Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975)

I’ve touched on this before, but back in the early days of renting VHS and Beta tapes, you didn’t always get what you expected. Movies were retitled and given box cover art that was extremely misleading. One of the most common tricks was to make you think that a movie was brand new when it fact it was from ten or fifteen years earlier. This was not an entirely new trick. Movies were often distributed to drive-ins under new titles in the hopes that they would do better business than the first time they went out. Sometimes it wasn’t a question of the age of a movie, but rather the subject matter. A dull story with no violence or nudity could be retitled to sound like it was going to be the next Chained Heat (1983).

I used to tell people that Grace Jones was my favourite actress (if you’ve read my ode to her movie Vamp (1986), you will know what I’m talking about). So, when I found a VHS copy of something called Deadly Vengeance (1981) – starring Grace Jones – on the shelf of Star Time Foto Video – I told my friends we had to rent it. It was an oversized box mostly covered by a picture of Grace Jones’ face. “They Killed her lover. Now she wants revenge.” What could be better than that? We excitedly took it home and popped it into the VCR.

First of all, the movie appeared to be considerably older than the stated release date of 1981 (home drive-in crime #1). Secondly, Grace Jones was not playing the woman whose lover was killed – and more importantly, she was not playing the woman seeking “Deadly Vengeance” (home drive-in crime #2). Sadly, this was all too common in those early days of home video. If a famous actor (or not so famous actor, but maybe someone you might have heard of in passing once or twice) appeared in a movie for more than one second, sleazy distributors would paste his or her image and name all over the box cover. Sometimes the actor actually had a big part, but the film was made 20 years before they were famous and they looked completely different. No problem, the distributors would simply put a more recent and recognizable photo of the actor on the cover.

In the case of Deadly Vengeance, Grace Jones was very young, and did not have her iconic ’80s look. She was almost unrecognizable to us, and her part was very small. She played the girlfriend of the main bad guy. But as I recall it, we only saw her in one or two brief scenes. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But according to one internet source, Grace’s part was INCREASED for this 1981 release. Increased? How small could it have originally been? The same source claims that Deadly Vengeance is a re-edited combination of two much older films: Dirty Tricks (1972) and Sweet Vengeance [1970]. Those older films were apparently X-rated, whereas Deadly Vengeance was rated R. I do seem to recall extended (soft core) sex scenes in it, so it’s not hard to imagine that there could have been a more explicit version (or versions). Just for the record, Grace Jones is not listed as being in either of those earlier films, so I guess her part was INCREASED, as in ADDED to this version. Not sure what the real story is, but needless to say, the Grace Jones fan in me was not too thrilled by this movie rental experience (extreme sleaziness notwithstanding).

A while back, I wrote about how I originally discovered giallo movies – and it was basically a result of this kind of home video false advertising. The movies were packaged like 1980s slasher films, when it fact they were 1960s or ’70s giallos. As it turned out, I was very pleased to discover those films, and giallos have become one of very favourite things to screen at the home drive-in.

Last week I decided to watch a giallo that I had never seen before, The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975). It was directed by Sergio Martino, who made many excellent movies, including some top notch giallos like All the Colours of the Dark (1972), Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and Torso (1973). I was quite surprised to discover that The Suspicious Death of a Minor, despite its very giallo-esque title and poster art, is not really a giallo. It does have some moments that are very giallo-like, and the opening sequence seems to fit that description, but the movie quickly turns into more of a poliziotteschi, or Italian crime film. More surprising than that, the movie takes on a tone that is quite comical – almost slapstick comedy at times. But perhaps the most amazing thing of all, is that it really works.

The Suspicious Death of a Minor is a very entertaining movie. Claudio Cassinelli gives an amazing performance as our hero, Paolo Germi. We don’t know this at first (and perhaps this is a mild SPOILER), but Germi is a police officer as unorthodox as Dirty Harry, only much more comical. There were several scenes that had me laughing at loud as I watched Germi’s way of dealing with obstacles and enemies. In spite of the humorous tone, the movie also manages to deliver some legitimately suspenseful and even scary moments. It may not be a horror film like Torso, but I did not feel cheated by the almost bait and switch style plot maneuverings that take us from giallo to poliziotteschi, to slapstick comedy. A lot of directors would have fallen on their face attempting such a mash-up, but Martino somehow pulled it off, and I am glad that he did. 

The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975) was not at all what I expected, but it managed to deliver a wildly entertaining #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. It is a unique example of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that doesn’t quite fit into any of the usual categories, but somehow feels completely right. You can rest assured that I will be screening it again in the not too distant future.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Last Dragon (1985)

Back in the 1980s, my friends and I would rent movies and hang out on a regular basis. There were certain types of movies that we would rent more often than others: horror films, action films, and sex comedies like Porky’s (1981) and Spring Break (1983). When it came to action films, we had a particular love for vigilantes and revenge stories. We also had a love of martial arts.

In real life, one of my friends signed up for Tae Kwon Do classes, and he eventually talked me and another friend into joining him in this pursuit. This increased our interest in martial arts infused action films. We saw Bruce Lee films, we saw fake Bruce Lee films (starring Bruce Li or Bruce Le). We also saw other, strange kung fu movies from the ’70s that I can’t even remember now (other than a few, brief images). We saw ninja movies. We even went to the theatre and saw something called Challenge Of The Ninja – but we were disappointed to discover that it wasn’t a ninja movie at all. It was another strange Hong Kong movie, which struck us as propaganda about how much better Chinese martial arts were than Japanese martial arts. It may have been Heroes of the East (1978), retitled to cash in on the popularity of ninjas in the ’80s. Looking back now, I’m kind of thrilled to know that I got to see a movie like that on the big screen. 

Of course, Chuck Norris films were also a big deal at that time. This was years before the Chuck Norris jokes became all the rage. In those days, he was just an amazing athlete and an action movie hero. He was even buddies with Bruce Lee in real life, and the two of them appeared together in a film called Return Of The Dragon (1972). At least, that’s what it was called when I saw it. It’s more often called The Way of the Dragon (1972), which answers a question that I had when I was 12. How could this movie be called Return Of The Dragon when it came out BEFORE Enter the Dragon (1973)? In any case, I thought that the final fight between Lee and Norris was one of the greatest I had ever seen. I somehow convinced my Dad to take me to see Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) when it came out, and I thought it was the greatest movie I had even seen. I quickly rented every other Chuck Norris film I could get my hands on. 

I remember seeing the newspaper ads for The Last Dragon (1985). It looked like the kind of movie that my friends and I would appreciate. I’m not sure why, but we didn’t go to see it in the theatre. I might have assumed that it wasn’t around long enough, but someone recently told me that he went to see it THREE TIMES in the theatre. That puts it in the category of a Star Wars movie back in the day. And according to the IMDb, it made quite a big profit at the time: $25,754,284 on a $10,000,000 budget. So that movie must have stuck around the theatres for at least a few weeks. How did my friends and I miss it?

All I can say for sure, is that when it came out on home video, my friends and I rented it immediately. But here’s the weird part: we didn’t like it.

That’s right. We watched the popular and successful martial arts movie The Last Dragon and we didn’t like it.  I think that we were expecting a more ordinary, straight up martial arts action movie. We expected it to be serious – and to maybe include some sort of revenge plot a la Forced Vengeance (1982) or An Eye for an Eye (1981). Instead, we got a comedy, which included a lot of gratuitous music and dancing. I’m not even sure if we realized that it as comedy at the time, or if we just thought it was weird and not serious enough. My single biggest memory of it was that it seemed to be more about music than marital arts. 

I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense when you realize the the film was executive produced by Berry Gordy, who was a record producer, songwriter, and founder of Motown Records. We wouldn’t have appreciated this as teenagers. We just knew that there was A LOT of music in this movie. And it was not the kind of music that we were into at that time. We were big fans of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The Motown sound was not cool to us. Over the ensuing decades, my tastes have broadened and I can now appreciate the Motown sound of the ’80s much more than I could back in the day. The nostalgia levels are off the charts when I hear a song like “Rhythm Of The Night” by DeBarge (written by Diane Warren). I probably hated it in the ’80s, but it sounds surprisingly great to me now. And we actually get to see a good portion of the music video in the movie as well. This is particularly poignant for me, as I have recently discovered that one of the featured dancers in the video is Galyn Görg.

For those who don’t know, Galyn Görg was a dancer and an actress who appeared in movies like Point Break (1991) and RoboCop 2 (1990). She was also in a few episodes of Twin Peaks (1991-92), and was a regular cast member of M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-95). Several years ago, I tweeted about a movie she was in called America 3000 (1986). As I often did in those days, I tried to locate and tag anyone involved in the film. This is harder to do with older movies. Galyn was one of the few that I managed to find in this case. Much to my surprise, she not only liked my tweet (and the subsequent replies to it), but she also followed me. I’m not sure what made her do it. She followed less than two hundred people – in spite of having thousands of followers. But what was even more amazing to me, was that she continued to respond to my tweets from that day forward.

In all honestly, I was not the world’s most savvy twitter use in those days. And up to that point, my tweets would often go ignored. But for the next couple of years, there was one person who I could count on to like most of my tweets – and that was Galyn Görg. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but I was thrilled. And of course, I liked all of her tweets, too. She even followed @DBrownstoneFilm, which was an account created to promote my documentary (and subsequent feature film project) about legendary Manitoba actress Doreen Brownstone. 

Basically, Galyn Görg was one of my first twitter friends. 

Sadly, Galyn passed away in July of 2020, one day shy of her 56th birthday.

Seeing the video for “Rhythm Of The Night” in The Last Dragon somehow made the film all the more special to me. It’s almost like Galyn Görg is in the movie (although, not really). But even if that had not happened, I loved seeing all of the music and dance sequences this time around. All of the things that made me hate the movie the first time, made me love it now. Vanity, most famous as a singer and protege of Prince, stars as a D.J. (or V.J.) host of a popular TV Show / night club. This is how we get to see so many musical performances and videos. A gangster, who also seems to be some sort of video arcade mogul, wants to force Vanity to play his girlfriend’s video on her show. The girlfriend is played by Faith Prince, and her videos/performances are clearly meant to “bad” – in an entertaining way – but I found them to be absolutely delightful. They are perfect, satirical 1980s avant guard time capsules. And I think in some ways they have aged better then many “serious” pop hits of the ’80s. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the real star of The Last Dragon. Real life martial artist Taimak plays Leroy Green. There is clearly a lot of serious Bruce Lee homage going on here. Leroy loves Bruce Lee, and there is even a scene in which Vanity’s character plays video footage of Bruce Lee in her club to impress Leroy. The martial arts action in The Last Dragon is solid. Taimak is very clearly the real deal, and it seems to me that he could have been a martial arts movie star. For some reason, that didn’t quite happen (although he did go on to appear in other – often non-martial arts – movies). I’m surprised that my friends and I weren’t more impressed by the action when we watched this film back in the day. I guess it truly was overshadowed by the music and comedy.

One final thought, which comes a bit too close to SPOILER territory for my taste: Leroy is in pursuit of the final level of martial arts mastery, which is called The Glow. At the end of the movie, we see The Glow in action – and I think that this was something else that my friends and I didn’t like. It’s sort of silly, fantasy type stuff; beams of glowing light coming out of Leroy’s hands and body. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I think we thought it was dumb and not at all realistic (keep in mind that we were young and taking real martial arts classes at the time). Like every other aspect of this film that I hated back then, I found that it only enhanced my enjoyment now.

The Last Dragon (1985) is a unique masterpiece of 1980s #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I wish I had appreciated more the first time that I saw it. I’ve lost a lot of decades in which I could have been revisiting and enjoying this film. But then again, maybe that just means that I can enjoy it al the more now – and I surely will on many a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn in the not too distant future.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: She Freak (1967)

The first time I saw a picture from Freaks (1932), it was in a book called Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman & Jonathan Rosenbaum. I was pretty young, and had never seen any of the movies talked about in the book – not even The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). I had heard of it, of course. In fact, I saw ads for it in my local newspaper every weekend for years. But it was rated R, and I was a kid – and I’m pretty sure I was in bed by the time they were screening it on any given Saturday night (it was a “midnight movie”, after all). 

I loved to read, and I loved watching movies, so whenever I was in a bookstore I would flip though books about movies – especially ones that looked like they might be scary. Midnight Movies seemed to fit the bill. There weren’t a lot of pictures in it, but there were enough to give me the idea that these were some pretty strange and possibly unsettling movies. A lot of them creeped me out, to be honest. And the picture from Freaks was no exception. It’s the somewhat famous one of director Todd Browning posing with his cast. Really, there was nothing particularly disturbing about it. I suppose I had just never seen anything like it at the time. I also knew nothing about the film, so my mind raced with all of the possible atrocities that it might contain. I should have probably been attributing them to another movie in the book, Pink Flamingos (1972) – but that’s an other story.

The photograph from Freaks stuck out in my mind long after I returned the book to its shelf and got on with my life. Years later, Freaks was available to rent on VHS, but I couldn’t bring myself to to do it. I was still unnerved by the memory of the picture in Midnight Movies. It was only while studying film at university, that I finally decided to give it a chance. I needed a topic for an essay, so I pitched the professor on the idea of an examination of Todd Browning’s films. The professor looked at me, skeptically, and said “What can you get hold of besides Freaks?”

In that moment, I had a realization that there were people out there who were obsessed with this movie. It was a genuine cult film featured in books like Midnight Movies, after all. I had a sudden urge to tell the professor that I had never even seen the film, but instead I just listed the titles that I’d been able to rent at Movie Village: “Dracula (1931), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936), and Freaks (1932).”

The professor looked relieved. “Okay,” he said. 

I guess he really didn’t want to read a ten page love letter to Freaks. It made me wonder all the more what I was getting myself into.

Long story short, I loved the film. And the research I did into Todd Browning revealed a man who had run away to join the circus when he was young, and the so called “freaks” were his actual friends from those days. This movie had been Browning’s dream project. He was not a sleazy exploitation guy painting the “freaks” as the monsters (not that there’s anything wrong with sleazy exploitation guys). Browning portrayed his friends as sympathetic people who were being victimized by the able bodied villains of the movie – the good-looking, so called “normal” people were in fact the real monsters. I liked the movie so much that I wound up buying a copy on VHS, then later upgrading to a DVD. I also bought a Freaks t-shirt which I saw displayed in the window of a store called Freaks while walking around New York City a few years back. The owners of the store told me that they had never seen the movie, but felt compelled to sell the shirt because it had the name of their store on it. I urged them to see the movie.

I also first read about the movie She Freak (1967) in a book, although not until I was a university student. It was apparently an unofficial remake of Freaks, or, as James O’Neill put it in Terror On Tape, a “tawdry Freaks rip-off”. It was written and produced by David F. Friedman, who is perhaps most famous as the former producing partner of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Together they made the iconic gore films Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), and Color Me Blood Red (1965), as well as a few nudie-cuties such as Nature’s Playmates (1962) and Boin-n-g (1963). 

Clearly, I had to see She Freak. I’m sure it goes without saying that it is not as good as Freaks. Neither Dave Friedman, nor his directors, had the same life-experience or passions as Todd Browning. Although, Friedman was apparently a legitimate carnival guy, or carnie. He’s been known to talk about the similarities between being an exploitation filmmaker and a carnival promoter. Friedman also claims that he was a huge fan of the original Freaks.

One major difference between Browning’s film and this one, is that there are basically no actual “freaks” in She Freak. We do see a few carnival performers (such as Madame Lee, a snake charmer), but no one like Prince Randian The Living Torso in Freaks. 3′ 11″ Felix Silla plays Shorty in She Freak. He is probably best known as Cousin Itt from The Addams Family (1964–1966). Basically, Friedman and his two directors (Byron Mabe & Donn Davison) avoid showing us the “freaks” as much as possible. At the very end of the movie, we finally see what passes for “freaks” in She Freak, and they are all creations of make up artist Harry Thomas – and none of them are very extreme (except perhaps the titular character). 

What I really love about movies like She Freak, is that they provide us with a window into a specific time and place. In this particular case, we are presented with what some have claimed is the most realistic portrayal of carnie life ever captured on film. The footage that Friedman and crew got of the carnival itself is quite extraordinary – and I believe that it has been licensed and used by other filmmakers. 

Some would call She Freak (1967) a bad movie, but I enjoy watching Claire Brennen, as our heroine Jade Cochran, go on her strange personal journey. She starts out as a beautiful and relatively sympathetic waitress at a dead end diner in the middle of nowhere. She longs for a better life, and when a carnival comes to town she sees it as possible way out. But the deeper she goes into this strange new world world of carnies and “freaks”, the more our view of her begins to change. And just like the movie that inspired it, She Freak reveals that the monsters are not the ones who look ugly or different, but rather the ones who look good but are inhuman, and treat others cruelly, with callous indifference.

She Freak (1967) is one of those iconic examples of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that must be seen by all connoisseurs of strange cinema. I used to see pictures from it in old books about drive-in movies and exploitation films that made me long to see the film. Last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn was my third time sitting through it, and I think I enjoyed it more than ever. The Something Weird Video DVD commentary track featuring David F. Friedman is in some ways more entertaining than the movie itself, and well worth the price of admission. Anyone with an interest in low budget filmmaking, or the history of unusual cinema, should definitely check it out.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Blood Song (1982)

I’ve talked about “bad movie nights” in previous posts, and how I have a few friends with whom I regularly get together to have a “bad movie night”. Several years ago, one of them invited me to a “bad movie party”. This was unusual, as normally it would just be the two of us suffering through a marathon of questionable films. Once in a while we might have added a third person – or even a fourth – but never had there been a whole party full of people. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to make of this idea.

I am basically an introvert. I do well in one on one situations, but not so well in large groups. If I am in a room full of people I don’t know, I will most often sit quietly in a corner and observe. This is my general survival technique at parties. I find an empty chair in a nice quiet corner and I stay there all night. People who want to talk to me will find me, sit next to me for a while, and then move on. If there is a cat in the house, it will often come and hang out with me. At some parties, a dozen or more people will cycle through the empty seat next to me. At others, I will have long stretches of time to sit and listen to the loud music without having to shout over it.

A “bad movie party” is a slightly different animal. At least I assumed that it would be. I had never been to one before, but I imagined that everyone at the party would be focussed on watching the bad movies. This could be good for me. I would simply need to find a place to sit – not too close to the screen – and quietly watch the movies while other people shout out pithy remarks to each other. I could do that.

When I showed up at the party, the first movie was already well under way. I was surprised to find that there were people scattered all over the place – in the kitchen, the hallways, the dining room – and they were carrying on conversations without any regard for what might be happening on the TV screen in the main living room. Basically, it seemed like a regular, run of the mill party to me.

When I arrived in the living room, I found a moderate sized group of people watching the end of a movie that I didn’t recognize. My host greeted me and I sat down in an empty chair. I don’t normally like watching the end of a movie without seeing the first two thirds, so I didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on. Instead, I quietly conversed with my host as I looked at the stack of movies that were piled up on the coffee table. I was able to determine that another friend of the host’s had brought all of the movies for this event. I had never met him before, but I knew him by reputation. He was a university professor and a novelist. Someone had once told me that he and I would get along really well, as we were both fans of “bad movies”. I think I had even stood next to him once in the lobby of a movie theatre, as he spoke to my friend (and in fact the host of this very party). As he was walking away from us, I asked my friend who he was. My friend was shocked that I didn’t know him. “I’m sorry, I should have introduced you,” he said.

So, now we were at the same party, and this mysterious stranger was in charge of curating the screenings. I figured I was finally going to meet him.

After the first movie ended, the stranger picked up his pile of movies and asked the crowd which one they wanted to se next. He went through each title and tried to briefly describe the movie. I knew which one I wanted to see, even before he was done describing it.

“This seems to be a slasher film starring Frankie Avalon as the killer…”

“I vote for that one,” I said, surprised to find myself speaking out loud in front of a room full of strangers.

“No,” someone else said. “We just watched a crappy horror film. Let’s watch something else.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Weren’t we here to watch crappy horror films?

There was some more discussion of the various films in the pile. Finally I decided to try again.

“I still say we should watch Frankie Avalon killing people.”

The same guy who had contradicted me before, spoke up again. “I’ve seen so many of these films… Just for a change, I’d like to watch something that I don’t already know everything that’s going to happen in.”

So, what are you doing at a bad movie night? I thought to myself.

Thanks to this amateur “bad movie” appreciator, we wound up watching Juggernaut (1974). For those who don’t know, this is a fairly classy, well thought of British suspense drama about time bombs hidden on a ship. It is, to be clear, a GOOD movie. That’s not to say that good movies don’t have a place in a “bad movie” marathon. We often discover hidden gems while screening presumably “bad” movies. But this movie was a class act with an all star cast that included Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, David Hemmings and Anthony Hopkins. And it was close to two hours long. That, it seemed to me, was a lot of time wasted watching a movie that wasn’t going to deliver the “bad movie” goods. 

Perhaps because of this, my friend and host started asking me questions instead of paying attention to the movie. I tried to answer him, quietly, but after a while the same stick in the mud who wanted quality instead of slasher antics asked us to leave the room and talk somewhere else. So we did.

As a result, I did not get a very good sense of Juggernaut. I also did not ever officially meet the curator of the evening. Perhaps we could have been good friends, but it just never happened. 

Ever since that night, I have regretted not getting to see Frankie Avalon play a psychopathic killer. I couldn’t even remember the name of the movie, but I kept my eye out for any horror films starring the former teen idol who used to make those beach party movies with Annette Funicello. One day I found one called Horror House (1969), but it did not seem right to me. Considering my excellent track record when it comes to locating and watching obscure movies, I am shocked that I did not manage to find this one at some point over the next two decades. I suppose I had almost forgotten about it…

Until my friend Ian gave me a cheap-jack DVD with four horror films on it. One of them was called Blood Song (1982). What the hell is that? Upon closer inspection, I saw the name Frankie Avalon – and I suddenly knew that I was about to finally close an open chapter (or should I say open wound) of past “bad movie” watching failure. And what better way to do that, than on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn – with no one else around to tell me they’d prefer a less predictable movie?

First of all, I can say that Blood Song is not all that predictable or familiar. It’s not really a slasher film, although it did come out in 1982 at the height of the golden age of slasher films. It was apparently shot in 1980, and it feels much more like a movie from the 1970s. I would say closer to something like I Dismember Mama (1972) than a slasher film. However, I do think that the influence of Halloween (1978) can be felt in its storyline:

As a young boy, Frankie Avalon’s character witnesses the murder/suicide of his parents and is traumatized. Twenty five years later, he escapes from a mental institution and “goes on a rampage”.

Frankie plays a psychopath who talks to people, plays the flute, and seems relatively normal until he suddenly kills them. According to one description of the movie, Frankie seems to be pursuing “a young handicapped girl, who once got a blood transfusion from him.” This is a fairly offbeat idea, and could explain the title of the movie. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple.

We do find out, in the course of the movie, that the teenage girl – played by Donna Wilkes of Angel (1984) fame – did receive a blood transfusion from Avalon. This was most likely after the car accident that left her requiring a leg brace.

As far as I can tell, Frankie’s character has no idea that he gave blood to Donna’s character. He goes after her because she witnesses him burying a body. So, why the title Blood Song, and why the detail about the blood transfusion? As near as I can figure it, the blood transfusion has somehow given Donna the ability to see visions of Frankie committing his crimes. So, it’s like she has a psychic connection to him now.

This may be something to think about, before you decide to give or receive blood.

In any case, I found Blood Song (1982) to be an entertaining mix of seriously good and hilariously bad moments. It’s the kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that could go over really well at crowded “bad movie party”, or on a lonely FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. And I guarantee that no one will anticipate everything that is going to happen over the course of its 89 minutes.