Massage Parlor Murders

Massage Parlor Murders! (1974) would be just another generic morsel of sleaze, if not for its weird six-minute pre-title sequence. In it, a masseuse attempts to negotiate the removal of her clothing with a pasty-faced, flustered client who starts forking over twenties more out of nervousness than sexual desire. The conclusion of this oral contract caps what passes for suspense in this affectless scene, which is flatly lit, staged proscenium arch-style, and accompanied by a jaunty Mickey-Mouse score. Massage Parlor Murders! is probably the only slasher film ever to open with a vaudevillian blackout sketch. The fact that only one of the two characters in it appears again in the movie (and then only for a few minutes right at the end) creates a narrative disconnect, and the scene is hilarious because it contrasts so jarringly in tone with everything that follows. It’s also endearing because it’s one of those surprising movie moments in which an especially appealing bit performer brings a bland scene to life. Olive-skinned Annie Gaybis, who plays the masseuse, has an unusual beauty and a soft Noo Yawk accent, and she really nails the stripper’s seductive hard-sell routine in a funny, authentic-sounding way. It turns out the movie isn’t about Gaybis’s character, but the fleeting possibility counts for a lot.

The other seventy-four minutes of Massage Parlor Murders! (and don’t leave off that exclamation point!) comprise an banal, semi-comprehensible serial killer procedural. But, as Chris Poggiali’s thoroughly-researched liner notes point out, it would be hard to find a more useful time capsule of its particular moment in the history of crap. Like many low-end exploiters, Massage Parlor Murders! was stitched together out of barely usable footage. Chester Fox, whose Hitchcockian cameo happened to be in the role of Gaybis’s befuddled john, was the first of two credited directors, a fringe figure whose other oddball credits included an obscure Marcel Marceau short and an aborted attempt to film the famous Fischer-Spassky chess match. The other, Alex Stevens, was a stunt man hired to add some brisk car chase scenes and a bathhouse not-quite-orgy that looks like it might have been filmed with a hidden camera. Incoherent as it is, Massage Parlor Murders! may be the grindhousiest of all 1970s grindhouse movies, just because it’s set and photographed in and around the place where more people saw them than any other: Manhattan’s Times Square at the depth of its Ford to City: Drop Dead-era decay.

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Re-release prints of Massage Parlor Murders! scissored off the prologue, turning it from a mostly ordinary exploitation film into a wholly ordinary one. A complete theatrical print of the original version is now available as a crisp, colorful Blu-ray thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, a new, Connecticut-based company that specializes in the kind of fringe sinema that even connoisseurs of schlock have never heard of. Ready to explore the oeuvre of porn auteur Kemal Horulu? Vinegar Syndrome has you covered with not one but two double feature DVDs. In the midst of a scary transitional period in which many once-thriving independent labels (and major studios) have cut back or given up on catalog releases, cult and exploitation is one of the few niches still being profitably mined for home video special editions. They’ve been through hard times – Something Weird now releases on DVD-R, and Code Red produces self-distributed limited runs that go out of print almost immediately – but hardy labels including Synapse Films, Scorpion Releasing, Shout Factory, and Grindhouse Releasing are still rereleasing little-known trash classics upon an unsuspecting public at a rapid clip.

It was through another Vinegar Syndrome release, Mark Haggard’s The Love Garden (1971), that I discovered Barbara Mills. Also credited as Barbara Caron, Mills was a prolific sexploitation starlet who somehow never received the same kind of cult recognition that Pam Grier or Claudia Jennings, or even Haji or Marsha Jordan, still enjoy. In The Love Garden, Mills and Linda York (her frequent co-star, and also a wispy redhead with offbeat looks) play lesbians whose partnership is threatened when a new, male neighbor falls for York’s character. At first, this very low-budget film – which has only three characters, and entirely post-synched dialogue – comes across as a dated exercise in “curing” homosexuality. Even though the male protagonist is a Jewfro’d, un-macho Tony Roberts type, he also details (in voiceover) a plan to intrude upon a relationship that he sees as unnatural, at least compared to the lovin’ he’s trying to bring. Mills’s character is the least sympathetic of the three – not quite a stereotypical “predatory lesbian,” but older than York and possessive. So it’s a shock – a calculated, well-crafted shock – when The Love Garden reverses course entirely in its last few minutes, upending all of the hero’s comfortable sexist assumptions and taking an explicitly anti-homophobic stance. I’d also argue that The Love Garden, which devotes 28 of its 70 minutes to a pair of equally tender and unhurried sex scenes (one gay, one hetero) that stop just short of going hardcore, functions as feminist porn avant la lettre.

Not every movie made for the raincoat crowd had subversion on its mind: The Love Garden is paired on DVD with another Barbara Mills vehicle, The Suckers (1972), a clunky attempt to make a softcore Most Dangerous Game. The Suckers doesn’t get around to explaining the obvious “twist” in the plot until after the halfway mark, and its sex scenes are as crude and unappealing as The Love Garden’s are sensuous and open. Mills has a fairly minor role in Escape to Passion (1970), the second film by director James Bryan – she’s one of the participants in the long Crisco orgy at the, er, climax of the film. But Mills and Bryan shared a connection to the Venice Beach hippie scene. Mills, who died in 2010, used her nudie work to support a free-spirited lifestyle as a Venice artist. Bryan, who also lived and worked there, was an authentic regional filmmaker who captured this corner of Los Angeles with the same perceptive eye that George Romero turned upon western Pennsylvania. A film student at UCLA around the same time as Jack Hill (and Francis Ford Coppola, whose first feature was a nudie), Bryan has a fraction of Hill’s skill for self-promotion and, to judge by the three early films released on DVD together by Code Red, twice as much talent.

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Only sixty-five minutes long, Bryan’s debut feature The Dirtiest Game in the World is clearly a B-side – a lengthy sex party hung on a thread of political satire, albeit bookended by documentary footage of the 1968 Democratic convention and an epigraph by Richard Nixon (!).  But Bryan’s formal imagination dominates Escape to Passion, his magnum opus. Using the B storyline about a laid-back orgy impresario (Titus Moody, in full Roy Orbison drag and playing a version of himself) to supply the requisite nudity, Bryan pours his heart into the story of another Angeleno fringe dweller, a petty thief named Leo (the talented Leonard Shoemaker) whose higher criminal aspirations orchestrate noir-style tragedy. Clearly a New Wave enthusiast, Bryan fills Escape to Passion with naturalistic, often handheld camera work, associative editing, and a remarkably dense sound design. Cutaways to movie stills of Robinson and Cagney as Leo describes his dream of a big heist are pure Godard, and the hilarious pop-art bank heist (complete with kiddie space helmets and a naked lady) wouldn’t be out of place in Shoot the Piano Player. The honkytonk soundtrack (set partly in a topless country-western bar, Escape to Passion is almost a musical) anticipates Ashby’s and Scorsese’s pop music scoring. Bryan’s I Love You I Love You Not (1974) is one of the great Los Angeles time capsules of the 1970s; Century City, the Classic Cat and the Aware Inn on Sunset Boulevard, and Venice’s Pacific Avenue are all caught in its amber. I Love You is the story of a nymphomaniac, which in Bryan’s hands becomes a sympathetic portrait of a young woman (Lynn Harris, touchingly vulnerable as she wanders the L.A. streets in an incongruous fur coat) on the edge of mental illness, for whom sex with a series of selfish, damaged men (and women) proves an unsatisfying, temporary escape. Although more constricted by amateurish performances and gratuitous sex scenes than Escape to Passion, I Love You still feels like the bizarro-world, soft-porn version of some canonical New Hollywood film – A Woman Under the Influence or An Unmarried Woman or Coming Home.

Gabriella

I wish it had been Bryan who tried to turn Barbara Mills into a star instead of Mack Bing, the sitcom director at the helm of Gabriella, Gabriella (usually dated 1972 but probably ca. 1970; Code Red). Mills plays the title character, a teen who flees from the bad vibes given off by her hypocritical, repressed parents (depicted Love, American Style-style, albeit with unflattering middle-aged nudity) into a series of vignettes in which she discovers free love and (literal) sexual revolution. It’s a terrible movie, although its incoherence and obvious symbolism make Gabriella, Gabriella more reminiscent of the European New Wave’s flower-power excesses than any mainstream American film of the era. (In other words it’s closer to Chytilova’s The Apple Tree or Varda’s Lions Love than to Skidoo – but again, that’s not a recommendation). If The Love Garden shows off Mills’s acting chops in what amounts to a character part, Gabriella is an infatuated tribute to her natural beauty (which encompasses a prominent, if adorable, overbite and a crop of clearly visible hair on her upper lip and forearms) and uninhibited exuberance.

Classof74

This unreleasable (and evidently unreleased) smorgasbord of peace-love-dope clichés would be totally forgotten today had it not been scavenged for a more high-profile film, Class of ’74 (1972; Code Red). Although the finished product is ultimately no better than Gabriella, Gabriella, Class of ’74 (credited to Bing and a more experienced director, Arthur Marks) has to count as one of the most clever efforts to reconstitute a new film out of the spare parts of an old one. Marks fashions Gabriella, Gabriella into a sequel to itself, packaging the earlier footage as flashbacks to high school and reintroducing Gabriella as a college student (at the University of Southern California, this writer’s alma mater), eager for amorous adventures – or more of them, that is, this time with her new besties as sexual tour guides. If Bing’s movie tried to cash in on Woodstock ideas of sex, Marks’s is pure proto-yuppie cynicism. The sex is transactional, every orgasm a brass ring. Ostensibly the huntresses, Gabriella and her girlfriends somehow end up as trophies for the kind of smug middle-aged clods (played by Gary Clarke and Phillip Terry, among others) who were objects of ridicule in Gabriella, Gabriella. Even the transformation of Mills’s body illustrates a shift from empowerment to conformity: the hair on her arms and face has been waxed off, and the hair on her head is longer and styled with blonde highlights. To put Mills on a par with her relatively A-list co-stars (Marki Bey, Pat Woodell, and Sondra Currie), Marks gave her a glam makeover – and subdued a lot of her personality.

If James Bryan was an auteur of the scuzzy fringe, then Arthur Marks was about as corporate an exploitation director as one could be – a shrewd packager of blax- and sexploitation trends for mini-majors like General Film Corporation (his own company) and later AIP. His films are formulaic and impersonal, but not without their charms. I’m especially partial to Bonnie’s Kids (1973; Dark Sky), a violent, anarchic road/crime spree movie often (and perhaps dubiously) cited as a Pulp Fiction influence. The best thing about Bonnie’s Kids is Tiffany Bolling, a sexy blonde who could be dull in ingénue roles but came ferociously to life when cast as bad girls. She’s terrifyingly feral as a sociopath who engineers a ransom kidnapping in Guerdon Trueblood’s The Candy Snatchers (1973; Subversive Cinema), a more plausible Tarantino inspiration and one of the most unrelentingly cold-blooded movies ever made, right through to the savagely misanthropic twist ending. If there’s one Nixon-era obscurity that deserves to be recategorized as a “real” movie rather than exploitation, it’s The Candy Snatchers. Trueblood (primarily a television writer) ties with Electra Glide in Blue’s James William Guercio as the great one-and-done feature director of 1973, if not of all time, and his invisibility is probably the factor that has kept The Candy Snatchers out of the canon. If some auteurist cred would help up its profile, note that screenwriter Bryan Gindoff’s only other credit is Walter Hill’s beautiful debut film, Hard Times (1975).

These crawled-out-from-under-a-rock films of the 1970s are full of low-rent “stars” who substitute energy and sensuality for finesse, and not all of them were female. Alex Nicol’s deliciously gaudy Point of Terror (1971; Scorpion Releasing) offers a worthy introduction, and farewell, to the forgotten Peter Carpenter. Playing a lounge singer at a seaside dump called the Lobster House, the often shirtless Carpenter manages a decent approximation of Tom Jones’s sweaty charisma in this lurid neo-noir that rips off The Postman Always Rings Twice and half a dozen of its contemporaries. Crammed with unexpectedly good songs (credited to Motown producers Hal Davis, Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson), Point of Terror seems less interested in operating as a suspense or a horror film than as a star vehicle or a pop opera. Carpenter, who apparently died young (variant accounts of how and when have surfaced across different DVD extras and the internet), also co-wrote Point of Terror, his final film, as well as the earlier Blood Mania (1970; Code Red).

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Directed by Robert Vincent O’Neil, Blood Mania is another stylish, modestly-scaled, fatalistic crime film that synthesizes familiar femme fatale / male patsy clichés. From there one might leap to O’Neil’s The Psycho Lover (1970; Something Weird), a sort of companion piece, made in the same year and with a similar plot, but with Lawrence Montaigne (best known as a Star Trek guest star) subbing for Carpenter. All three of the films have the look and feel of a reasonably good episode of a comfort-food crime series like Mannix or Barnaby Jones – a compliment, not a dig, when you consider how indifferently made most grindhouse fare was content to be. On style points alone, Point of Terror is by far the standout of the three, thanks to cinematographer Bob Maxwell’s oversaturated colors and some imaginative transitions by editor Verna Fields (Medium Cool; Jaws) – not the sort of talent you’d expect to find working on a Crown International release. But all three of the Carpenter and/or O’Neil pictures are what passes for classy (or classical) in an era when the most revelatory independent action movies – like Walter Cichy’s Cop Killers (1973) and Robert Endelson’s Fight For Your Life (1977) – were punishing, self-conscious exercises in simultaneously gratifying audiences’ lust for blood and damning them for it.

I hasten to emphasize I’m far from the first critic to discover any of these gems (or polish any of these turds, to say the same thing a different way). Film historians like Tim Lucas and Michael Weldon have devoted slavish attention to schlock since the dawn of home video, and there are several thorough DVD review sites (like DVD Drive-in, Mondo Digital, and 10,000 Bullets) that only cover cinema’s underbelly. Personally, I never really knew what to do with this scuzzy corner of movie history. I always read Psychotronic Video on the newsstand but never sought out many of the films it covered, not even as a horny teenager in search of illicit nudity. For a young movie buff discovering Hitchcock and Hawks and Nicholas Ray, and a bit later Antonioni and Rivette and Tati, what room is there for Harry Novak?

Only as I near my twentieth year of cinephilia have I gotten interested in crap, and started to find slots for it in my personal mosaic of movie-watching. I’m still skeptical of any iteration of movie fandom that focuses exclusively on junk cinema, and there seem to be many movie fans who are content to traverse only the Mystery Science Theater 3000-Tarantino-Shock Cinema axis. And I think that writers who trump up articulate defenses for talentless hacks like Jess Franco or Ray Dennis Steckler usually end up making less of an argument for the films than for the impulse to validate guilty pleasures as good taste. But over the last few years many of my favorite discoveries have been in this category of cinema, and I suspect it’s crucial that I came to them as something of a postgraduate cinephile.

Although trash might seem to be entry-level cinema, I think it may be more rewarding for the movie fan who’s seen everything. Since what’s good about these films is rarer and arguably harder to suss out than in mainstream filmmaking, it helps to have somewhat refined taste – as well as the patience of a seasoned truffle-hunter. If that sounds snobbish, understand that I’m not patting myself on the back for aptitude, only for endurance. Affinity for a medium counts, but I suspect that taste is more a factor of the 10,000 hour-rule: unless you’re a complete idiot, once you’ve seen 5,000 movies you’ll be able to tell good from bad. That’s how you can zone out through the turgid bulk of Massage Parlor Murders! and still reliably snap to attention for the six minutes in which it gets weird. Exploitation is low-yield cinema – much of it deserves scorn, until suddenly it doesn’t – and again, plumbing those highs and lows is bonus-round territory for the avid cinephile. Another benefit of being in the 10,000-hour club (a club I joined, for the record, somewhere around 2009) is that it gradually purges one of any inclination to point and laugh at art that doesn’t work – a desire that comes, of course, from uncertainty about one’s own judgment. It helps to come at fringe cinema with judiciousness but no condescension.

I remember a prominent film critic, one of my teachers at USC, telling us that she didn’t find her voice as a writer until about five years previously, and then suddenly it clicked. The same could be said of confidence in one’s own taste, and I’m glad I waited to start exploring these movies until after I passed that threshold. In the same way that an artist can’t move to abstraction until he understands technique, perhaps an aficionado can’t recognize outsider art until she knows the canon. Would I have fallen in love with Joe Sarno (probably the most gifted sex film director, even more so than Russ Meyer) had I not already seen the Bergman and Dreyer classics that his films seem to be in a conversation with? I doubt it. The films of James Bryan, who also strikes me as an authentic primitive, might only be a tenth as good as Nashville or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. But a tenth as good as those is still pretty good, and the time to unearth someone like Bryan is probably after absorbing the oeuvres of the masters whose sensibilities he echoes or gropes toward. (Or, to paraphrase Monty Python: if you liked this film, you may also enjoy La Notte.) If I have a guiding principle as a committed movie lover, it’s that curiosity and experience must always expand, never contract. I don’t know what the next frontier will be, but it might be Kemal Horulu.

Stephen Bowie is a contributor to The A.V. Club and the founder of The Classic TV History Blog.

 

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