Saturday, 21 March 2020

Truck Stop (1978)

Doesn’t that cover just scream ‘a modern day interpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey’? Well, maybe not, but that is what Truck Stop is, and a whole lot more. It’s a film that was given an extra lease of life by 23rd Century DVD, a somewhat shady outfit whose releases seemed to be everywhere up until a few years ago, especially at the bargain basement shops that sell low-priced DVDs and CDs. In some ways the 23rd century label was a continuation...although some might call it a last gasp...of those cheap video labels that were all the range in the 1980s and 1990s. Ones like Apex, Viz Video, Network, Turbophase, the kind of labels that always tended to re-title the films they released, had terrible picture quality and tacky, but attention grabbing covers. Everything about 23rd Century had an air of grey area illegality about it, the company never submitted the movies they released to the BBFC, chances are that they didn’t own the rights to the films they released, and pretty much everything they put out was of VHS quality. The label might have been called 23rd Century, but the picture quality of their discs was definitely rooted in the 20th century.

To give credit where its due though they did produce some startling cover designs for the likes of Drive-In Massacre, Head and The Devil’s Rain...and it did feel like someone at the company had put effort into their artwork at least. Something which compared them favourably to the likes of Vipco, who were going through their ‘gold lettering on a black background cover’ phase, and whose releases smacked of indifference and zero effort, yet were seen as a far more legitimate outfit. Whether Vipco were a far more legitimate outfit, is another matter, but you did see Vipco DVD releases in high street chains like HMV and Virgin Megastore, whereas 23rd century titles only tended to turn up in the lower rung, market stall level DVD shops, and as I say the bargain basement outlets. Another part of their appeal was that 23rd Century DVDs were dirt cheap, you didn’t expect to pay more than a pound for them, and if you did you were robbed.

23rd Century's greatest hits

23rd Century didn’t put as much effort into designing their adult releases as they did other genres. In that sense they were continuing a tradition of their VHS label forefathers by slapping random porno images onto the covers of these releases, making them look like modern day porn, even though the films on the discs tended to be older, drive-in era sexploitation movies. Although I’m sure the adult movies they released were selected with little rhyme or reason, 23rd century did still manage to put out a few notable titles. 23rd Century released ‘Teenage Tramp’ (1973) a drive-in obscurity about a runaway who runs foul of a Manson type figure, and the bizarre, bisexually oriented British film ‘Boys and Girls Together’ (1979) which was really hard to find before 23rd Century put it out on DVD. For that at least, this now defunct company deserved kudos.

The plot synopsis on 23rd Century’s release of Truck Stop doesn’t clue you into what the film is about, favouring instead some bad erotica gibberish. “to the roar of a castle-8 turbine, the chevvy bender roller rubbers, twin pack super heat super turbo in mid flight, thighs like a racing horse, moving like an oiled piston, breasts heaving, lips trembling, bottom wiggling power with legs a-go-go...every truckers favourite, whether she’s black or blue, just as long as she goes and goes. It’s a race against the clock, will she or won’t she...she will and she’s wet and screaming...she’s on her way” 

As well as being an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey though, Truck Stop is actually a spin-off from the C.B. Radio/Trucking phenomenon of the 1970s, which quickly spread to movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy and the early Chuck Norris vehicle Breaker, Breaker. Inevitability, softcore variations on the theme like CB Hustlers and Truck Stop Women came along. This is predominantly thought of as being an American genre, but Truck Stop breaks the mould in that respect as well, this being a French trucking sex comedy...based on Homer’s Odyssey. So, we are definitely talking a fairly unique film here...oh, and one of its female stars...wasn’t always that way. It’s a shame the film was struck with such a dull English title (it was also released in English as the equally lacklustre ‘Travelling Companions’) its only when you delve a little deeper do you realise that this is something extraordinary, and far from your average run of the mill 1970s sexploitation film.

Truck Stop was directed by, and stars, Jean-Marie Pallardy, who began as a male model before turning his hand to sex films during the 1970s. On the basis of Truck Stop I’d definitely be interested in checking out more of his work from this period, something tells me my life won’t be complete till I’ve seen his 1974 film ‘Erotic Diary of a Lumberjack’. Towards the end of the decade Pallardy began to diversify into mainstream cinema with the 1977 thriller The Man from Chicago aka Le Rician, which Pallardy claimed was later plagiarised by Clint Eastwood in the 1993 film A Perfect World. Pallardy’s best known non-adult movie though remains 1984’s White Fire. An absolute stable of VHS shops in the 1980s, in which Robert ‘The Exterminator’ Ginty showed he had range beyond playing a guy who kills people with a flame thrower, by playing a guy who kills people with a chainsaw. White Fire didn’t exactly hide its director’s pornographic background, Ginty’s character wants to fuck his own sister, and after she is killed, somehow talks a prostitute into undergoing plastic surgery to look like his sister. Which both allows him to get revenge on her killers, and to sleep with a woman who looks like his recently deceased sister, a sub-plot that is a darn sight more kinkier than anything in any American action film from the 1980s.

Homer’s original epic poem concerned the plight of Greek hero Odysseus and his ten year journey home after the Trojan War, as well as his wife Penelope’s attempts to deal with several unruly suitors who compete for her hand in marriage. Jean-Marie’s version, updated to the C.B. radio era, casts himself as the Odysseus like truck driver Eugene, who has become lost in the desert while delivering fridges with his comedy sidekick Geoff. Eugene’s mission is to haul ass and drive the truck back home to the truck stop he owns, which is being run by his wife Pamela in his absence. After a year, Eugene is presumed dead, and while mourned by his fellow truckers, this doesn’t stop them from making moves on his wife. As per Homer’s original poem, Pamela insists that the truckers compete in various tasks in order to win her hand in marriage.

Don’t feel too sorry for Eugene and Geoff though, as while out in the desert they stumble upon an idyllic, utopian society run by Calypso, played by the scandalous transsexual star Ajita Wilson. Born George Wilson in Brooklyn, Wilson had a sex change in the mid-1970s, and thereafter became a star of Euro-sleaze films before dying prematurely in 1987. Eugene and George are kept in the life of luxury, with Calypso’s underlings serving up drinks and massages, while a sex crazed parrot squawks orders like “Get it up, Get it up” and “coffee break”. All Calypso demands in return is that Eugene gives her a big 10-4 good buddy!!!

Even putting aside the fact that one of the stars of this film is a transsexual, who has a lengthy, graphic sex scene with the leading man, this is a sexually subversive film for one aimed at a straight male audience in the 1970s. Straight man being hoodwinked into homosexual acts, or having momentary ‘lapses’ are running themes in Truck Stop. In another eye opening sequence, JoJo, one of the truckers competing for Pamela’s affections, picks up a transsexual hooker while she is using a urinal in the men’s room, and buys her services for his dim-witted pal John. Only after fucking her in the ass for a while does John think to reach round, only to discover she is all woman...and a bit extra. The transsexual is, by the way, played by non-transsexual Annik Borel, ol’ hairy tits herself from the Italian sleaze-fest ‘Werewolf Woman’, who in order to complete the illusion that she is a man, has here been dubbed by an effeminate sounding gay man.

The only really erotic sex scenes in Truck Stop tend to be lesbian orientated ones. One of the tasks that Pamela lays down for the truckers, sees them all having to watch two of the truck stop’s barmaids making out on the tables. This, the truckers have to do with their trousers down, and with bells attached to their genitals. Any man who gets it up, rings his bell, and gets disqualified from the competition. It all proves too much for trucker Lionel, who gets carried away, and tries to hump one of the other guys while they are bent over “with all the sex around this place, I’ll stick anything” he admits. Later on in the film Lionel ends up falling in water then keeps falsely accusing the two men standing behind him of touching his ass. Only to eventually discover that while in the water, a fish had got caught down the back of his pants, and has been trying to swim up his ass crack.

Annik Borel

Despite the film having its roots in classic Greek poetry, Truck Stop can rival any British film starring Robin Askwith, and any American film directed by Hal Needham when it comes to unsophisticated comedy, and would be equally at home in both those cinematic worlds. I’d wager that Jean-Marie Pallardy is a fan of physical, slapstick comedy, Truck Stop is very big on that, the film being full of punch ups, food fights, men being slapped around by women and practically pirouetting about as a result. All scored to Country & Western type music, in what presumably is a nod to the trucking film’s American origins. The fact that most of the cast have been dubbed with southern American accents, despite clearly being French and Italian actors, only adds a further layer of hilarity onto Truck Stop.

As well as the homosexual elements to the film, the constant ridiculing of heterosexual virility is another unexpected aspect to Truck Stop. All of Pamela’s suitors are complete idiots, utterly incapable of satisfying Pamela or the other women who work at the truck stop, and who only make fools of themselves when they attempt to do so. Jean-Marie Pallardy was in no risk of being upstaged by any of his male co-stars in the good looks department. Leading man aside, the male cast here are comically unattractive guys, best represented by Georges Gueret, a regular stooge in Pallardy’s movies, who resembles a French Windsor Davies, with a huge moustache to match. A cynical mind might wonder if Jean-Marie crammed the film with so many male uglies, just to make himself look good. I guess if you cast yourself as the leading man in your own movie, playing a modern day version of a Greek king, you might have a tad bit of an ego, thankfully Jean-Marie does also have the charisma to back it up. It is impossible to dislike Jean-Marie Pallardy, you get nothing but good natured vibes from the man, and Pallardy has such an air of coolness and hard living debauchery to him, as you’d expect from a Frenchman.

There is certainly no lack of incident along the way home for Eugene and Geoff, at one point the pair get held up by robbers, who try to steal the truck. A sequence that not only points the way forward to Pallardy’s action movie future, but also gives him the opportunity to prove that he is a fighter as well as a lover. Eugene also has to fight off the attentions of an eye patch wearing comedy fat woman, who threatens to crush Eugene under the weight of her gargantuan chest and is only restrained by Eugene sticking a live plug up her ass and giving her an electric shock. Anal abuse does seem to have been high on Jean-Marie Pallardy’s list of guaranteed rib-tittlers. As well as fish and plugs finding their way into people’s backsides here, one character gets a knitting needle in the rear, while Pamela shoos away one suitor by sticking a pitchfork up his ass. No one’s ass is safe in this film.

Truck Stop’s playfully perverse cocktail, the casting of Ajita Wilson, and the transsexual hooker incident, do have a sexually mischievous edge to them, and naturally, the ability to wind up the more close minded elements of society the wrong way. How do I know this for sure? Well, when I chanced upon the 23rd Century DVD of Truck Stop, I was a bit on the fence about picking it up. I did wonder if it could have been a re-titling of the Claudia Jennings film Truck Stop Women, then again it could have been the time wasting, shot on video porn that the cover made it out to be. Fortunately, an acquaintance, who shall remain nameless, didn’t have such reservations, and won over by that T&A cover, paid a couple of quid for it. When he played the DVD, and a film from the 1970s popped up, starring the likes of Ajita Wilson and Annik Borel, I instantly knew that I’d missed a trick here.

Now, the person in question, who picked up the DVD isn’t can I put this....the most progressive of thinker, and I knew if I let slip that Ajita hadn’t always been a she, they’d probably freak out and end up giving me the DVD. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened, and amidst protests of “she used to be a man...urrghh thats not normal...I’m not watching this” I emerged with another title to add to my collection of releases by the world’s worst DVD label. If you do have an open mind though, Truck Stop is actually a warm, joyfully movie, a celebration of friendship, love, sex, drinking, the beauty of rural France, and what Jean-Marie’s countrymen like to call Joie de vivre. Something, that in times like these is surely worth raising a glass to.

Friday, 13 March 2020

The King of Kong Island (1968)

In the late 1960s there was something in the air, namely loin cloth clad women, for this was a period that saw an influx of female Tarzan movies. Harry Alan Towers is seemingly entitled to some of the credit for initiating this trend with 1968’s Eve aka The Face of Eve, but Italy soon answered the call with Tarzana- the Wild Woman, Samoa- Queen of the Jungle and Gungala- Virgin of the Jungle. 

Never one to miss a trend, or capitalise on it, unstoppable exploitation film producer Dick Randall jumped on the female Tarzan bandwagon with a film that was initially known as Eva, la Venere selvaggia (Eva, the Savage Venus), but over time has become more commonly known as The King of Kong Island.

Chances are that if a film opens with the legend ‘Dick Randall presents’ you can be assured of a B-Movie good time. In a career lasting from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, Dick Randall left a legacy of wild, wild movies. Their main aim may always have been to empty a punter’s wallet, but the showman in Randall dictated that the films rarely left people feeling like they hadn’t got their monies worth. True to form, King of Kong Island tries to pack in a bit of everything, as well as being a female Tarzan movie, it is also a two-fisted adventure yarn, a mad scientist movie, a national geographic type travelogue ...and the film partly justifies its most famous title by also throwing in some rampaging gorillas.

Randall was one of many Americans who beat a path to Rome in the late 1960s. Now, when I first ventured onto the internet in the late 1990s, Dick Randall was high on the list of people I wanted to know more about. One of the first people I reached out to about him was Mel Welles, who is probably best remembered for Little Shop of Horrors and other early Corman flicks, but who also had his time in Rome in the 1960s. So this is what Mel had to say about Dick Randall “we were friends living in Rome and part of a colony of Americans and Brits living there and working in the European film industry. Dick was an astute film broker, a sharp businessman with a great sense of humour. Chubby, moustachioed with a thin Gilbert Roland one, and of shortish-but-not-too-stature. Dick was the embodiment of the exploitation film producer of the era”.

So, the impression you get is that all the English speaking Brits and Americans who were working in Italy at the time all knew each other and socialised. No surprise then,that the cast of King of Kong Island includes a couple of American actors who were attempting to start, or restart, their careers in Italy. King of Kong Island’s leading man, bodybuilder turned actor Brad Harris, certainly fit that bill. Having first appeared on Italian shores as a stuntman on Kubrick’s Spartacus, Harris carved out a career as a muscle-bound, square jawed all American tough guy in Italian Westerns, Eurospy thrillers and Sword and Sandal movies like The Fury of Hercules. Randall’s partners on this film, Ralph Zucker and Walter Brandi were no strangers to films featuring shirtless, muscular Americans, having previously made Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) starring Mickey Hargitay. A film dubbed by the book High Camp: A Gay Guide to Camp and Cult Films “perhaps the supreme jerk off film of all time”. So, if you’re the kind of fella who likes their movies the Italian way, and everything else the Greek sounds like that one should be added to your watchlist.

In King of Kong Island, Harris plays Bert Dawson, a mercenary who in the opening scene of the film is shot in the back and left for dead by his friend Albert Muller, played by American character actor Marc Lawrence, who like Harris also went through a period in Italy in the 1960s. When not leading the life of a double crossing mercenary, Albert also doubles as a mad doctor, who performs brain operations on gorillas, which turns them into his robot like slaves. Who says men are no good at multi-tasking?

Having survived the shooting, Bert gets a chance at revenge when Diana, the thrill seeking daughter of Bert’s friend Theodore, is kidnapped by Albert’s gorillas while on safari in Nairobi. Bert wastes no time in venturing into darkest Africa in order to put an end to Albert’s monkey business. A task he is aided in by the film’s female Tarzan character, played by Brazilian actress Esmeralda Barros, who acquires the name Eva during the course of the film, but is known and loved by the natives as ‘sacred monkey’.

Despite the film’s original title being Eva, the Savage Venus, this is definitely a Brad Harris vehicle with Harris displaying the kind of values that made him an icon to male Italian audiences of the time. Hard living Bert drinks, smokes, womanises, brawls and drives the ladies crazy whenever he takes off his shirt. Harris really had that ‘men want to be him, women want him’ shtick down to a tee by this point. There are enough betrayals, extra marital affairs and heated passions here to fill a soap opera. Theodore’s wife had previously had an affair with Bert, Theodore’s daughter has a schoolgirl crush on Bert, the sacred monkey takes a shine to him, Albert wants Bert’s body so he can perform experiments on him and make him his male slave. Even the sacred monkey’s cheetah like sidekick goes wild when Bert takes his top off.

On the downside there is an awful lot of scenes of people on safari and reacting to stock footage of animals in this film...which do ermm go on a bit, however some concessions have to be made to this film’s age. In the late 1960s, the world was a far less well travelled place, and the exotic sights and wildlife of Nairobi, projected onto the big screen in full colour was probably a far greater, and unfamiliar, spectacle to audiences then, than it is now. Still, if the nature footage does occasionally bore you there is always Roberto Pregadio’s fabulously groovy lounge music soundtrack, with tracks like ‘Jungle Shake’ being the perfect accompaniment for an alpha male who is trying to impress the ladies on the dance floor.

I first encountered King of Kong Island under the kind of circumstances that will never come round again. Back in the days of VHS bootlegs you’d occasionally find bits of another film at the end of a bootleg tape. That was how I first came into contact with the opening half hour of King of Kong Island. The Dick Randall connection and the early scene of gorilla brain surgery certainly got my attention, and by the time the film reached the scene where the gorillas ogle the girl who is undressing in her tent and then abduct her, I knew that there was no way I could go through life without seeing the rest of this film.

It feels a long time ago when this film was considered rare and hard to find, since its visibility has increased ten fold these days. Due in no small part, to the fact that the film is now considered ‘public domain’. Whether King of Kong Island actually is in the public domain in debatable, but it is definitely one of those films that everyone and their barber seems to have released on DVD or uploaded to Youtube. I was on holiday a few years ago at a rental home, got up early one morning, turned on the TV and there showing on some crappy, fly by night public domain TV channel was King of Kong Island. So it has gone from being a film I once had to track down to a film that seems to follow me around everywhere.

Prior to the film becoming quite so common place I did pick up a 2002 DVD release of it from Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia company, which includes two different cuts of the film. A heavily censored US release version under the title Kong Island, and an uncut European version, under the title King of Kong Island, which is derived from a Greek VHS release. You can’t help but admire the meticulousness that went into censoring Kong Island for its US release. Basically the contentious material mostly relates to Esmeralda Barros’s female Tarzan character, who is topless throughout the movie, albeit with her long hair obscuring her breasts. Trouble is that whenever there is movement, Barros’ hair shifts about and you get unobstructed views of her breasts. So, someone has gone through this film at some point with a fine tooth comb and chopped out every single exposed breast and/or nipple shot. An arduous, but one images not entirely unenjoyable task. As I mentioned there is an uncensored version on the disc, but it is from VHS and with large, intrusive Greek subtitles. So it seems the pre-cert British VHS release is still the only way to see the film uncut, in English and without subtitles.

As far as I can tell this film didn’t acquire its best known title till several years after it was made. Following the film’s initial release it was floated around under the titles ‘Kong and the Savage Venus’, ‘Naked Among Monkeys’ and the futuristic sounding ‘Jungle 2000’. The title King of Kong Island, or sometimes simply Kong Island, seems to have become associated with the film around the time of the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong. A ballsy move on Randall’s part, given how litigious the King Kong people were, having taken legal action against several rip-offs and parodies, including Queen Kong and Paul Leder’s A.P.E. This though was the title Randall was selling the film under at the 1977 Cannes film festival, alongside such Randall delights as The Young Bruce Lee- one of those Bruceploitation films which mixed in scenes of a Lee lookalike with footage taken from an old b/w film featuring the real Lee from his child actor days- and an Emmanuelle rip-off called The Daughter of Emanuelle. Incidentally the name of Emanuelle’s daughter in that film is ‘Pussy’....yes, who else but Emanuelle would call her daughter Pussy...and given the nature of that film you’ll be unsurprised to learn that Pussy not only lives up to her name but proves to be a chip off the old block too.

According to the original Italian credits of King of Kong Island, this film was a co-production between Italy, Spain and Dick Randall’s Spectacular Trading company, which was still based in New York at the time. Soon after though Randall would decamp to Italy, having supposedly left the US under a dark cloud, with rumours that he was being investigated for counterfeiting crimes by the US government. After his period in Italy, Randall began making movies in London, although appears to have only lived in London for half the year, spending the other half in Hong Kong. A situation that apparently allowed Randall to claim his British films like Don’t Open Till Christmas, Slaughter High and Attack of the Killer Computer as being UK/Hong Kong co-productions on the paperwork. Even though there is nothing remotely Chinese about those films, apart from maybe the odd Chinese take-away being served up by the catering department. I’m sure if you did a deep enough dive into the Dick Randall story you’d find stories of tax evasion, people being scammed, actresses being slobbered over and Randall cavorting with high class prostitutes. It’s an image that Randall didn’t exactly downplay in the cameos he made in his own movies, as Mel Welles accurately pointed out all those years ago...Randall was the embodiment of the exploitation film producer of that era.

In recent years King of Kong Island’s commercial value has increased somewhat, due to the fact that it has a pre-existing, but very similar title to the Hollywood blockbuster Kong Skull Island. Something capitalised on by various DVD releases and uploads of King of Kong Island, which throw around Kong Skull Island type imagery in an attempt to fool viewers into thinking they are getting a new, big budget Hollywood movie, rather than a fifty odd year old Italian B-Movie. I’m sure there are many out there that curse the name of this film because of that, but I can’t help feeling that such dishonest, morally bankrupt deception of the public would have met with the Dick Randall seal of approval.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Johnny Vik (1973)

A Vietnam veteran called John falls foul of a small town sheriff, escapes from jail and becomes the subject of a relentless, woodlands manhunt. I know what you’re thinking “he must be talking about First Blood, right?” Well, no, this isn’t John Rambo, this is Johnny Vik, made in 1973 but for reasons unknown often cited as a 1977 film. Never heard of it? Well I can’t say I’m too surprised, in the twenty years since I first discovered this film I’ve only ever known of three other people who have seen it, and one of them was in it.

Personally, I first encountered the film in the late 1990s at my local branch of Blockbuster Video, of all places. Hidden away in an obscure corner of Blockbuster was a film called ‘The Hunted’ on the Intervision label, a video label dating back to the pre-cert era. Something which in itself got my attention, since it certainly wasn’t common to see a video from the pre-cert era still being on the rental shelves by the late 1990s. The irony is that those type of older video releases, which quickly ended up in Blockbuster’s ‘for sale’ bin, were the only videos on their shelves that are of any value today. If I remember rightly I not only picked up this film, but Truck Turner, a re-titled version of a Lee Frost film called Chain Gang Women, the English dubbed RCA release of A Better Tomorrow and Black Mama, White Mama from Blockbuster too. Yet back then all those were being cheaply sold off to make room for twenty odd copies of Titanic, Gladiator, Waterworld and the Mel Gibson Maverick. Mass produced tapes that are now worthless and considered the absolute dead wood of the VHS era.

Intervision, gawd bless em, had given a thorough exploitation makeover to this film, which by then had been re-titled ‘The Hunted’ from its original title Johnny Vik, had the tag-line ‘IF ONLY THEY HADN’T PUT JOHNNY IN JAIL’ slapped onto it, and was generally made to look like a First Blood rip-off. In fairness though this isn’t a film you could honestly market for commercial release, Johnny Vik is the type of film that wins lots of critical praise and awards, but proves a nightmare when it comes to being sold to the public.

In that sense Johnny Vik is part of an oddball family of near unclassifiable hippie era movies that enjoyed a brief period of visibility in the early days of video by being falsely marketed as horror or exploitation movies. Other members of this family would include Alan Rudolph’s Premonition (1972) given a horror film makeover under the titles ‘Head’ and ‘The Impure’, Brianne Murphy’s Yyalah (1972), released on video as ‘Blood Sabbath’, and the Canadian rarity Golden Apples of the Sun (1973), known on video as ‘Caged Terror’. The discrepancy between these films’ original titles and their VHS era ones, tells you everything you need to know about how different they are to the way they were sold to horror hungry VHS audiences.

My own quick way of selling this film to people over the years has been to imagine an episode of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, had it been directed by David Lynch. Which...I don’t know...maybe raises people’s expectations of this movie a little too high, but on some level is justified. It is certainly a far more accurate description of the film than “if only they hadn’t put Johnny in jail”. Despite the film containing uncanny similarities to the film and the book First Blood, Johnny Vik does also anticipate some of Lynch’s key themes. Images of pollution, industrialization and deformed children evoke memories of Eraserhead, while the setting of the film, a logging town whose blue collar normality masks many, many hidden layers of strangeness is straight out of Twin Peaks.

The titular character of the film, Johnny Vik (Warren Hammack) is a shell shocked Vietnam veteran attempting to readjust to civilian life in his home town. Johnny, a Native American, is also torn between the white man’s culture and his own heritage, at a time when one is eradicating the other. The guilt trip of having worked at the logging factory that is tearing up and dismantling the nearby woodlands, is something else that weights heavily on Johnny’s conscience. For all his Nam background and PTSD issues, Johnny is far from being a tough guy. In the early stages of the film he is less Rambo or Billy Jack and more a fun-loving man-child in the manner of Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell, who passes the time by watching the locals pull pranks on the sheriff while Benny Hill type music plays in the background.

Human deformities and pollution are running themes here, the film points an accusatory finger at the logging factory, depicted as a monstrous creature that chews up the natural surroundings and spits out smoke and pollution, as having left its damaging mark on the population. In one scene Johnny visits a bar, only to become unnerved by the amount of people with wooden legs, warts, scars and nervous twitches. At the bequest of his pill popping Mama, Johnny makes a further attempt to blend back into the populace by getting a job as a window cleaner at the local hospital. Needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong, and in a scene that is equally uncomfortable, disturbing and comic, Johnny freaks out after seeing severely deformed babies in the hospital, runs into the town in a panic, destroys his bicycle and eventually pisses in the street.

For this Johnny is arrested and sent to jail for 30 days. Unable to cope, Johnny snaps, escapes from the jail and heads up into the forest, where he becomes the subject of a manhunt. Now, keep in mind that all this guy has done is pissed himself in public, yet the police treat him as if he were a mass murderer or public enemy number one. An absurdity that is picked up on and pointed out in the film itself “did they think he was going to flood the town” asks one character. I was astonished to realise a few years ago that this film is actually based on a true story, there really was a Johnny Vik character who was arrested for peeing in public, escaped from the local jail and was hunted down and shot to death by a posse of eighteen men, in what sounds more like a lynching than anyone’s idea of justice. It was a case that obviously incensed director Charles Nauman, enough to pick up a camera and make this film, as well as revisit the story many years later in a book called ‘Pola : The Mysterious Communications of a Gone Woman’, which is also about the same case. Nauman is an infrequent filmmaker, as far as I can tell Johnny Vik was his only narrative film, but he has also made documentaries, wrote books, been involved in activism....a real renaissance man.

Unconventional as the movie is, Johnny Vik does tap into the zeitgeist of the times, there are lots of counterculture concerns in this film about environmental issues, the treatment of the native American, the effects of the Vietnam war, the disillusionment with modern society and the desire to drop out and live among nature. The great outdoors is seemingly the only place where Johnny can get his head together, and a peaceful world away from the noise and pollution of the town, which the film sees as leaving people mentally and physically crippled. Anyone expecting the type of vengeful payback for the town having drawn first blood, that Intervision video promised, is going to be left feeling short changed here. Johnny is entirely a man of peace who just wants to be left alone in the woods, where he is content to eat berries and build wooden effigies of his ancestors. The man though, just won’t leave Johnny alone.

Had I not discovered this film was based on a true story, I have to admit I would have had suspicions that Johnny Vik was an unauthorised adaptation of David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood, similarities between the two however just seem to be one of life’s strange coincidences. Even so, it is fascinating to compare this curio to the 1982 film of First Blood, since they actually tell pretty much the same story, but in very different ways. Far from going in the direction of an action movie, Johnny Vik’s second act is a Sunn Classic type love letter to the American wilderness before taking a more progressively trippy and surreal turn in its third act, as Johnny totally retreats from society and into his own fantasies. Johnny imagines himself being attended to by an army of identical oriental ladies, has visions of being hunted down by faceless men in steel masks and of a couple formed out of clay making love. As the spectre of death grows nearer, Johnny’s visions and fantasies become even more terrifying and religious themed. Johnny encounters an angel who throws animal offal into the snow and meets a pale faced Christ like figure who ...returning to the film’s fascination with deformities...has a finger that has two other fingers growing out of either side of it, giving the impression that he has a cross for a middle finger.

By rights Johnny Vik should have made it onto the midnight movie circuit, where its whole bag o’ weirdness would have been right at home with the Eraserheads, The Harder they Comes and the El Topos...and a weed smoking audience who shared the film’s counterculture anger and passion. It wasn’t to be though, and today Johnny Vik is obscure as they come. Clearly, this isn’t a film for everyone, it is a sad, bleak movie that has the potential to leave you in a very negative and depressed state of mind, be aware of that going into it. Even if one of those boutique blu-ray labels were to spring Johnny Vik from the forgotten movie bone yard I have a nagging feeling that this film wouldn’t entirely be welcomed with open arms. It is an odd, different and difficult movie that has never found an audience, and yet there are images in this film, the deformed babies at the hospital, the angel throwing guts around, the man with a cross for a finger, that have haunted me for the last twenty years. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand Johnny Vik, but I know I’ll never forget Johnny Vik, and that surely is the sign of powerful filmmaking. The fact that in twenty years I’ve only ever encountered three other people who have seen this film is a travesty. Johnny Vik is the great, lost, shoulda been a midnight movie that never was one.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Black Angels (1970)

I’m back on YouTube with a brief look at the 1970 biker flick Black Angels aka Black Bikers from Hell

A rowdy, chaotic, good old, beer drinking biker flick, Black Angels stars John King III of Psycho from Texas fame. Should all you John King III fans out there want to stage your own John King III film festival ...well it wouldn't take up too much of your time, although he had small roles in other movies and TV shows, Black Angels and Psycho from Texas were to be his only substantial acting roles before his death in the early 2000s. The other face you might recognize here is James Whitworth, whose gnarly, bearded, wild man persona would later be used to even greater effect in The Hills Have Eyes. Yep, Papa Jup plays a biker in this one, which pits black biker gang The Choppers (played by real life bikers) against white biker gang Satan's Serpents, who go against expectations by being fervently anti-racist. When John King III's character tries to play racist agitator he is immediately shot down by one of the bikers who tells him "if you were an artist you'd know that black and white go together".

Now, if you thought the 1960s TV series Honey West asked too much of Anne Francis by having her act alongside a bad tempered, violence prone ocelot, have pity on the poor actors here who have to share the screen with one very pissed off cougar. The cast of Black Angels certainly had balls, and they were fortunate the cougar didn't get at them. Comic relief comes in the form of a biker who is trying to train a raccoon to smoke a joint, and the biker mama who resents being called a slut and prefers the term nymphomaniac.

In true exploitation film fashion it all ends in a mindless orgy of shootings, stabbings and pitchfork impalings, followed by a song lamenting the senseless violence in society. Black Angels director Laurence Merrick was a fascinating character, to put it mildly. A Zionist with alleged links to the Israeli defense forces and the US government. Merrick was also a footnote to the Manson family murders, having been around the family during the making of Black Angels in 1969, and having also been Sharon Tate's acting teacher for a while. Unusually for a director of low budget exploitation movies Merrick would go on to win an Oscar for co-directing the 1973 documentary Manson in 1973. There would be no happy ending for Laurence Merrick however, in 1977 Merrick himself was murdered by a mentally unbalanced aspiring actor who believed Merrick was using black magic to thwart his acting career. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and equally as tragic.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Grizzly 2: Revenge…The Predator…The Concert

37 years after it was made and abandoned then, it seems the world is finally going to get a finished, official version of Grizzly 2: Revenge (previously known as Grizzly 2: The Predator and Grizzly 2: The Concert). This new edit of the film had its premiere in LA on the 17th Feb 2020, which nobody seems to have been aware of till after the fact. Of course anyone watching the trailer for Grizzly 2: Revenge (2020) on Youtube and under the impression it is a 2020 film will probably think "it's amazing what they can do with de-ageing these days, Charlie Sheen, George Clooney and Laura Dern, just look the same as they did in 1983".

There was a fan edit floating around a few years ago, which got round the fact that the leaked Grizzly 2 work print was missing most of the special effects footage by inserting in bear attack material from the original film. Which kinda worked. I'm guessing someone has done something similar with Grizzly 2: Revenge, only in an official capacity. This probably explains why the fan edit disappeared from YouTube, and why the film's producer has been trying to get the work print footage taken down from Supposedly Cannon took an interest in finishing and releasing the film in 1987, which would have been a marriage made in heaven. Grizzly 2 is a very Cannon-esque movie at times, the ending is straight out of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, except that the concert gets gate crashed by a giant teddy bear. Maybe Cannon would have released it as Grizzly 2: Furball Boogaloo.

Pathetic bit of name dropping: Bruno Tonioli, who also makes a ‘before they were famous’ appearance in Grizzly 2, once chipped in to a Twitter conversation I was having about the film. Hopefully Bruno, who takes on the difficult and against type role of a dance choreographer in the film, has made it into the Grizzly 2: Revenge edit.