Monday, October 09, 2017

Something Weird Video's BACKWOODS DOUBLE FEATURE Reviewed

Welcome to Something Weird Video Week here on Video WatchBlog! Since the passing of SWV founder Mike Vraney in January 2014, the company responsible for finding, restoring and releasing literally hundreds of once-lost exploitation films has continued under the direction of Mike's widow, artist Lisa Petrucci.  For the last few years, while maintaining the status quo at SWV, Lisa has guided the company into some fruitful new alliances, resulting in such exciting releases as Arrow Video's SHOCK AND GORE/HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS FEAST sets,  Film Movement's Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series releases (most recently ALL THE SINS OF SODOM/VIBRATIONS), and the recent AGFA Blu-ray release of THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971), while the company has continued on with business-as-usual.

Something Weird's back catalogue is so richly diverse that they often obscured some of their own releases back in the days when they were releasing new titles by the dozens. And now, focusing as people tend to do on what's new, it seems to me that there's a real danger of taking this abundance of rare product (more than 2,000 titles!) for granted. So I've decided to devote this week to a celebration of Mike and Lisa's great achievement. I'm going to go back and pick out a handful of interesting, worthwhile titles that were overlooked by VIDEO WATCHDOG's print coverage over the years - their Image Entertainment DVD titles as well as their own DVD-Rs/instant downloads. Everything I'm going to write about here over the next several days very much warrants rediscovery - and it's just a fraction of the bounty awaiting you over at

COMMON LAW WIFE, 1963, 76m
Something Weird/Image Entertainment, DVD $14.98

"Over 3 1/2 hours of Hillbilly Hokum!"

This 2003 DVD release from Something Weird Video / Image Entertainment is billed as a double feature but actually contains three films: Eric Sayers' COMMON LAW WIFE (1963, which contains the only footage from an unreleased early Larry Buchanan film); JENNIE, WIFE/CHILD (1968), directed by James Landis of THE SADIST and THE FLESH EATERS fame; and - hidden away in the extras - MOONSHINE LOVE (1969), a film by the unknown Lester Williams which is conspicuously more explicit than either of the two main features, and also went by such demure alternate titles as SOD SISTERS and HEAD FOR THE HILLS.

COMMON LAW WIFE is a little-known but classic example of a compromised feature film, reworked for commercial and exploitative purposes. It began as an early film by Texas-based maverick filmmaker Larry Buchanan (THE NAKED WITCH, MARS NEEDS WOMEN, GOODBYE NORMA JEAN) entitled SWAMP ROSE, which had starred the elderly George Edgely and middle-aged Anne MacAdams as Texas oil magnate Shugfoot Rainey and his live-in mistress Linda, whom the millionaire abruptly dumps in favor of New Orleans stripper Baby Doll, played by an attractive young lead named Lacey Kelly. This then compels Linda to assert her hold over Uncle Shug by legally confirming herself as his common law wife. The film had been shot in color back in 1960 but was never released.

The footage was acquired by producer-distributor Michael A. Ripps, best-remembered for acquiring a slimly-released independent item called BAYOU and transforming it into POOR WHITE TRASH, and later sexing-up Roger Corman's THE INTRUDER and pulling it into overdue profit by retitling it I HATE YOUR GUTS. Ripps hired local amateur filmmaker Eric Sayers to make Buchanan's film (apparently focused on the middle-aged angst angle) racier and more exploitable. He proceeded to reshoot large chunks of it - adding an incestuous angle (Baby Doll was now the oil baron's niece, one he sexually corrupted in her childhood), an affair with the town's local sheriff (he's married to Baby Doll's sister), a rape at the hands of a moonshiner, and more. Sayers had nothing of Buchanan's ability, so COMMON LAW WIFE "crosses the line" like crazy, and the old and new footage cuts back-and-forth with absolutely no sense of rhythm - but as an example of what can sometimes happen to a film to make it "more commercial," it's a fascinating diversion for cinephiles. You see, Sayers was able to retain the services of some erstwhile cast members like Anne MacAdams and George Edgely, but Lacey Kelly was no longer available for reshoots. Therefore, the all-important role of "Baby Doll" is played in the final cut, with Buchanan's color footage dumbed-down to grainy black-and-white, by two completely different women. Ms. Kelly's unnamed replacement is disguised in some early shots with sunglasses and a series of preposterous hats, but it's ultimately a fact impossible to cover up.

For all that, I must confess that this impossible-to-conceal fact did nevertheless get by me; while the shots of Baby Doll flouncing around in obvious disguise did seem suspicious, I never cottoned to the fact that the film actually had the gall to present me with two different Baby Dolls in tight facial closeup till I listened to Buchanan's audio commentary, moderated by Nathaniel Thompson. Once I did notice, it was obvious - and I have little doubt that drive-in audiences never caught on. At any rate, someone ought to double-bill this one with Buñuel's THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE someday.

Though I'm unaware of any tales of post-production woe having been passed down to us about James Landis' JENNIE, WIFE/CHILD, it carries some tell-tale markings of a director losing control of his project. Furthermore, the IMDb tells us that two different directors were involved and that neither of them is credited; the other being Robert Carl Cohen - listed only as being "in charge of production." Made in 1968, and therefore more generous in terms of nudity than its companion feature, it's a sometimes startlingly well-made picture, a kind of hillbilly retelling of Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Middle-aged Albert Peckingpaw (Jack Lester) owns a farm and is married to the much-younger Jennie (Beverly Lundsford), who finds herself stifling from loneliness in the domestic cage her husband has made for her. She becomes attracted to the farmhand, the unlikely-named Mario Dingle (Jack Leader), who's stupid but smitten and tender toward her, and lust leads them to commit acts that draw her husband's ire and compel them to still worse acts.  As with Landis' earlier film, the cult favorite THE SADIST (1965), JENNIE: WIFE/CHILD was photographed in black-and-white by Hungarian immigrant Vilmos Zsigmond, who went on to become one of the most justly celebrated cameramen in the world (DELIVERANCE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, BLOW OUT, THE DEER HUNTER) so it looks gorgeous throughout, and it also features a score by Davie Allen and the Arrows (THE WILD ANGELS) as well as their surprise on-screen participation. What is odd about the film as it finally stands is that much of the score feels ill-suited to the American Gothic film Landis made, and the dramatic moods he painstakingly creates are abruptly cut-off with ironic intertitle cards that cast the overall picture into a bizarre Brechtian tense, underscoring the distance between the viewer and the unfolding tragedy. I liked what I saw, but I strongly suspect there is a behind-the-scenes story here, waiting to be told, and a much better film that never saw the light of day. Visually, the film belongs very much in the same category as BABY DOLL and SPIDER BABY:

The bonus third feature in the set, Lester Williams' MOONSHINE LOVE, is a fairly amateurish film that opens with a credit sequence emphasizing its professionalism with an array of behind-the-scenes production shots. It's about a bank heist (staged in a Woolworth's parking lot, no less) that goes awry, leaving the mastermind high and dry while one of the two hired perpetrators (Tim E. Lane) - the one in possession of the stolen money - not only loses it but also his memory when he takes a tumble from the escaping vehicle. He is saved by a couple of mountain women (one of them speaks with a pronounced German accent, without explanation) who live with their moonshining father in the woods, in incestuous abandon. One of the moonshiner's daughters (Lil, played by "Breedge McCoy") speaks with a pronounced German accent, for no more apparent reason than she was agreeable to doing nudity and being manhandled. Neither of the daughters are what you'd call pretty, but Genie Palmer, the probably pseudonymous actress who plays Jeannie, gifts the production with some surprisingly candid eroticism in a scene where, without a hint of self-consciousness or performing to camera, she treats a carrot as a sex toy - and really seems in intimate communication with it. She also has an extended love-making scene with Lane that, while technically softcore, conjures real heat and seems no less than genuine.

This "Backwoods" release is almost 14 years old now, but the disc was very well-mastered and, aside from some unavoidable scratches and splices, the picture quality upscales extremely well on Blu-ray players. (Larry Buchanan is clearly impressed by what he sees in the course of his commentary.) The other extras are limited to an amusing extended trailer for COMMON LAW WIFE that follows the example of Hitchcock's trailer for PSYCHO, with an unnamed announcer telling us about this film - too shocking for him to show any scenes from the actual picture - while standing in a sleazy motel room of the sort wherein, he tells us, the film opens. (The film does no such thing, opening in a New Orleans strip club.) There's also a "gallery of roadshow exploitation art with audio oddities," about eight minutes in length, and this is also a rare release that rewards reading the chapter titles with a few laughs - even before you watch the movies.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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