his other arrested adolescent characters. This is echoed in the grim descent of Sandie, in the cautions of Ellie's world-weary pub boss, even in the glint of sympathy and strength accorded to Ellie's outward nemesis Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen): admitting to a parental loss herself, her one-upmanship and over-it-all manner among her peers may well be projection of a personal pain she fears she should not admit to lest she be thought too weak and emotional too. It could be said that Jocasta is on the precipice of becoming a future Alexandra Collins, repressing her legitimate heartbreak in favor of callous bravado to survive, endangering her humanity. There's also an interesting parallel to Wilson-Cairns' previous screenplay credit of 1917 with Sam Mendes, where that film's two lance corporals are continuously attacked and injured, yet they must literally continue going forward or else they and thousands more will die. The bitter difference being that after two World Wars, the battle between the English and the Germans mostly ended, but the battle between the sexes has gotten more lethal.

Take away the love and the anger
And a little piece of hope holding us together
Looking for a moment that'll never happen
Living in the gap between past and future
Take away the stone and the timber
And a little piece of rope won't hold it together
We're building a house of the future together

But let us not allow the deep concepts being discussed here to overshadow that above all else, LAST NIGHT is a feast of luminous performers, gorgeous visuals, compelling set-pieces, and thoughtful connotations to a diverse body of songs and films that may not be readily familiar to its audience, raising awareness while remixing them to new effect. In a sense, it is the fulfillment of the possibilities offered in his exuberant fake trailer DON'T! from GRINDHOUSE in 2007. In fact, here there is a tip of the hat sent back to that ambitious Rodriguez/Tarantino project, in that deep cut pop band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, whose 1968 single provides the title of this film, was a passionate subject of debate for Sydney Tamiia Poitier's ill-fated D.J. Jungle Julia in DEATH PROOF, and Ellie's ghoulish dark-eyed Halloween party makeup recalls the haunting visage of Marley Shelton as Dr. Dakota Block in PLANET TERROR.

Casting choices for the supporting players are particularly astute, not just for their iconic status from the bygone era, but for the specific archetypes they represented therein. Rita Tushingham is most perfect to play Ellie's supporting grandmother, because in the same manner of Ellie's travails in the city, Tushingham's film roles included an interracial relationship in A TASTE OF HONEY, growing too enmeshed with a serial killer in STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, and coping with sexual distress brought through miscommunication in THE KNACK...AND HOW TO GET IT. She even starred in an Italian murder film (albeit comedic) called BLACK JOURNAL about female serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli. And after achieving immortality for playing a sexy heroine named homophonically for her M(ale) Appeal, Diana Rigg not only presents an elegant coda to her career by playing a Darkest Timeline version of what her life could have become, as the elderly, hardened Ms. Collins, but also a sly tribute to other past characters of hers from THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU and THEATRE OF BLOOD, that on the outside seemed harmless but harbored deadly secrets within.

For all the British kitchen sink dramas and European thrillers that Wright has declared as influences on SOHO in interviews and promotional videos, a title I have not yet seen discussed that feels like a very direct inspiration is Lucio Fulci's 1977 mystery SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK, released in America as THE PSYCHIC. In that film's screenplay, written by Roberto Gianviti and Dardano Sacchetti, the protagonist, Virginia, is first seen as an English teenager in an Italian boarding school, who visualizes and feels the pains of her mother's suicide in Dover as it happens in real time, and then, as an adult (Jennifer O'Neill) in an otherwise pleasant marriage, is haunted by recurring visions - a deconstructed wall, a smashed mirror, a dead body - that suggest a killing has taken place in a mansion purchased by her wealthy husband Francesco (Gianni Garko). Against the disbelief of others, she investigates on her own, and the revelations initially contradict her claims - a dead body is found, but not the one she saw, a magazine was not yet published when the murder took place, etc - but soon she realizes she has not seen a past event, but a future one. What she does not figure out until too late is that the event is her own murder. Fulci had envisioned the film as a story about challenging fate, and whether it is even possible.

Ellie too is challenging fate throughout her entire odyssey. On a superficial level, the fate of being a small-town dreamer who can't hack it in the competitive field she aspires to join. On a personal level, the fate of being the daughter of a fatally depressed parent and potentially repeating the same fragility; a trajectory predicted by Jocasta within hours of meeting her. On a visceral level, the fate of being driven to madness by another woman's trauma. And then of course, the primary level of coming face to face with a murderer that wants Ellie to take her secrets to the grave.

The difference between Fulci and Wright's heroines is that unlike poor Virginia (her musical watch notwithstanding), Ellie succeeds in changing what would have been seen as inevitable. Not just that she survives the nightmare. She finds a balance for her sensitivity. London doesn't break her. Her artistic pursuits continue. Threats don't make her cower. And in a most poignant turn, she even changes the fate of Alexandra Collins: rather than watch her commit suicide in a state of self-loathing, Ellie intervenes and demonstrates that she has born witness to the promise and ache of young Sandie, she is that one person that understood her and what was lost so many years ago to a band of predators. Ms. Collins will have to face a fiery, lacerating death for the lives she ended, but she knows now, in her final moments, in the memory of one girl, she will not die as a monster.

In years to come, Ellie Turner may not become a popular cosplay subject like other Edgar Wright heroes, but her instincts for empathy, adventure, discovery, justice, and trusting in even the aspects of herself that others would mock, may well make her something better for the random distressed soul who sits down to watch LAST NIGHT IN SOHO for a little distraction: an understanding surrogate. Someone Sandie never had. Someone too many sweet souls of the past never had. 

Well, if it's so deep you don't think that you can speak about it
Just remember to reach out and touch the past and the future
Well, if it's so deep you don't think you can speak about it
Don't ever think that you can't change the past and the future

You might not, not think so now
But just you wait and see, someone will come to help you

- Kate Bush, "Love and Anger"

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Once Upon a the Hot Summer

A preface: before I even mention the name of the person whose life experience will be discussed in this essay, I can hear an army of reply guys assembling, ready to volley several “Well, actually...” disputations to the details herein. As a historian, one should be capable of sussing out the messy nuances that binary thinking cannot accommodate, thus I’ve determined which testimonies in the public record can be taken as trustworthy, and which need to be dismissed. As the late Robert Evans pithily said, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. And nobody is lying.”

In several interviews given to coincide with the release of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD in 2019, writer/director Quentin Tarantino frequently expounded on general topics that influenced the movie – actors, seminal movies, historical events – but also stressed his own personal relationship to its setting of Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, when he was six years old, and how that perspective would impact the production. In an extended chat with Kim Morgan, he stated the following:

[The] jumping-off point was going to be my memory – as a six-year old sitting in the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Karmann Ghia. And even that shot, that kind of looks up at Cliff as he drives by the Earl Scheib, and all those signs, that’s pretty much my perspective, being a little kid…as a little kid – and probably now too, but especially as a little kid – you see what you want to see. You throw the things you don’t care about out of focus and you throw sharp focus on the things you care about – so… I’m looking out the window and see Los Angeles out in front of me and I’m being more selective about what I’m looking at...And so, in doing a memory piece, I create that landscape.

Tarantino details to Morgan that the films that most shaped his vision were Paul Mazursky’s BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE, his follow-up ALEX IN WONDERLAND, and Frank Perry’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, and as such, these were what he showed the cast in preparation of shooting. Several other titles occasionally would be name checked for providing individual bits of color to the effort as well. However, there is another film, previously cited by the director in the past as a particular favorite of its genre, which has never been mentioned in conjunction with OUATIH, yet, in its own way, carries very striking parallels to the memory mandate lain out before, especially in how its crucial architect (if not its actual captain) chose to memorialize a place and a moment of history…

For roughly one week in late July, 1967, Detroit was engulfed in violence that began with what would have been an ordinary shakedown raid on a black-owned after-hours bar, which led to multiple instances of confrontations with protesters and looting, an excessive and militarized response by government authorities, a horrifying set of murders at the Algiers Hotel committed by police under questionable justification, along with a child killed in her family’s apartment by sniper fire, and federal troops occupying the city by orders of the Governor and the President. When it was declared over, 43 people were dead, 1,189 had been injured, police arrested 7,200 citizens, and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

Gail Parmentier was 12 years old and safely ensconced an hour northeast in Port Huron, living in a conservative Catholic household with a father serving as the county’s superintendent of schools, and four stereotypical jock brothers, when these events were taking place in Detroit. According to the 2010 census, the city was still an 84.0% White population, and logic dictates it would have been even higher back then. But growing up in a city that, in its origin, had been Ojibwa territory until they were forcibly removed by the United States government, and the only site in Michigan where, in 1889, an African-American was lynched, she was not insulated from a legacy of racist brutality. And something about those events in Detroit heavily impacted the adolescent, staying in her consciousness as she otherwise went about joining the spirit squad and the student council in her teens.

As she recounted to AP writer Harry Atkins in 1976, Parmentier’s initially staid trajectory of high school to college to marriage veered off track significantly in 1974 when, during her freshman year at Western Michigan University, she made her first contact with the adult film world. “I had a girlfriend who was dating a guy who managed an adult theatre in Kalamazoo. He was supposed to have had [Cyndee Summers] on hand to sign autographs one day. Well, [she] didn’t show, and he asked us if we’d fill in and fake it – pretend we were the girls in the porn film. We really needed the money, so we said we’d do it.” The signing was a relative success, and it put her into the orbit of the theatre’s owner, Harry Mohney, the state’s most powerful provider of adult entertainment. 

Before he met Gail Parmentier, Harry Mohney had already been a teen runaway, spent a year in reform school after pleading guilty to breaking and entering, married, and kicked around several jobs before finding his niche in operating theatres, drive-ins, and bookstores devoted to erotic entertainment, beginning with one in Saginaw in 1966, to running over 100 locations in 10 states by 1973. Mohney was beginning to contemplate direct involvement in the films that would play his nationwide circuit; the first credit affirmatively tied to him as executive producer (under the alias “Harry Dracma”) was DEVIL’S ECSTASY, a Los Angeles-based project originally initiated as a straight horror film in 1972 under the title SABBAT, but reformatted into a porn film before its release in 1976. Ironically, it starred Cyndee Summers, the actress Parmentier was asked to impersonate in her first job for him. Upon meeting this co-ed pretender in 1974, Mohney was quickly smitten with the 18 year-old, and in short order, courted her, left his wife, made her his longtime companion, and coaxed her to transfer to Michigan State in Lansing, where she was installed as a manager at his Cinema X theatre, one of several he owned. Her whimsical impersonation of Summers would be the first of several instances where she would be providing a cover story for her new boyfriend. 

A year later, tiring of grueling negotiations over booking terms with outside producers, Mohney was ready to proceed with making his own film. He had already optioned a 1972 pulp novel, BLACK ABDUCTOR, by pseudonymous author Harrison James (later revealed to be science fiction writer James Rusk Jr.), a lurid potboiler about an heiress kidnapped by Black radicals that so uncannily predicted several details of the Patty Hearst/SLA affair in 1974 (beginning with the main character being named Patricia), the FBI tracked down and interrogated the author thinking he’d been involved in the case. However, Mohney did not particularly care for the story, and recruited an acquaintance using the alias “T. James Write” to concoct a new screenplay using the same premise of a girl abducted by a gang without the plot points of the novel. There would ultimately be an official film adaptation of BLACK ABDUCTOR made around the same time, under the title ABDUCTION, directed by Joseph Zito, who would later make FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and INVASION U.S.A., and shot by João Fernandes, who had previously operated camera on two of the most famous adult films of all time, DEEP THROAT and THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES.

Parmentier, now using the professional name Gail Palmer, had been present for all of Mohney’s activity, and when his project was assembled, she reached back into her teenage experience to make a narrative contribution that would significantly distance it from the Patty Hearst allusions, and construct it into something much more personal. “I wrote HOT SUMMER [IN THE CITY] when I was in high school. It was a real heavy story which I was impelled to write after the Detroit race riots. That was in 1967. I added the sex later, much later,” she told Charles Faber in an interview for The Advocate on March 22, 1979. After adding her material to the existing T. James Write screenplay, Palmer then made his plan viable by using her MSU student status to borrow the school’s 16mm equipment for shooting, and by recruiting amateur striptease performers from live shows she supervised at Cinema X for the cast, along with non-professionals from her college who were also interested in acting. “The students thought I was kidding, but I convinced them they could make $200 a day. They changed their names, every one of them, so their parents wouldn’t find out. My girlfriend, who was my roommate, was the star; she used the name Lisa Baker. The student body was liberal, and most came to see the film. And they were curious to see if they knew any of the actors. HOT SUMMER had to cause a lot of excitement; it was the first porno film made in Michigan.” Mohney supplied a holiday cottage he owned in Kalkaska as the primary location, and the project was shot over the summer of 1975.

HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY depicts the odyssey of Debbie, a suburban girl about to marry, over two unspecified days in July 1967, before the Detroit riots commence. Upon returning from an engagement party (and refusing to have premarital sex with her betrothed), she is horrified to find her mother in a three-way with her fiancée’s father and another male friend. And shortly after fleeing her home, she is abducted by Duke, an ostensible Black agitator, and his three friends. After an initial violation in their car, she is taken to an isolated cabin, where the men are awaiting a meeting with “The Man,” and is subjected to more humiliations, though Duke frequently attempts to intervene in his gang’s desire to take advantage of her. When the white criminal fixer arrives the following day, with Duke’s previous girlfriend Jody in tow, he pays the gang $20,000 to create a distraction that is intended to draw police and fire departments to the scene, who in turn will be fired upon by hired snipers, with the ensuing escalation of chaos intended to allow local merchants to commit insurance fraud under pretense of riot damage. In the hours before the gang is to initiate the uprising, the tensions fostered by Debbie’s presence will divide the gang, leading to personal violence before the political violence can take place.

When their production was ready for release in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, not only did Mohney create false details for the onscreen credits, he also crafted one huge one for the press. In an article in Macleans published in May that year, Mohney had been nicknamed as one of “The Shy Pornographers” because of his constant avoidance of the limelight, as police trying to shut down adult entertainment desperately wanted to connect him to the product but never could. However, he was already being prosecuted in other cities: he was held liable by a Kentucky court for playing DEEP THROAT at his Covington Cinema X location at the time. So it was certainly in his best interests to stay in the shadows. Thus, a charm offensive was launched where he elevated Palmer, a likeable female, as the overall author of merit, on this film and more to follow, though some industry-savvy people surely saw the directorial credit for “The Hare” and deduced it was Harry Mohney’s alias, since “Hare” was short for Harry, and he owned the shadow production company, Imperial Films. For several personal appearances, print and TV interviews, and cross-promotions, she was presented as the woman behind The Hare, which certainly carries ironic truth. Longtime adult director Bob Chinn, who was on the camera crew of the subsequent films credited to Palmer, described the arrangement in his memoir THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, VOL. 2:

Their front person for company was Harry’s girlfriend at the time, an attractive and bright young lady named Gail Palmer, who had been credited as the director of a film they had made in Michigan [as] well as two of their subsequent features THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF CANDY and CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. But the true credit for the direction of these films should probably go to Harry...the powers-that-be [firmly] believed that a sexy, attractive female filmmaker and producer would [bring] in a larger audience to their films and I found that I couldn’t fault their reasoning one bit so I cheerfully decided to go along with it...Our deal stipulated that Gail Palmer would be credited as the producer and, if they chose, as the director on all of the films that I did for [them]. It was an arrangement that sounded fine since credits on these films really didn’t mean all that much to me.

Quentin Tarantino’s fandom of HSITC became public knowledge shortly after a semi-clandestine screening during his 6th programming block at the original Austin, Texas Alamo Drafthouse on September 15, 2005; due to local blue laws, the film title was not advertised, and for legal purposes, was presented as a four-walled event by the Austin Film Society and not the theatre itself. A pseudonymous audience member in attendance wrote, “In his intro, QT talked about how he really didn't like porn at all. He got a job at the Pussycat theater when he was 16 and was an usher there for some time, not to mention his years at a video store putting him in constant contact with the stuff...He said he was such a non-fan that he couldn't even remember the few he ever saw which he didn't think were bad, which is really saying something because over the course of the week we've heard him remember the name of pretty much every movie that's ever existed and become obscure. BUT, he says, the box art of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY finally won him over one night and the movie quickly became his by-far favorite [adult film].” 

In an essay for the Literary Hub offshoot website CrimeReads, writer Olivia Rutigliano observed:

[In] ONCE UPON A TIME, “childhood” is a deliberate theme. The film begins with an evocation of an audience of children, featuring an early-60s interview on the Bounty Law ranch set, with Rick and Cliff explaining how stunts work...The film’s two scariest, most ominous moments, ultimately reveal that this era’s entertainment, and corresponding childhood innocence, is effectively gone. The counterculture movement—which, for this film’s purpose, has turned teenagers into monsters and murderers—has fully overtaken the culture. Cliff goes to Spahn Movie Ranch (brought there by a hippie who insists that she is not a minor and can therefore have sex with him, though he won’t listen—this alternate Hollywood will not harm a child). Spahn Ranch is the defunct set where he and Rick used to film Bounty Law, but Cliff discovers it’s been taken over by the Manson family commune—a horde of squalid, unwashed adolescents, bedraggled and pretending to be self-sufficient in this sinister desert Neverland that was once a dream-factory...When the Manson family members pull up in their rattling old car to Cielo Drive to commit murder at the behest of Charles Manson, they are stopped in their tracks by Rick Dalton, himself...Remembering how much they used to love his seems like they might climb out of their hypnotic detestation...But one of the young women doesn’t remember [his show], and she directs them back to the dark task at hand, with an anecdote about how they have been poisoned by this generation of television. “Let’s kill the people who taught us to kill,” she says...The conflict is a literalization of the culture war—with the counterculture actually turning against the mainstream. 

Thus, while Tarantino as an adult surely has a substantially nuanced understanding of the late ‘60s counterculture, it is easy to speculate how, as a child, witnessing this conflict without this context, while being presented the last vestiges of square-jawed heroism in the popular media, the battles of the Generation Gap looked frightening. After all, the cops, the cowboys, the Army men, they were the good guys, right? They look like all the dads I know. Why were all these people in the weird clothes angry at them?

In spiritual tandem, befitting an idea that was conceived in adolescence, and coming from someone who likely grew up not having any significant exposure to Black people in her formative years, while being raised by conservative Catholic parents who probably meant well but likely made disparaging remarks about minorities or told racist jokes or warned her not to go to certain parts of town where “dangerous” people congregated, Palmer’s emotional ingredients in the HSITC storyline help make the film feel appropriately like the kind of hyperbolic nightmare fantasy a sheltered young white girl living in a cultural bubble might conjure up after seeing the riots on TV or in the newspaper. At one point, during her captivity and abuse, she bleats, “I’ve tried to help...I marched and everything,” desperate to understand why these Black men seem to have a personal vendetta against her, as she believes has spent her formative years being a good, wholesome person. In further connectivity, Duke's gang exhibits the same sort of blind and almost listless groupthink of the Manson acolytes at the Spahn ranch, engaging in behavior explicitly forbidden when their leader Duke is around in the same way the Mansonites steal a look at television when Charlie is away.

While the movie does not take the enormous liberties with the history of July 1967 that OUATIH employs with August 9th, 1969, it does engage in a certain amount of fancy with those events. When the gang arrive at the cabin, idle conversation conveys that it is a Wednesday night, and that their planned uprising is to take place on Friday, which would put it ahead of when it actually arose, in the morning hours of Sunday, July 23rd. Some viewers may be confused when characters talk about “last summer’s war,” which is referencing the lesser-remembered “Kercheval Incident” of August 11, 1966, when a group at the corner of Kercheval and Pennsylvania refused a police order to disperse, leading to three days of rioting. “The Man” that employs Duke and his gang describes for them how they are to create a distraction at the corner of Woodward and Clairmount. There’s no documentation that any agent provocateurs were involved with any incidents during the week of riots. A night spot called the Clair Wood Bar had stood at that intersection, but that was not the after-hours bar raided by the police, which was a block away at Clairmount and 12th St. Ultimately, Debbie's presence is not intended to alter any of the events that will take place during that intense week of clashes; instead it sets her up as a Cassandra to them, her blank demeanor at film’s end suggesting she knows that these men who snatched her in a fit of pique will not survive this incident, and her personal feeling of bleak revelation is going to be the reaction for thousands more as it unfolds in real history.

A particularly piercing feature of HSITC that has made it stand apart from other adult movies, and provides it uncanny kinship with OUATIH, is its prominent use of Top 40 hits of the 1960s, bracketed by what appear to be actual d.j. introductions and back-announcements by Steve Hunter, Mike Rivers, and other personalities from Detroit/Windsor radio station CKLW 800 AM, in its heyday referred to as "The blackest white station in America." Besides the expectedly jarring sensation of hearing recognizable songs underscoring sexually explicit material, there are some deep cut tracks in play – The Five Americans’ “Zip Code” and Martha and the Vandellas “Love Bug Leave Me Alone”- that were regional more than national favorites, and the diegetic placements are often used for mordant commentary - “Light My Fire” plays as Debbie rebuffs her fiancee’s advances, “Everlasting Love” is heard while she is experiencing the exact opposite of such a thing, and in a juxtaposition too grim to not be intentional, as she is being whipped with a belt, a d.j. declares, “The hits just keep on comin’!” When “The Man” appears in the second half and the radio stays off, the music shifts to non-diegetic instrumental cues, many of which appear to also be lifted from mainstream films – one of them is Quincy Jones’ main titles theme for the 1970 Peter Yates drama JOHN AND MARY. While this music supervision was never addressed in any press for HSITC, Tarantino offers a fair equivalent insight about how these choices can be made in his Kim Morgan interview for OUATIH, particularly apropos since both KHJ and CKLW used the “Boss Radio” format:

But one of the things that was interesting to me in listening to the KHJ recordings was the fact that KHJ had a sound, the way the 80s KROQ had a sound, and then other radio stations tried to buy that sound, they tried to take that format and do it in other cities...their Top 40 wasn’t just exactly based on Billboard. It was a mixture of Billboard, it was a mixture of what people called up and would request, it was a mixture of what the DJs liked, and just a mixture of what they thought was good for the KHJ sound...And I realized there’s a whole lot of songs [like] the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man” – it didn’t go national, but it did really well in Los Angeles and probably a few other markets...I wanted to play [The Box Tops’] “Sweet Cream Ladies” so much but the only place that I figured it could work – but it’s just too obvious – is when the Manson girls walk in front of their windshield. OK, but I might as well be playing “Baby Elephant Walk” at that point – I don’t like songs being on the money.

Adding one more bit of serendipity between the two films is that Mohney commissioned an expanded novelization of the final HSITC screenplay (again credited to “The Hare,” authorship currently unknown but probably “T. James Write” as well), which was “on sale at bookstores everywhere” concurrently with the film’s release, and Tarantino, spurred by his own love of the characters and by fan speculations during OUATIH’s first run, wrote an expanded novelization of his screenplay, just published in this summer of 2021. Granted, plenty of movies of all types have novelizations, but it is generally rare to have the actual creators of those films actively taking a role in the making of what would generally have been considered a mere supplementary marketing product.

There has not been any discussion or other overt indication by Tarantino in any of the press before or after the release of OUATIH that he included HSITC among the dozens of films and other cultural totems that influenced his writing of the screenplay or his execution of the finished feature. However, the surprising number of parallels between the two films -- their inspiration from childhood memory of sociopolitical turmoil, their extrapolation of that naiveté into their stories, their authors unusual early introduction to the adult entertainment business, the use of period music and radio airchecks as dramatic counterpoint, some rewriting of the past, and the controversial reception of those films after their release -- nonetheless makes for one of the unlikeliest and fascinating instances of innovative minds thinking alike.

In the benefit of hindsight, since before the Cyndee Summers stunt and meeting Harry Mohney, as Gail Palmer told a Courier-Journal reporter in 1978, “I’d never had any sexual experiences or anything,” HSITC further functions as a metaphor for the disputed creator's complicated feelings about becoming intimate with this older, worldlier man with questionable ethics, with the shifting behavior of Duke from aggressor to protector standing in for her mentor and lover. Much like Debbie's shock and disgust at the hypocrisy of her upbringing, where her mother is practicing a “do as I say not as I do” stance about sexual behavior, Palmer was a metaphorical babe in the woods when she was swept up into his world, albeit more willingly than her onscreen surrogate. In Palmer’s early interviews, she expounds about her fascination with adult movies and recognition of what benefits others draw from them, while admitting to not enjoying the majority of them herself, and to an extent, Debbie’s frightening initiation into the rough and callous attitudes of her captors can be read as a creative reinterpretation of her real-life discoveries in Mohney's enterprise. And while they were happily bonded during filming and for several years after, her early screenplay eerily predicts the bleak end of that relationship: much like the end of the film, where Duke leaves Debbie behind to live an uncertain future, Palmer and Mohney acrimoniously split in 1984, with Palmer losing all career momentum, and at one point applying for welfare while her name was still being used in advertising as a sales point.

The Palmer/Mohney union was not only a mixed blessing on a personal level, but has forever complicated her legacy in the years since its dissolution, with the turning point being the moment when, as a witness for the IRS against her estranged partner in his trial for tax fraud (and a concurrent palimony case seeking half the revenue earned from the projects they did together), she testified under oath that she did not direct the movies that, for years in the press, she had been credited with, including HSITC. (Let the record show she was never asked about her writing contributions.) From this, many, including her would-be ghostwriter, have used this to dismiss her as nothing more than an empty vessel front for her rich boyfriend. A more nuanced assessment would be that during their relationship, Mohney wanted to make more films, Palmer came up with stories for them, and people such as Bob Chinn were brought in to do the actual blocking of actors and shot plotting. Mohney likely encouraged Palmer to call herself the director not just for promotional window dressing, but also to envelope his young and impressionable paramour into co-dependency, The subterfuge would not just help him keep a low profile, but by alternately financing her ventures and boosting her ego, while insuring that as she’d never actually done an according-to-Hoyle directing job, she’d be unprepared to work independent of him, the arrangement would also keep her bound to him. Palmer detailed for Gannett Newspapers in 1990 that, “Officially [Harry] was a non-person. He never wanted his name on anything – no credit cards, no bank accounts...That’s why I never thought seriously about getting paid for the movies. It would entail agreements, paperwork. I knew how he was about records.”   

In the specific circumstances of determining who did what on HSITC...Palmer talks in enough detail about the genesis of the movie on several occasions, in different ways, that one can reason that this is not data she was “coached” on by anyone. Moreover, “T. James White” and Palmer would collaborate on the screenplay for CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, thus it is a plausible scenario that the final shooting script for HSITC was a joint effort as well. In the 1990 Gannett interview, it is mentioned that a local TV cameraman was brought onto the production to handle the film stock, so the cinematographer hiding as “R. Leonard Hughes a.s.p.” is probably responsible for the staging. Palmer’s short-lived second career as a rock-n-roll performer, with documented performances with the band “Fourplay,” suggests that she is significantly responsible for the song choices and their placement in the film; Mohney had creative goals, but would have been more practical business-minded than to hijack major label pop songs, that kind of brazen moxie is akin to a younger person like his girlfriend. Again, rather than adhere to an all-or-nothing ethos in the matter of Gail Palmer, a “little of column A, little of column B” conclusion in determining how much can be rightfully assigned to her is the best resolution.

While both Gail Palmer and Harry Mohney, and possibly most of the anonymous individuals who participated in the making of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY, are still alive, none of them have come forward to talk at length about the film since Mohney’s four year imprisonment for tax fraud, and Palmer’s abandoned attempts at publishing an autobiography. And unlike the Detroit riots of 1967 or the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, the true story may never be known for sure.

What is known and verifiable is that two children of the late ‘60s, each unable to fully grasp the magnitude of the events they witnessed in their youth, went on to work in adult theatres in the last years of their adolescence, wrote stories based on those experiences, integrated the songs and radio personalities of that time into those tales, played with the facts for dramatic effect, and saw them turned into impactful films (and books) that will continue to be hotly debated years after their release.

(Huge thanks to Joe Rubin, Martin Brooks, and Ashley West for providing valuable insider information on the production history and personal details of the talent involved with HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY.)

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Movie About The Song That Once Said Something New

It’s been said that before there was the printed word, songs and poetry carried stories to the people for centuries. One learned of ancestral tales and current events through verses and chorus. Then when the printed word allowed for printed music, the symbiotic relationship continued. And when motion pictures allowed for stories to be told with concurrent visuals, one of the first instincts was to reach to pre-existing pop songs to create them. Warner Bros. initially launched the “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” animated shorts to serve as prototypical music videos for the songs in their Warner-Chappell publishing catalog. The earliest films of American sweetheart Doris Day were often constructed from entries of The Great American Songbook – MY DREAM IS YOURS, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, ON MOONLIGHT BAY, BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON, YOUNG AT HEART, and more.

Entering into the tail end of the ‘80s, pop song needle-drops became one of the most important elements in entertainment. AMERICAN GRAFFITI, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and PURPLE RAIN became legendary not only for compelling drama but for wall-to-wall music placement. Smaller movies that would otherwise have had marginal box office appeal gained extra promotion and longevity through radio-friendly theme tunes. Soundtracks dominated the Billboard Top100 Album chart. And after years of using cheap cover versions on random occasions, TV shows got serious and integrated music supervision using original recordings by original artists into the process after “MIAMI VICE” became destination television thanks to its striking use of pop songs as score.

It was within this climate that an energetic record company promoter/operator and a gig-hopping musician/producer decided to tap into this symbiotic circumstance. A.J. Cervantes had been a Regional Director of Promotion for Casablanca Records, pushing the earliest Donna Summer and Kiss singles, and the founder of dance music label Butterfly, whose roster included Saint Tropez, who recorded a disco cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime (Moi non plus).” Ron Altbach had been a founding member of King Harvest, famous for the 1972 lite rock hit “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and a frequent collaborator with The Beach Boys in the late ‘70s, writing and producing songs for the group, and playing in a Mike Love-fronted side band Celebration, who recorded the title theme for Martin Davidson’s 1978 teen comedy ALMOST SUMMER. The longtime friends had launched a new label, Destiny Records, in 1981, and as music video demand dramatically increased with the launch of MTV, they linked the company to an existing firm, Mediacom, who were producing clips and concert specials. And after a solid run of small-scale product, they took an ambitious step upward...

You've heard the song, now see the movie: A California-based company called Mediacom Industries is making a string of low-budget films titled after popular songs. For about $ 2 million each, it has already shot "House of the Rising Sun" and "Hot Child in the City," is now finishing "Nights in White Satin" and is in the planning stages for "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Fire and Rain." These won't be 90-minute rock videos, swear the folks at Mediacom, who prefer to dub the pictures "music-driven films." Most will include the original versions of the songs they're named after, though they'll obviously have to toy with plot lines to turn three verses and a chorus into a full-length narrative. "House of the Rising Sun," for example, is about a female reporter investigating the world of expensive prostitutes. "Hot Child in the City" follows an innocent Kansas youngster to Los Angeles to look into her sister's murder. So far, none of the movies has a distribution deal.

- from wire news report published in The Washington Post, September 16, 1986.

This initial three-picture slate assembled a curious mix of young technicians from Mediacom’s music video activities and some grizzled veterans of television production dating back to the fifties to create the films, with generally experienced but not name-recognizable talent to act in them. In effect, producers Cervantes and Altbach were trying the same retrofitting strategy as WB likely did with their cartoons and Doris Day vehicles: find a familiar evocative song title, come up with a story that it could plausibly anchor, pour through a catalog of other available tracks and see which ones can provide justifiable dramatic placement, and shoot it quickly in a specific part of Los Angeles, giving all three films a sort of uniform aesthetic. In addition, while released to video unrated, with occasional topless moments and plots involving racy behavior, they were chaste enough that their cassette releases stated, “Suitable for broadcast in all media; parental supervision suggested,” ready to adapt to the strictures of any potential country’s low threshold for sex, or what is derisively referred to today as “Amazon Prime Erotica” or “PG-13 porn.”

Eight months later, in May 1987, the trusted independent video label Prism Entertainment announced their partnership with Mediacom (and their California Limited Partnership company Music Video Associates) to release the trio to all media. The budgets for the first three films were cited as between $1.8 million -$2.5 million, likely a combined total for the entire trilogy. While Prism promised a theatrical release in advance of cable and home video availability, no record can be found of any American playdates, and while shot on film, all the entries are clearly edited on standard definition tape with videoburned credits, and seem to adhere to a 1.33 composition, so that claim was likely either wishful thinking at best or outright ballyhoo to gin up video store buyers’ interest, since being able to tout “Direct from Theatrical Release!” was considered a selling point. Prism also reiterated Mediacom’s plans of two more movies to come, this time titled “Blue Suede Shoes” and “September Song.”

Viewing these films in the present day, they are definitely time capsules of their zeitgeist. And considering the ‘80s are still of great fascination to people who were born so long after that time it would be as far away to them as, say, watching The Bowery Boys would be to a ‘70s grade schooler, they’re pretty entertaining on a prime level of anthropological stimulation. All three movies focus on female protagonists and have plots reminiscent of soap operas and Harlequin novels (additional producer and contributing writer Giovanna Nigro-Chacon had previously worked on the syndicated series “ROMANCE THEATRE” hosted by Louis Jordan), so there is a canny appeal to couples rather than just men. More importantly, despite producers trying to impose a template on all of them, by the nature of the parties that made them, there is a vibe and personality to each that makes them interesting beyond just serving as retro eye candy. While the details are subject to a fudge factor, they are being reviewed in their ostensible pattern of release in the second half of 1987 – the year that I started college, Rick Astley released “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the first National Coming Out Day took place, and KFC opened up in China…

Release: VHS street date not located; HBO debut September 16, 1987

Plot: While staging a fashion shoot in one of downtown L.A.’s dormant loading docks, successful but restless photographer Jordan (Kip Gilman) spots a bedraggled homeless girl (Priscilla Harris) who walks through the area, who piques his interest. Tracking her down at a local shelter, he learns her name is Lisa, and entreats her to come pose for him. She ends up crashing at his home studio, and after some awkward attempts at communication, agrees to apprentice under him. The more he discovers about her life, including her long-dormant love of dance, the more he is motivated to detach from his superficial work. But leaving behind familiar environments is difficult for them both.

Creators: Writer William Kronick worked mostly in documentary programming, writing and producing several works for George Plimpton and The Wolper Organization along with behind the scenes looks at movie stunts, plus occasional second unit direction on the Dino DeLaurentiis productions of KING KONG and FLASH GORDON. Director Michael Barnard, doing double duty as editor, was significantly younger than Kronick, and operated a digital production/post-production company, LightningBolt PIX, along with being a frequent collaborator of outsider director Avery Crounse, editing his films EYES OF FIRE and SISTER ISLAND, and directing several videos for Motown. This would be his only narrative fiction film, sticking to directing documentary projects and other tech work, and continuing to keep a foot in the music world, serving as sound editor for Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” video.

Cast: Kip Gilman starred in a string of several one-season shows for CBS, including “JESSICA NOVAK” with Helen Shaver, before lucking into a supporting role on “TRAPPER JOHN M.D.” during their 1986 season. He also headlined William Fruet’s surprise hit thriller BEDROOM EYES. And in serendipity to the music-oriented origins of this film, he appeared in one of the best-loved episodes of CBS’ 1986 revival of “THE TWILIGHT ZONE,” “Nightsong” with Lisa Eilbacher, which took its name from the Crosby Stills Nash & Young track. Priscilla Harris has been a resident dancer on Lorenzo Lamas’ synicated music show “DANCIN’ TO THE HITS,” and after a few other credits, left acting to start a dance/fitness studio in Seattle. Kim Waltrip, who plays a predatory model named Stevie, is now a producer/director, with THE DISAPPAREANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY among her credits.

Influence: Its structure of a diffident artist being stirred by a troubled muse definitely declares an attempt at making a subdued remake of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s BETTY BLUE. Its frequent use of neon colors and often barren, starkly furnished rooms suggests Beineix’s previous breakout hit, DIVA.

Song usage: “Nights in White Satin” shows up 2/3 into the movie at an appropriately pivotal moment: when Lisa goes to the roof of Jordan’s studio at dawn to dance about, and they finally kiss. Most of the other tracks either tap into the glam climate - “Obsession,” Art of Noise’s cover of “Peter Gunn,” “Don Quichotte (No Están Aquí)” - or augment onscreen action – Pat Benatar’s “Sex As a Weapon,” “My Sharona,” “Lay Your Hands on Me.” Amusingly, the video trailer to promote it uses “Rock the Casbah,” which is nowhere to be found in the film.

Reactions: Since Kronick as writer has a documentary background, his insights on the homeless have slightly more accuracy than the average John L. Sullivan screenplay, but it still smacks of typical “O their nobility!” romanticism. Harris recognizes this is her swing for the fences, and throws herself into making her otherwise stock character gritty and believable; she doesn’t speak a word until 29 minutes into the movie, so she does a better than average job keeping our fascination through her facial expressions and behavior up to that point. I think hers is the best acting to be found in the series. And I rather liked the social activist bent of the story’s resolution.

Release: VHS street date October 6, 1987

Plot: Kansas-dwelling Rachel Wagner (Leah Ayres) comes to Hollywood to visit her high-living record executive sister Abby Wagner (Shari Shattuck). But after a disorienting night of clubbing with Abby’s client and frenemy Charon (Antony Alda), Abby is found dead in a dumpster. While Rachel sets about finding her sister’s killer, she also finds herself taking on aspects of Abby’s personality, which may well make her the next victim.

Creators: George Goldsmith wrote several genre favorites beforehand: the adaptation of Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN, FORCE: FIVE, and William Fruet’s BLUE MONKEY. John Florea had started out as a Life magazine photographer who became the unoffical chronicler of Marilyn Monroe early years, shooting several portraits of her from her debut in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE up to THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. When the legend switched to other photographers, Florea went into television, directing several shows and the occasional feature and Movie-of-the-Week over three decades. HOT CHILD would be his final credit, after which he retired to Las Vegas, where he passed in 2000 at age 84.

Cast: Shari Shattuck had a direct connection to MTV, playing the mystery blonde in 38 Special’s videos for “Caught Up In You” and “You Keep Running Away,” and appearing in THE NAKED CAGE, DEATH SPA, the ‘91 season of “DALLAS,” and the ‘99 season of “THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS;” she is still active presently, and is also writing mystery novels. Leah Ayres started out as a catalog model for Kenner Toys’ Darci doll before appearing in ALL THAT JAZZ and THE BURNING, and being a resident player on “THE EDGE OF NIGHT,” “NINE TO FIVE,” and “ST. ELSEWHERE.” In keeping with her origin in children’s play, she left acting to found the educational products firm Imaginazium. Antony Alda was the half-brother of Alan Alda, and appeared in one episode of “M*A*S*H” and a role in his comedy SWEET LIBERTY, along with other character parts, before passing away in 2009 at age 52.

Influence: While all the films that constitute the golden period of the “erotic thriller” would not yet come until after this movie wrapped production, Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay of JAGGED EDGE and its “is he or isn’t he” dynamic had already been a big hit. And its equating of dance spots as the playground of potential killers has its roots in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, CRUISING, and BODY DOUBLE.

Song usage: The opening credits get “Hot Child in the City” out of the way quickly, with the sisters driving around seeing all the pretty sights that would entrance a small-town girl. All the other tracks effectively convey the emotions of the scenes they underscore - “We Close Our Eyes,” “Eyes Without a Face,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” Fun Boy Three’s cover of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Flesh for Fantasy.” Also, since I am deducing that the club scenes were filmed at what had been the influential hotspot The Probe on 836 N. Highland, the song choices feel like they would have actually been heard there back in the day.

Reactions: This is clearly the best executed of the three films – the combined experience of the writer and director demonstrate they have polished instincts in plotting and staging. It’s pretty easy to figure out who the killer is, but it’s executed fairly enough and rather enhances the climax’s suspense. There’s lots of visual moments that are choice, like the colors the women garb themselves in, and an early scene when a poster of Shari reflects in the mirror that both her character Abby and then her sister are looking into. On the downside, the story is pathetically homophobic in presenting not one but two treacherous bisexual suspects, though despite his unrealistic presentation, Alda as the unstable fallen rock star Charon milks his role to the hilt so that it almost feels like he’s in on its ludicrousness. On the upside, it has an otherwise commendable sex-positive viewpoint: in a pivotal moment when the detective hurls slut-shaming language about Abby’s death, Rachel comes on to him, cuts him off abruptly, and tartly declares, “Women don’t get in trouble when they say yes; it’s when they say no.”

Release: VHS street date December 15, 1987

Plot: After a chance meeting in a bar, frustrated reporter Janet (Jamie Barrett) follows a lead from call girl Corey (Tawny Moyer) and goes undercover inside her palatial brothel to investigate the suspicious behavior of its sinister boss Louis (Frank Annese). Once embedded, Janet faces the twin risks of going all the way with her subterfuge, and whether she will be able to emerge with the truth of the house’s activities alive.

Creators: Producer Giovanna Nigro-Chacon, who along with the previously mentioned “ROMANCE THEATRE” series had a hand in the unusual 1977 NBC children’s series “THAT’S CAT,” shares screenplay credit with John Alan Schwartz, who wrote for several Glen A. Larson-produced TV series as “KNIGHT RIDER” and “THE FALL GUY,” but will ultimately be remembered for creating the infamous “mondo” documentary film series FACES OF DEATH. Director Greg Gold was among the founders of the influential production company Propaganda Films, along with future filmmakers David Fincher, Dominic Sena, and Nigel Dick, and producers Steve Golin and Sigurjon Sighvatsson; Propaganda would be responsible for several influential music videos and cult films. However, while he did several music videos and other projects after, this would be the only feature credit for Gold, who died in 2015 at age 64.

Cast: Leading lady Jamie Barrett seems to have only one other credit: Norman Thaddeus Vane’s drama CLUB LIFE starring Michael Parks, Tony Curtis and Kristine DeBell. Tawny Moyer was a former model who previously appeared in HALLOWEEN II It’s in the lower credits, however, that things get particularly interesting. Billed fifth is James Daughton, the immortal douche Greg Marmalard from ANIMAL HOUSE, almost unrecognizable as a buff, bleach-blond henchman who’s usually shirtless. Under him is John J. York, who spent decades as Mac Scorpio on “GENERAL HOSPITAL” and its spinoffs, along with playing Eric Cord on Fox’s “WEREWOLF.” Billed eighth is David Knoller, who didn’t make much of a splash as an actor, but now has several TV producing credits including “BIG LOVE,” “CARNIVALE,” and “LOVECRAFT COUNTRY.” And a special credit is given for Bud Davis, longtime stuntman, second unit director, and occasional actor, notable for embodying the Phantom Killer in Charles B. Pierce’s original THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN.

Influence: While not delving into the kink play of Adrian Lyne’s 9½ WEEKS, it is definitely aiming for the same sort of “sexual awakening through submission” message it propounded. And its placement of two Bryan Ferry songs - “Don’t Stop the Dance” and “Boys and Girls” - were likely chosen based on the use of “Slave to Love” in the former film. Auspiciously in turn, its “Nellie Bly in the Cathouse” plot eerily predicts the kind of scenarios that would be found on WEEKS’ screenwriter Zalman King’s “RED SHOE DIARIES” series years later.

Song usage: “House of the Rising Sun” only shows up during the closing credits, and it’s a gospel-styled rerecording by Denise Mitchell “and Friends,” which feels like a bit of a cheat after the example set by the previous films. A comparably stingy song score meanwhile, with only the aforementioned Bryan Ferry tracks along with “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and Icehouse’s “No Promises.”

Reactions: Gold definitely indulges his music video impulses in the staging and cutting of the movie; As Letterboxd contributor Hunter Cooper wrote, “28 freeze frames in the first 7 minutes of the film...And 5 of them being of someone ordering a Coke.” However, considering the infamous scenarios that John Alan Schwartz easily conjured up for FACES OF DEATH, the events unfolding here are deflatingly tame by comparison. It’s pretty much all garter belt and no stockings. But, it did manage a couple swerves that I did not anticipate, and I liked the running gag of Janet’s car being constantly on the fritz, so points for those.

Mediacom and Prism did follow through with their intention to continue the template, but contrary to the bullish promises of their press releases, there would only be one more film to follow after this initial three-picture offering. Behind the scenes, it was announced by a short Los Angeles Times blurb in February 1988 that Ron Altbach was stepping down as president of Mediacom, to be replaced by his vice-president of production, Strathford Hamilton, who had served as post-production supervisor on HOT CHILD IN THE CITY, and, coincidentally, would direct this final entry, now titled BLUEBERRY HILL. (Hamilton’s wife, Marcy Levitas Hamilton, served as editor on HOT CHILD as well.) The project was shot in 12 days for $500,000, which would seem to put it on par with the previous works, but when considering the marquee-level cast that was enlisted in this instance versus the lesser-known performers used before, some savvy dealmaking must have been achieved. At some point during the production, MGM got a look at it, and needing product to fill their barren slate, acquired all rights to it, and gave it a minimal theatrical release before it reached home video from CBS-Fox.

Release: limited theatrical run December 2, 1988

Plot: Within the dying mining town of Johnsondale, California, in 1956, teenaged Ellie Dane (Jennifer Rubin) bristles at the constant negging and browbeating from her mother Becca (Carrie Snodgress), who has never recovered from her husband Charlie dying the same night Ellie was born. Her boyfriend Denny (Matt Lattanzi) talks often about leaving the town to join a racing pit crew, and offers to take her along, but keeps dallying on his plan. A chance meeting with another local widow, Hattie Cale (Margaret Avery), opens the door to Ellie learning details of her father’s life she never knew before, tapping into her own aspirations. But they are details that Becca has refused to deal with for too long.

Creators: Writer Lonon Smith had previously written the “dachshunds dressed as rats” horror film DEADLY EYES, and later scripted some episodes of “MATLOCK.” Before joining the Mediacom collective, Strathford Hamilton had produced several music videos, particularly The Clash’s “London Calling.” Of all the personnel from these projects that are still living, he has firmly stayed in film production, producing or handling foreign distribution for several films, and occasionally directing. He also had a hand in launching “MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS” upon America. Marcy Levitas Hamilton returns to editing duties here.

Cast: For once, the ensemble here needs no “You may have seen them in...” directions, but looking at where their careers were at the time does offer some insight. Carrie Snodgress and Margaret Avery had both previously received Academy Award nominations, but by the time of shooting, Snodgress was averaging roughly one movie a year in mid-budget projects, and Avery had not made a feature since appearing in THE COLOR PURPLE, working mostly in television. The fact that Avery gets to sing and even co-write a song was likely an incentive. Jennifer Rubin had been drawing attention modeling for print and commercials when she appeared in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3, BAD DREAMS and PERMANENT RECORD around the same time as this production.

Influence: No articles have been located to describe what kind of plot was envisioned when “Blue Suede Shoes” was first proposed, but at some point after completing the first trio of projects, the producers probably saw the tremendous performance of the early ‘60s-set DIRTY DANCING (for which RISING SUN’s Greg Gold directed the video for “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”), and made the decision to transform it into a similar female-driven maturation tale, right down to losing the swaggering aura of the Carl Perkins/Elvis Presley song they first chose to the nostalgic melancholy suggested by BLUEBERRY HILL. Besides self-actualization, this movie shares the same elegiac portrayal of its long-gone Johnsondale setting as DIRTY DANCING had for its milieu for the outdated vacation colonies of the Catskills; it even ends with a post-credits cookie telling the viewer that in the very year of its filming and production, the entire town of Johnsondale went up for sale. (It is now a resort called R-Ranch.)

Song usage: “Blueberry Hill” pops up initially as Ellie’s go-to when she noodles on the piano, with the classic Fats Domino rendition playing over the credits. A decent amount of needle-drops throughout: “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip it Up,” “I’m a Man,” “Come Go with Me,” “Ain’t Got No Home,” Big Joe Turner’s “Jumpin’ Tonight,” Smiley Lewis’ rendition of “I Hear You Knockin’,” and The Moonglows’ “Sincerely.” Covers are substituted for “My Special Angel” and “Only You.” All of the songs Margaret Avery performs are originals, with her credited as co-writer on “No Good Man Low Down Dirty Blues.”

Reactions: It’s not truly fair to compare this outing to the other three, because even though it still follows their template, this is a quantum leap beyond those previous productions. The CBS-Fox VHS is standard 1.33, but this was clearly composed for 1.85 projection (and with widescreen TV zoom tools, fits perfectly), was edited on film with lab-finished credits (though the end credits are still videoburned, suggesting an early master prepared before MGM’s acquisition was supplied to the label), and befitting its atmospheric location shooting, has a lived-in production value that the other projects lacked. As a teenage blossoming story, it’s not breaking any new ground, and its portrayal of mid-50’s race relations is way too idealized, but everyone is sincere and empathetic, and it delivers comfort. And its ending where young love is shown not to be the solution to everything is a nice touch for 1988. If MGM had the resources to give it more than just a contractual obligation run, they could have had a hit with it in the manner they would years later with simple love stories as UNTAMED HEART and THE CUTTING EDGE.

Whether they felt they’d reached their apex with selling to a major studio, or that there were too many players competing for a limited slice of indie movie pie, Mediacom shut down operations by 1991. Cervantes and Altbach have continued to work together in other ventures; today they are respectively President and Corporate Advisor to Bonne Sante Group, “an emerging growth global nutraceutical company” with emphasis on hemp-based CBD products. And while strategic music placement is still an important and well-liked aspect of feature and television production, the retconned music drama format they attempted is for the most part a no longer viable template.

Today, the movies that came out of the Mediacom/Music Video Associates venture have been mostly forgotten. In a sad irony, the very element that made them a hot property – their song-heavy soundtracks – have made them unlikely to ever surface again on physical media; since DVD was not yet a reality, the contracts for the music only covered tape release, and seeing as there are now only three major labels that control the bulk of all recordings, the cost of relicensing those tracks for Blu-Ray has probably skyrocketed. Plus, aside from BLUEBERRY HILL, an HD upgrade would require a complete rescan of the elements and reassembly in the digital realm, adding further to the potential expense. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN and HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN have been recently found available to stream in Standard Definition on Tubi, but the superior HOT CHILD IN THE CITY and BLUEBERRY HILL are not to be found online beyond used VHS copies.

But if you do track one of these down and watch them, much like getting Rick-rolled online, it’s kinda fun to go back to an older, more colorful place and time...