Stars: Leslie Uggams, Shelley Winters and Michael Christian
Singer Leslie Uggams opens the film with a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at some big sporting event, probably stock footage even though we're supposed to believe it was her character singing, Liz Wetherly. Uggams was a singer in real life, an important one too, which makes us wonder all the more what she's doing in a film like this. Certainly she wouldn't appear in another one for another 18 years. Her character is a bona fide star like her, one who wants a vacation to leave the spotlight and relax by taking photographs. So she heads down south in her expensive car but when it breaks down she finds herself stranded in one of those little towns that was mostly cut off from reality when they built a nearby interstate. The nearest thing around is Bertha's Oasis, which is a backwoods bar and hotel even though it looks more like a junk yard.
It appears for a while like we're about to watch a blaxploitation version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this being 1975 and all, but the names we've been watching pop up onto the screen during the opening credits aren't blaxploitation names. This is a hicksploitation film, one with a name cast of actors who, like Uggams, aren't who we might expect to find in such a creature. There's Ted Cassidy as Keno, a huge man who's chopping the head of a chicken when Liz finds him. You know him better as Lurch from the the TV version of The Addams Family. The Bertha who owns Bertha's Oasis is Shelley Winters, who famously ran the gamut from sexy pinup girl to roles like this where she was happy looking truly awful. The forces of law and order are represented by Slim Pickens and Dub Taylor as the local sheriff and justice of the peace respectively. Yes, you read that right.
The title character is played by the least name of the bunch, Michael Christian by name, who apparently was well known on television having played a recurring role on Peyton Place in the sixties. He also produced this film. Christian plays Eddie Collins, Bertha's toyboy who effectively runs the place for her given that she's hardly in a fit shape to do it herself, something we discover as soon as we see her. She gets out of bed still drunk from the night before with a cigarette already in her mouth. She picks up her false eyelashes from the bedcovers and has bloody maries for breakfast. 'You are an ugly bitch,' she tells herself in the mirror. Quite what Eddie sees in her we really have no clue, but then Eddie seems to see things that nobody else sees and that's what effectively provides our story.
Initially Liz is merely stranded in the back end of beyond but dinner soon proves how surreal a nightmare she's got herself into. Bertha saw Eddie through the window showing Liz to her cabin so turns up to the table in an outrageous outfit that looks like it deserves to be on the stage, all feathers and flamboyant colours. She exudes jealousy, throwing the unsubtlest hints at Liz throughout the meal to keep away from her man. Meanwhile her man has dressed up in a rhinestone suit and he gets up on stage to do an Elvis impersonation to impress Liz, who he hopes will be his ticket to stardom.
At this point it's Sheriff Orville whose trying it on with the visitor, slapping his hand on her knee at the dinner table, even though his retarded nephew is sitting on the other side. With his ample belly and memorable voice, Slim Pickens is the epitome of the unsubtle backwoods Southern sheriff and he throws out every colourful metaphor you could comfortably imagine. Lou Joffred as his retarded nephew Odell is aided by the terrible quality of the print, which often looks like it was sourced from an old VHS tape, as when he claps enthusiastically at Liz's name and Eddie's performance he turns into a blur. So it's the sheriff who first tries it on with Liz and he's the one who triggers much worse to come, convincing Eddie that she was making eyes at him at dinner.
And if it wasn't there already, here's where it gets truly bizarre with a jarring triptych of weirdness a third of the way through the film that just stuns us into amazement. Spurred on by the idiot sheriff's suggestions, Eddie turns up to Liz's cabin fully expecting to seduce her only to be rebuffed in no uncertain terms, namely a knee to the nuts after he refuses to leave. So he rapes her in slow motion, even though I don't think he actually gets undressed at any point. Meanwhile outside, a truckload of hillbillies turn up with a dog to throw into Keno's dog pit and watch the critters breed. The rape and the dog mating scenes are quite literally intercut here, hammering home a Freudian point, but most bizarrely the actress being raped sings a sappy love song on the soundtrack to accompany the action. Who sings a love song while their character is being raped? I mean, c'mon!
It continues down these bizarre pathways throughout the film, leaving us in something close to shock at what we're actually watching. You see, Eddie doesn't believe that he's just raped his guest, he sees the whole event through some romantic haze, so while she's trying to get the hell out of there he's busy setting up their future and nothing, absolutely nothing, can convince him of the true reality of the situation. As Bertha is more than willing to help Liz leave so she can get her poor pretty Eddie back, she sends her off with a Bertha's Oasis customer who's going to take her to Atlanta. Of course he wants a little payment in kind first down at the riverbank but just as she's being forced into yet another indignity up pops Eddie from the back seat to take care of business.
The scenes of justice are the most surreal here and they're comparable to anything I've seen recently, and given that I've been watching Robert Downey Sr films like Greaser's Palace that really says something. When she's brought in for stealing Eddie's jeep, Sheriff Orville is less interested in finding out whether Liz was raped or not and more interested in whether he bit her on the titties to warm her up some. He takes her to the JP, who also runs the local VFW Club, and he interrupts the live music so he can hold court right there in front of everyone. That sounds fine and dandy, but the JP is comedian Dub Taylor, remember, and his idea of proof is for her to strip off in front of everyone to show them the evidence.
Apparently based loosely on an acclaimed play by Jean Genet called The Balcony, which Shelley Winters starred in when it was adapted into a serious 1963 film version, it would appear that the adaptation here is far looser than say, the translation from Ingmar Bergman's film The Virgin Spring to Wes Craven's exploitation gem The Last House on the Left. Apparently there are various versions, which differ in many ways, not least the level of violence. Under the title of Heartbreak Motel, it's apparently more serious with more back stories and less violence, which cuts out the entire ending. When known as Black Vengeance or Redneck County Rape, it's apparently far more like what we get here under its original title.
Lead characters in films like this should always feel like they've left their own world and found themselves in an entirely different one, whether they be Deliverance, Swing Your Lady or Two Thousand Maniacs! The tone can vary, as it does completely across those three examples, but this one trumps them all in making we viewers feel like we're in a completely different world too. Much of that comes from the fact that we often see things from the perspective of the character's thoughts, such as when smitten Eddie takes his rape victim on a sightseeing tour of the local dam and asks her to take pictures of him with her Nikon. As you can imagine she visualises the scene as taking place with a shotgun instead of a camera, so that's what we see.
Part of it comes through the actors involved though. Ted Cassidy, in particular, looks at once comfortable playing a redneck and yet utterly strange not just in that sort of a role but in colour, given that it's hard to see him as anything else except Lurch. Apparently he was used to roles like this, having already appeared in Charcoal Black, Thunder County and The Great Lester Boggs in the previous three years. Most of these were for Chris Robinson, who variously directed, produced, wrote and acted in a number of such films. He directed this one, though he's strangely credited as Richard Robinson. Just like this one all these have multiple alter egos with various exploitation rings to them. Thunder County, for instance, is also known as Cell Block Girls, Convict Women, Swamp Fever, Women's Prison Escape and even Women's Penitentiary XI. If they're anything like this one, I'll be fascinated to find them.
Leslie Uggams is perfect at looking out of place, but she couldn't act to save her life and so runs through the entire film with the same expression and tone. There's no real difference between her barbed conversation at dinner, her attempts to politely remove the would be rapist from her cabin or reporting the rape to the police. Shelley Winters was one of the great character actors, because she had both talent, enough to win her two Oscars, and a willingness to play whatever role appealed to her. In that way she reminds me of Warren Oates, who was also great at looking like crap when the part needed but then climbing out of it believably as if the struggle had been a real one. Dub Taylor is one of those people who all Americans recognise but nobody east of Boston Harbor has a clue who he is. I have no idea how his comic turn here ties to his real life career as a comedian but it fits the film.
For such an out of control story, it's told pretty well with solid pacing, memorable scenes and some good cinematography. Not only do we get those scenes shown from the perspective of a character's mind, but editing that mimics Liz's Nikon and some great changes of focus at the dam. It's a rough but accomplished film, packed with talent, yet it still leaves us gaping at the end wondering just how this picture got made and what the motivations of the filmmakers were. Why did they feel they needed to make this film and what did they think they would get out of it? It almost seems destined to fail, only to be held high by a small but devoted audience who will remember it well enough to warrant a showing on TCM Underground a third of a century later. It's fascinating stuff for sure and I'm looking forward to much more in the same vein.