Friday, June 27, 2014

Kinda young, kinda wow

Hello lady and gentleman, thanks for stopping by. So a while back I rambled about watching the insane Night Train to Terror during the New Beverly Cinema's horror movie marathon. It's a horror anthology that consists of three stories that made little to no sense, because the stories were actually trimmed-down versions of feature-length films written and produced by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter named Philip Yordan, who ended up spending the 80s and early 90s writing/producing low-budget flicks that ended up getting shelved or barely released. One of the stories is titled Gretta, about a guy who gets mixed up with a girl who leads him into a secret club of wealthy assholes who get together every once in a while to play dangerous games that will end in death for the "winner".

I enjoyed that movie so much, I ended up purchasing it on Blu-ray (from the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome). As an added bonus, it came with a DVD featuring the full-length version of Gretta, which was previously made available on DVD and VHS under the titles Death Wish Club and Carnival of Fools. It has yet another title on the IMDB as The Dark Side to Love and the Vinegar Syndrome DVD version opens with the onscreen title of Erskine Caldwell's Gretta and I'm like make up your goddamn mind, movie -- WHOOOO ARRRRRRE YOOOOOU?!

But hey, let's hold up a second. Erskine Caldwell's "Gretta"? Yup, this is supposedly an adaptation of the 1955 book from the author of Tobacco Road. I actually own the book, but I never bothered reading it until I decided to ramble about this flick. So what's it about? It's about 144 pages *rimshot*, making Gretta one of the faster ways to feel sad. Now, if you want to read it, skip the following five paragraphs, otherwise shut your goddamn trap about SPOILERS and read on:

It's a three-part story about a young woman (Gretta) who has fucking had it with having her soul get the shit beat out of it by that cruel motherfucker Loneliness, so she ends up going to a bar, meets some random dude, they go to her place, and they bang. Then in part two, the story skips ahead about half-a-year or so and Gretta is now newly married to a doctor named Glenn and everything seems hunky-dory until they throw a party and one of the guests, a fellow doctor named Royd, gets drunk/belligerent and makes it very clear that he once knew Gretta in the biblical sense, back when she was as easy as pie. Hair pie. 

Turns out that pre-marriage Gretta used to take dude after dude from the bar to her place, where she'd bang them and then kindly request that they would leave money on the table as a "gift" to her. After Royd lets this cat out of the bag, Gretta gets really emotional and is afraid that Glenn wants nothing to do with her, but he insists that none of that shit matters because it's all in the past and now they have each other. Except it's not quite in the past yet; fuckin' Royd shows up to hassle Gretta while Glenn is at work, he gives her a hard time and demands that she run off with him. She refuses, so Royd does the right thing and puts a bullet into his stupid pig head, because really, fuck that guy.

Glenn continues to stand by his girl, until one day he comes home from work and Gretta confesses to him that she just slept with another man earlier that afternoon. Poor motherfucker didn't even have a chance to relax and watch some TV before she hit him with that bad news. So while he's trying to figure this shit out without losing his own shit, Gretta explains to him that when she was a little girl with recently deceased parents, she followed some predator to his house where he charmed her by way of food and games, before taking her to his bedroom where he did his evil thing and then gave her a nickel afterward as some kind of perverted gift of gratitude; this basically fucked Gretta up enough that now as an adult she needs to recreate that experience by bringing home random dudes and asking them to TREAT HER THE SAME WAY THE PEDOPHILE PIECE OF SHIT WHO RUINED HER DID. Ay Dios Mio.

This, of course, takes their marriage straight to Fuckedville; Gretta begs Glenn not to divorce her, but he becomes increasingly despondent knowing that no matter what he does and no matter how often Gretta begs him to stay, chances are that his wife will continue to make money the hard way. Not wanting to break his promise of never divorcing her, Glenn finds another way out of this stickiness -- he kills himself. That now makes two former Gretta lovers driven to suicide; meanwhile I bet you the guy who fucked her up as a kid is currently living a contented life with a family or something.

Part three takes Gretta back to the bar, newly widowed, still lonely, and back on the prowl. She ends up taking a dude to her place and the book ends with her doing the same routine she's done on other guys before making with the sexytime: she sits on the floor and takes her stockings off while the man stands in front of her, just like she did for the kid-diddler back in the day. For the first time in a long time, she smiles. The End (of book SPOILERS you big baby). 

The main thing the book and the film have in common is Nothing. Two of the film's characters share names with their literary counterparts; you have Gretta who likes to get it on, and you have Glen, who is not a doctor like in the book, but a pre-med student in college. And his name is spelled minus one N. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, let me talk about the third main character in the movie, some rich asshole named George Youngmeyer.

The film opens with middle-aged George wearing an ascot and smoking jacket and looking at himself in the mirror like he's the fuckin' man, and I guess he is because the dude is financially loaded. But he inherited it all from his rich mother, so he ain't that awesome. If George had been born much later, like in the late 80s/early 90s, he'd probably be one of those useless walking meatbags like the Rich Kids of Instagram that post photos of themselves living their awesome lifestyles because this is all part of God's plan somehow while some nice family somewhere starves. Mysterious ways and all that.

Deep in my heart, I know these kids aren't good people, the most I'll give them is that they're dumb unaware twats. One of these useless lambs actually said in an interview that by posting those pics of himself posing in his expensive sports car or yacht or house, he was doing a service to the younger kids by showing them what they can get if they work hard for it -- conveniently forgetting that he was born into this wealth and the only work this cunt probably did in his entire blessed life was filing papers one summer at one of the many businesses his father was fucking over the planet Earth with, before getting bored after a couple hours and taking off in his Lambo.

Shit, if I had that kind of money...I'd have that fuckin' money, man. It's not like I want to buy flashy cars or bling bling or any of that shit, I just want to buy a fuckin' island where I can live the rest of my life away from everyone else and not bother anybody again. Basically I want to live like Francisco Scaramanga -- minus Nick Nack trying to kill me.

Anyway, George is also the narrator of the film, which is pretty cool because you have an asshole narrating his point-of-view while the events unfold. George refers to Glen as the snake in the Garden of Eden even though Glen seems like an all right dude. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

George calls himself "the last of the great lovers", which I assume is a title he gave himself. The film begins with George going to a carnival in search of someone to love, provided she doesn't love him back. I still don't get it, but that's a big thing for him. The lucky lady turns out to be Gretta, a popcorn vendor at the carnival. She's a tough sell for about two seconds before George begins speaking the international language of Love by shoving multiple $100 bills into her cleavage. Cut to George's mansion, where our man is playing Nocturne no. 2 on his grand piano before being interrupted by Gretta as she slinks up to him while eating an ice cream cone. She then uses her free hand to play something more fast and upbeat before declaring "I'm glad Chopin's DEAD!"

I gotta give it up to Miss Gretta; here's a girl who pretty much won the lottery by hooking up with a wealthy man, and she doesn't even have to fuck him or even like him, he just wants her company. But rather than rake in the dough for not being a ho, she keeps busy by playing piano at a nightclub he owns. And if that's not enough, George tells us that Gretta always wanted to be a movie star, so he made that happen by getting her into porno. Some fuckin' favor. Usually these rich dudes bankroll movies for their trophy chicks to ruin with their bad acting, while all George probably had to do was look up some ad in the back of a stroke mag.

The fucked up thing about these porno flicks Gretta acts in is that they're all about guys forcing themselves on her, doing her against her will until she eventually enjoys it. Not a single one of these joints is about her calling up some hot pizza delivery guy or cable guy with the ulterior motive of Gettin' It On, they all start with her struggling against some dude pawing her and ripping her clothes off or tying her up and all other various situations that I would never try to reenact on my private island with all my money.

Was that something Gretta specified in her request for porn work? Like some chicks do anal, some only do lesbian scenes, but Gretta was like "The more rapey, the better!"? I don't know, but Gretta's an odd duck. Sure, both Book Gretta and Movie Gretta both have holes in their souls and anatomy that require constant filling, but Movie Gretta likes it rough. The filmmakers seem to like it rough too, I think they find nothing wrong with a little forced entry; a couple times in the film, rape is brought up as a solution to a problem. As for what this problem is, I won't tell because this is the kind of movie you should just let surprise you, even though I'm giving away like the first 15-20 minutes of it here.

So now let's bring back our boy Glen. He's painted as the ideal young stud because he's good-looking, used to be in the Army, is currently studying for a medical career, plays on the football team, and most important of all, owns both a motorcycle AND a 70s van. He's introduced joining his frat buddies at a party that is in full douche-swing, and what stood out the most for me at this party was that most of them were gathered around a portable movie screen watching one of Gretta's porno films on honest-to-goodness projected film! Those were the days -- right, fellas? (This film was shot in 1983/84.)

Nah, I've never seen actual cinema porn in the way it was intended, and I can count all the times I watched porn with my friends on one hand (don't ask what I'm doing with the other hand), and the last time I watched porn in a group, I didn't even ask to take part. Years ago, when my future had promise, I was at a party at a friend's house and as I was stepping out of the bathroom, I noticed a small gathering of bros down the hall, so I walked up to them to see what the commotion was all about. They were peering into one of the bedrooms, where my friend's roommate -- absolutely shitfaced hammered -- was happily showing off his collection of clips involving various women's faces being messily introduced to millions upon millions of extinguished lives that never were.

Thankfully, Gretta's porn adventures are missing that endgame. Instead, she's being attacked and raped by someone who appears to be Davy Crockett, which makes me feel better about the Alamo. (But to be fair, I already feel pretty goddamn good about the Alamo, being a goddamn spic and all.) While Glen's buddies are all getting crotch-tight at this film, he actually falls in love at the sight of this violated lady. But why? Aside from her obvious visual qualities, I would guess that Glen senses some kind of unexplainable connection after looking into her eyes, when they're not being blocked by Porn Davy Crockett's head while he's humping her. Maybe he also thinks he can save her from this sweaty career, not knowing that she actually is cool with being a porn star in rapey stag films.

Glen gets so smitten with Gretta, he tracks down the filmmakers behind these opuses (opusi?) and finds out who/where she is. He then goes down to George's nightclub, gets himself acquainted with George (who warns him not to get involved because Gretta "is from the 4th dimension") and then goes backstage -- located downstairs in a kind of strange paradise of rejects from Fellini and John Waters films -- to finally meet the girl of his dreams. It's pretty funny to watch because you know he probably had this image of her as this damsel-in-distress in need of saving, but instead encounters a foul-mouthed sexual libertine with a taste for absinthe (which she drinks from a straw) who is more interested in fucking Glen while George watches, than in going out to dinner with him ("I only eat one meal a day, and it ain't dinner." Gretta is apparently into intermittent fasting.)

Plus, she's a fucking weirdo, in case I haven't made that clear in these ramblings. But I'll keep bringing it up anyway.

The rest of the film is a strange love story between Glen and Gretta; he isn't so cool with her job in the porn industry, but he puts up with it. He's also kind of annoyed by the relationship she continues to have with George, but he puts with that too. Glen in general is pretty low-key in his slightly baffled reactions to everything going on around him and dealing with the people that work for George, like a gay dude who calls himself Mary who at one points visits Glen in the morgue to relay a message to him while scoping out some dead dong ("What a waste!"), or getting himself sucked into George's underworld friends who together have formed the most exclusive and dangerous of secret clubs.

As mentioned earlier, this subplot about the secret club is what the Night Train to Terror version of Gretta was about. In Night Train to Terror, this story comes off like an episode of Tales from the Crypt or The Hitchhiker on crystal meth (with added gore to the otherwise clean deaths in the Gretta cut). But in the full-length Gretta, the "death club" is just another oddball fabric used in the crazy patchwork quilt of drama, romance, comedy, sex, and violence that is this film.

In addition to George and Gretta, the death club (which I don't recall being referred to by name in the full-length version) is comprised of bored wealthy assholes who get together to stage death games, like sitting in a closed room while a deadly poisonous beetle flies around, waiting to see if any of them will get the fatal sting that will send them to the next world. The way they talk about it (using terms like "exquisite ecstasy") and the way they act the closer they get to dying, they appear to get off on it in a sex-type way. Like I said -- assholes. Although to be fair to these assholes, they've all had a near-death experience in the past (it's required to be a member of the club), so at least they know what they're fucking with here: DEATH, MUTHAFUCKA!

Enough of that shit. Anyway, George isn't kidding about Gretta being from the 4th dimension, I mean that would explain a lot of her wacko behavior in this movie. The only backstory that could possibly explain her ways is that back in the day, she narrowly escaped being the latest victim of a serial killer. But the movie happily hops/skips/jumps past that point, which it does often with other details. Somewhere along the way,  Gretta undergoes a serious change in character that suggests -- without actually declaring -- that she suffers from some kind of Dissociative Personality Disorder. Man oh man, I'd love to tell you more about it but you really need to see it for yourself.

That's right, lady and gentleman, I am highly recommending this wonderfully strange film. It certainly has issues and is far from perfect. But shit man, no film is perfect. No film. Even that one that you love so much has a problem or two. If anyone tells you different, they are deluded liars. That's just how it is, cuz. I can see someone calling this a bad movie, or a so-bad-it's-good movie, but I genuinely like this very entertaining film, this film that would be in the Cult section of Hollywood Video if we were living in 1996.

But yeah it's got flaws like a muthafucka, the kind of flaws you'd have to be a kindhearted soul like this asshole rambling at you to not give a shit about. Like, of course, the couple times where rape is seen as a justified means to an end is disconcerting to say the least. And another problem with this movie is the way some characters just pop in and out of the proceedings without even a hint of a setup, or the giant narrative gaps that you'll have to fill in yourself with the power of your vast imagination.

According to the way-too-brief audio interview with assistant editor Wayne Schmidt on the DVD, there were reedits, additional scenes, and narration added after the original shoot, which would explain the occasional feeling that this shit's being made up as it goes along. I mean, even the Death Club stuff feels like it can be lifted out entirely and you can still tell the same story. But thank the movie gods for Philip Yordan's fascinating mind and his apparent inability to say "Uh, maybe we shouldn't do that". Yordan was more like "FUCK THAT SHIT LET'S MAKE FUN OF THE DRAG QUEEN, LET'S HAVE AN OLD JEWISH COUPLE LISTEN IN ON SEX, AND LET'S PUT A FIGHT SCENE HERE WITH BAD GUYS STRAIGHT OUT OF A RETRO ARCADE GAME".

And hey, you can't hate on a guy who casts himself as a creepy perv at a porn theater. Or who knows, maybe Yordan didn't think his character was creepy. What else? Oh yeah, I also really liked the music; there's a nice piano theme that plays through most of the movie, and then some scenes will go with some totally 80s synth tracks that sound like they come from some movie about fraternity bros playing sports or something. And then some of the other synth tracks sound like porn.

Some of the acting is a little ripe, but I guess Salt Lake City, Utah (where this film was shot) wasn't particularly fertile acting ground at the time. I don't care, man. Good times is good muthafuckin' times, and I certainly had them with this fuckin' flick. And the only acting you need to concern yourself with is the one-of-a-kind performance from the actress playing Gretta, one Ms. Merideth Haze.

I know some of this behavior is a result of Philip Yordan's crazy screenplay, but goddamn, I think a lot of it comes from Lady Haze herself. I kind of ended up like Glen in the movie, finding myself entranced by this sexy nutter with the very expressive face and the balls to go with the least safe acting choice in every scene. I wanted to know more about her, so I looked her up and unfortunately this is her only credit as an actress. She left on a high note, though. If you were to tell me that after this film, Ms. Haze got a sex change and changed her name to Nicolas Cage, I'd be hard-pressed not to believe you. I can totally see that happening because she shares that same fearless approach with Cage, where the results are either really good or really bad or both at the same time -- but never, ever boring.

I can't give short shrift to Rick Barnes, the dude who plays Glen. He's got the straight man role here and it works well in contrast to Haze's goes-to-11 performance. Part of me wonders how much of what he does here is an actual performance and how much of it is him being genuinely bemused at the kind of movie this is. And I'm surprised J. Martin Sellers didn't make a career out of playing assholes like George, but then again, this movie never got a proper release so maybe he would have had a shot at a movie career if people actually saw this movie.

According to a commenter on IMDB, Merideth Haze did not transform into Nicolas Cage. She got married and now runs a talent agency. As far as I'm concerned, Merideth Haze IS a walking talent agency. Ms. Haze, I salute you, wherever and whoever you are. "I'M A FISH!" indeed.

So yeah, man. Check this flick out. If you don't want to get the Night Train Blu-ray, you can get the Death Wish Club version on DVD which is a slightly different edit (the differences are very minor, I'm told). If you don't like the movie, then I don't know what to say, other than I didn't promise you shit. All I said is that I liked it. And I do, man. I liked this movie very much.

In conclusion, if you wanna eat popcorn at the porno theater, that's fine. But c'mon man, don't eat a fuckin' hot dog. There's people trying to covertly jerk off in here and you're eating tube steak. That's off-putting.

(There be major spoilers here, but honestly, this is definitely more about the journey and not the destination, so I'm cool sharing this video with you poor unsuspecting souls)