Monday, October 29, 2012

Sugar Cookies (1973)

The Movie: While playing a sick power game, sleazy adult movie producer Max Pavell (George Shannon) winds up shooting and killing his star actress, Alta (Lynn Lowry of David Cronenberg’s Shivers: They Came from Within). However, he is able to get her death passed off as a suicide with the help of his business partner, Camilla (the amazing and prolific Mary Woronov of Eating Raoul and Nomads, among a great many other movies), who serves as his alibi. But Camilla isn’t helping Max out of love or kindness. She and Alta were lovers, and Camilla is determined to be the one to make Max pay.

Camilla sees her chance in Julie Kent (Lynn Lowry again); a sweet, innocent young thing looking to get ahead, who just happens to be the spitting image of the late Alta. Camilla takes Julie under her wing, seducing her and molding her into Alta’s double. Her plan is to lure Max in so that she can use Julie for her revenge…

The Review:

Of all the varied phrases in the English language, the one I have probably come to loath the most is “you have to play the game.” In short, that to get by you have to jump through all the hoops presented to you no matter how pointless, arbitrary or destructive they might be. I really hate these kinds of games; in large part because, at best, they are pointless, just there to stroke somebody’s ego in a superficial way, and at worst they are incredibly destructive. More to the point, when human interactions are already an unfathomable morass for you, they make it even more difficult to get by. The majority of the worst gamesters I’ve had to deal with will become indignant and deny that’s what they’re doing when directly confronted with their bullshit, and I’m sure quite a few of them even believe their own protestations; so it inevitably gets to the point where it’s near impossible to distinguish between somebody seriously trying to convey something important to you, and yet another set of arbitrary hoops you’re expected to jump through. And trust me, once you realize you’ve made that mistake it’s always way too late to do anything about it.

Events of this past summer have ensured that I’ve lost all tolerance for games, bullshit, and people trying to manipulate me. Among a great many other things, it’s why I’ve been mostly going out of my way to avoid coverage of the presidential election; even though normally I’d be morbidly fascinated with it. Unfortunately, if you deal with people at all it’s impossible to avoid those things; particularly when you hold a job that’s eyeballs-deep in them. However, my protestations about having to play these pointless and destructive games usually get me the same result; “that’s the way things are, you’ve got to play the game.” Well, one of my main, life-long coping mechanisms when dealing with life issues is to turn to a story; in this case Sugar Cookies, a movie all about manipulation and playing games with peoples’ lives. And, as it seems to have become my practice to inflict my current psychological and emotional traumas on my readers, I decided to write a review on it.

When I first saw Sugar Cookies, I went in only knowing two things for sure; that it was an exploitation movie, and more importantly that it stars Mary Woronov. For quite a while now Mary Woronov has been my all-time favorite actress. She started making movies sometime in the 1960s, and to my knowledge she still is. To my knowledge she’s only done B and cult movies, but in those circles she’s been a mainstay for decades. Now, Woronov is not conventionally pretty, but she is very strikingly attractive; and I’m sure that and her willingness to do nude scenes has had a very strong impact on her fanbase. However, that is not why she’s my favorite actress; I’ve run across way too many good looking ‘actresses’ whose sole talent is displaying their physical assets. No, the reason why I hold Woronov in such high regard, and why she’s been able to stay around for so long, is because she’s got far more than her looks to fall back on.

Simply put, Woronov has a talent and a presence that I have seen on few other performers. She’s easily recognizable, but at the same time she can give her all to a character to the point where you believe in said character anyway. It’s my personal opinion that Woronov is at her absolute best in villainous roles; but out of all the movies I have seen her in I can only think of one where she wasn’t an absolute delight to watch.

Going into Sugar Cookies, I was sure that Woronov would be the absolute best part of the movie. It turns out I was right, but that’s not a knock against the movie itself; the majority of Sugar Cookies'plot revolves around Camilla and her scheme for revenge. I recently discovered that Woronov’s then-husband directed the movie, and rewrote the screenplay with her in mind for the role. She wasn’t amused, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, she gives a wonderful performance as Camilla.

Camilla is a truly fascinating character, as all good villains are. It’s pretty clear what she is, but every so often we are shown another aspect of her character that makes us wonder if we may have misjudged her. Woronov plays her as manipulative, imperious, charming and ruthless; although there is also something touching about her love for Alta, even though it seems more like obsession at times. My favorite part of this movie, in what should probably come as a surprise to none of my regular readers, is a particular line of dialogue. The scene where she is being questioned by a policeman about the night of Alta’s murder; where he’s trying to be delicate about it but she in turn is just blunt and obviously trying to keep him on his toes, is a wonderful exchange. “Were you on intimate terms with this guy?” “You mean, did we fuck.” “(weary, exasperated voice) Oh, my god.” I’m not going to repeat the whole dialogue to you, but I just love it, particularly the concluding line of it. Partly it’s very cleverly written, but a large amount of what I enjoy so much about it is Woronov’s delivery.

Another strong aspect of the film and its cast is that Woronov and Lowry have such great chemistry together. Lynn Lowery is obviously in her 20s; but she has the kind of face that, judging by it alone, you could easily believe she was someone a lot younger. Lowery is as utterly convincing as the innocent as Woronov is as the predator. Watching the two of them together is, in many ways, like watching a complicated dance. Observing the steps Camilla takes to seduce and manipulate the girl is utterly fascinating; albeit the warped fascination one gets at an oncoming accident.

A word should probably be said at this point about the exploitation elements, and particularly the lesbianism element. In the commentary Lloyd Kaufman (who produced the movie and wrote the original screenplay) makes a big deal about the lesbianism, but I actually found it to be a very minor part of the film, and actually rather classily done. Right up front, lesbianism in and of itself has never done anything for me; ever since a certain double date in high school my attitude toward other people’s sex lives can be summed up “if it doesn’t involve me, really not interested.” However, I found the romance and sex scenes both convincing and personally effective. They are framed much the way a typical romantic scene would be framed and, while they are rather graphic, there’s none of the leering and zooming in on certain parts of the anatomy one would come to expect. In fact, at times I was almost convinced that Camilla was serious about her feelings; I definitely was about Julie.

And honestly, I never thought about Camilla as “a lesbian, who happens to be named Camilla,” but as “Camilla, who happens to be a lesbian.” The way the character comes across, both in the script and in Woronov’s delivery, I’m sure that Camilla wouldn’t be any different if she was straight. Obviously Sugar Cookies was conceived and presented as an exploitation movie, but there’s quite a bit of character development as well.

The parts of the movie that don’t directly involve Camilla generally vary from good to not so good. There’s a sub-plot involving Max, his ex-wife (Monique van Vooren) and her younger brother, Gus (Daniel Sador), who calls Max “Uncle Max” and has an unhealthy attraction to him; that probably could have been written out. The only two reasons I can think of for the sub-plot is to provide odious comedy relief, and to further establish Max as a manipulative slimebag. In the latter the movie succeeds; I actually felt rather sympathetic toward Gus. In the former, as is expected, it fails majorly.

Ultimately though, Sugar Cookies is about Max and Camilla; two predatory individuals who play sick games using other people as pieces. As I said at the beginning of this review, I really hate these kinds of games. However, unlike so many other movies that romanticize, cutsify and outright excuse them (for one prime example, see my review for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), Sugar Cookies is direct and honest about how destructive this kind of behavior is. Our introduction to this story is Alta’s death, and that sets the tone for what’s going on. Since the only way to get ahead in this environment is to “Play the Game,” individuals like Max and Camilla, who hold the advantages positions, have a ready source of victims.

But though we, the viewers, are drawn into these sick power games; we are never asked to emulate or glorify them. In fact, I think that the greatest mark in Sugar Cookies'favor is that nobody wins in the end. Alta is sacrificed on the altar of Max’s ego and sadism, and Julie on the altar of Camilla’s revenge. Max is destroyed by Camilla. Camilla gets her revenge, but even she doesn’t ‘win.’ The film ends on an ambiguous note that strongly suggests that “Playing the Game” is going to catch up with Camilla very soon, if it hasn’t already.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Motel Hell (1980)

The Movie: Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) and his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons), are the local financial success story. First, they own and run the Motel Hell (actually the Motel Hello, but the o on the sign is constantly on the fritz). Secondly, Farmer Vincent is something of a local celebrity for his smoked meat products. Vincent prepares his meats in a special way that makes it taste different from other meats. Actually, the secret to that is in the meat itself. As his slogan goes, “it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”

You see, Vincent and Ida maintain a secret garden; one very different from the garden in the beloved children’s classic of that name. At night, they waylay travelers and bring them back. Then they bury them up to their neck in the garden, use their home surgery skills to slit their vocal chords (really kids, don’t try this at home), and fatten them up with a high protein and starch confection. Once they’ve fattened up enough, the “stock” are humanely killed, butchered, smoked, and mixed with the pork to create Vincent’s meats.

On his latest “hunt” Vincent crashes a motorcycle carrying Terry (Nina Axelrod) and her boyfriend, Bo (Everett Creach). Bo is packed off to the garden, but Vincent brings Terry home and has Ida patch her up. When she awakens, Vincent explains to her that Bo died in the crash and he buried him. Vincent and Ida’s younger brother, Bruce (Paul Linke), who also happens to be the local sheriff, confirms that this is legal in extenuating circumstances.

As Terry stays at the hotel, she and Vincent start falling for each other; not too surprising considering Vincent’s charm, her looks, and the obvious age difference between her and her last boyfriend. They even start planning to get married. However, Ida and Bruce feel that this is a very bad idea.

Ida’s motives are partly out of jealousy. However, she also knows that they will have to reveal to Terry their business; and she doesn’t think that will go too well. Her solution is to try and quietly off Terry.

Bruce’s motives, on the other hand, are all jealousy. He’s fallen for Terry himself, but she’s not interested. Bruce isn’t in on the long-pig procurement aspect of his siblings’ business, and he’s determined to show Terry that Vincent is bad for her. While Bruce may be a bit of a jackass, he’s also a fairly competent detective; and Vincent has recently made a few mistakes that could potentially lead back to him and Ida. And as if the family squabbles weren’t enough; there’s also the fritters-to-be out in the garden, determined to escape and take revenge for their captivity…

The Review:

Meat’s meat and a man’s got to eat!"

There are some major differences between urban and rural settings. I know that’s stating the obvious; but oftentimes, as with so much else, it doesn’t really hit you until you’re confronted with it directly. I have had lots of experience with both kinds of areas in my life. My dad’s side of the family is from New York, around the city, so I’ve taken many trips there. However, my adolescence was spent in an Idaho farming town. And finally, I have lived the last seven years in Boise, which is composed of a rather odd mixture of the urban and the rural.

One of the things I find interesting is how the residents of urban and rural areas tend to mythologise each other. In popular culture the two settings get idealized and demonized constantly. Even a passing interest in the horror genre will give you plenty of examples of the latter; there are actually official subgenres for urban and rural horror. The 1970s saw a major glut of movies from the rural horror subgenre; the most well known being the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Hills Have Eyes. However, they were followed by Motel Hell which, while it passes itself off as a horror movie; is actually a spoof not only poking fun at the rural horror subgenre, but at the popular view of rural culture in general.

The movie’s major turnaround of the tropes would have to be the nature of its villains. Now, while rural cannibalism was hardly a new subject by the time Motel Hell was made; these are no backwoods degenerates a la the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Instead Vincent and Ida, Vincent in particular, represent the idealized view of the American farmer. Vincent is hardworking, and obviously very proud of what he does. Family ties are clearly very important, and it’s suggested that Vincent’s family has owned that property for some generations. Vincent is also a very religious man and, if you disregard the whole murderous cannibal thing, a very moral one as well. In fact, he regards his long-pig manufacturing as a moral task. As he explains, two of the world’s biggest problems are too many people and not enough food. By killing some people and feeding them to others, Vincent is helping solve both problems at once. Hey, it makes as much sense as most of the moral rationalizations I’ve heard over the years; and a great deal more than some.

Motel Hell has a good cast, including Wolfman Jack doing a walk-on as an excitable preacher. However, it’s Calhoun and Parsons who really steal the movie. Calhoun is wonderful as a twisted Norman Rockwell creation gone wrong. Parsons is almost as good; her role as Ida switches from sweet and fun to kind of creepy and back. Also, the two actors play off each other magnificently; it’s all too easy to believe that these two are siblings who have known each other for a long time.

The movie does another interesting thing with the characters in a reversal at the end. Throughout the movie, while Vincent is obviously the villain; he’s entirely too likeable and fun for us to dislike him very much. Bruce, on the other hand, is built up as something of jackass who it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for. And yet at the climactic fight, Bruce is suddenly thrust into the role of hero, and we are asked to cheer for him against Vincent. And yet, somehow it works. Every time I watch this movie I love and enjoy the character of Vincent and think nasty things about Bruce, but I’m always cheering on the latter man at the end nonetheless. Not only that, but the dialogue of the two men at the denouement shows that despite all that has happens, things still aren’t entirely black and white in their relationship.

A really funny thing about Motel Hell is the fact that it displays old-fashioned sensibilities despite the more modern horror movie subject matter. It doesn’t have much in regards to the exploitation elements we would expect. There is a small bit of gratuitous female nudity, but the gore is almost completely absent. The majority of the horrible things going on are hinted at, but not directly shown to us. Also, it’s full of all sorts of old fashioned movie elements; the prime example being the climactic (chainsaw) duel between the hero and villain while the heroine is strapped to a conveyer belt that slowly but surely carries her toward the meat cutter. That one’s been a staple since at least the movie serials of the early 20th century, if not further back.

Ultimately, if I were asked to sum up Motel Hell in one word, the word I would use is “fun.” While it passes itself off as a horror movie, and even has some effectively suspenseful parts, I would define Motel Hell as more a comedy than a horror film. It’s obvious that nobody is taking the material seriously, but the majority of the time it’s played with a straight face with only the occasional wink and a nod, such as the ridiculous swinger couple who show up at the motel at one point, to indicate to the less observant viewer what the real intention is. Everyone seems to be having a great time, particularly our two leads; and the script and dialogue display a truly demented wit. In short, this is one you watch when you’re just in the mood for a good time, albeit one that’s a bit twisted.