Thursday, August 11, 2011

Poor Pretty Eddie (1975) review


Leslie Uggams (Liz Wetherly), Shelley Winters (Bertha), Michael Christian (Eddie Collins), Ted Cassidy (Keno), Slim Pickens (Sheriff Orville), Dub Taylor (Floyd)

Directed by Richard Robinson

The Short Version: Rarely seen Hixploitation hidden gem is one of the sleaziest of its kind that's almost bereft of gore, but goes the extra mile with its deplorable characters, incredibly uncouth dialog and racial connotations. What really makes this Southern Fried obscurity rise above the muck are its performances, brilliant cinematography and ingenious avant garde approach that adds an air of respectability to its array of perversity.

***WARNING! This review contains language of a sensitive nature***

"You and me, we're tied together now. Once we man and wife, you gon' be decent again. You'll feel a whole lot betta' 'bout thangs...even me! You gon' do what I unda'stand? What's yours is gon' be mine and what's mine is gon' be yours. That's the only way you gon' leave here...unda'stand that?"

Liz Wetherly, a famous singer, takes to the road on vacation till her car breaks down in an isolated, rural Georgia location. Looking for help, Liz ends up at Bertha's Oasis, an out of the way motel populated by several bizarre characters including the owner, Bertha and her country crooning, Elvis impersonating lover, Eddie Collins. Desiring only to fix her car and continue with her vacation, Liz is not allowed to leave and suffers rape and humiliation not only at the hands of the depraved Eddie, but also the equally deranged townsfolk.

The 1970s was populated by hundreds of exploitation movies many garnering notoriety because of their violent subject matter and even more obscurities that were as good, or better than some of those that became staples of the decade. POOR PRETTY EDDIE is an Hixploitation conundrum among the plethora of backwoods sleaze epics. It's spotty release history (shot in 1973 and released in 1975), innate quirkiness, unusually artistic flourishes and a collection of kooky characters make it a shining example of 70s scummy cinema.

"Bertha, I don't want no goddamn vulgar talkin' in here."

Aside from some massive blood squibs, there's very little gore, but where this film excels is in its local flavor and locales that expertly capture the seedy boondocks setting. Rarely had a Southern Fried sleaze flick embraced such a seethingly believable aura of frightening isolation and entrapment as is seen here. While they were both filming in 1973, the insanity of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is clearly in evidence only where that film had three crazy brothers, the whole damn town in POOR PRETTY EDDIE (1975) are demented, employing the most disturbing form of 'Southern Hospitality'.

The drive in style of Southern Gothic hadn't been cemented yet by the runaway success of MACON COUNTY LINE (1974). Despite garnering a release two years after its completion, POOR PRETTY EDDIE pioneered the 'Danger In Dixie' aesthetic as well as expounding on the crumbling family unit personified in Hooper's TCM, which could also be traced back as early as Jack Hill's SPIDER BABY (1964). While both SPIDER BABY and Hooper's film featured a small family unit that stayed and slayed together, POOR PRETTY EDDIE features an entire hamlet that is seemingly unhinged living on the fringes of civilization. Virtually no one behaves in a normal fashion. The closest to normalcy is Bertha and the towering Keno. Everyone else entertains the "finer side" of sociopathy. The character of Liz, while not the most friendliest "stranger in a strange land", attempts to keep the inmates running "the asylum" from breaking her. She's largely successful till the end. The scripting conceit of an outsider lost, or trapped in an unknown and or desolate setting is a prolific and powerfully primal concept that has come back in vogue in a big way and not only in American cinema, but many foreign pictures as well.

"That little ol' high yeller, she could hardly take her eyes off a' you! It sure would be a shame to let that little thang go to bed all by herself..."

Robinson's film is thoroughly unsettling and overly gratuitous even though there's no major gore sequences nor any nudity outside of several cut out photos of busty centerfold models. The characters, the situations and the dialog immerse the viewer into the backwoods hellhole Liz inadvertently finds herself in. It achieves a similar atmosphere that makes TEXAS CHAINSAW so memorable and this extends to both the cinematography and the editing, the latter of which is guilty of creating some of the more queasily offensive moments in the picture. One such scene is the rape scene. Alternating between normal speed and slow motion, the rape is intercut with an incredibly bizarro scene of two dogs mating surrounded by a number of creepy rednecks looking on as a country tune 'You Won't Have To Say You Love Me In the Mornin' plays on the soundtrack. It's one of the most gasp worthy moments in this movie.

"I aint got nothin' against niggers, it's them goddamn Yankees they just like hemorrhoids! If they come down and go back that's alright. But if they come down and stay down they a pain in the ass!"

It's difficult to watch a movie like this and not encounter racism in its most primitive form. The 'N' word is uttered twice here and Liz is referred to as "High Yeller" on a few occasions. The aura of racism may be ambiguous at times, but it permeates the picture relentlessly. One of the most dangerously racist moments occurs towards the end when Liz is in "court" after accusing the lunatic Eddie of raping her twice. The "hearing" takes place in what looks like a Bingo Hall surrounded by chicken pickin' banjo players and horny onlookers including both the sheriff and the warped Justice of the Peace. Liz is forced to strip so the "jury" can see the "suck marks on her titties". Liz is conveniently placed in the middle of the frame while both an American flag and a Confederate flag are positioned behind her one on each side. The seemingly neverending enmity between the North and South also rears its ugly head here. It's one of the most uncomfortable moments in the entire movie almost assuming the guise of an Antebellum Era slave auction with Liz as the "meat" on sale and a roomful of slobbering, soulless lunatics giddily awaiting to feel up the "prize".

"Well come on, now, that's rabbit stew! I mean I caught a cotton tail last night just runnin' along in the woods and then WAM! Fresh bunny...just for you!"

To call POOR PRETTY EDDIE perverse is an apt description for the overall tone of this production. As the film goes deeper and deeper into its disturbing little world, the extreme nature of the script becomes more omnipresent. Among some of the other depraved delights include Liz being forced to give oral sex to a traveling salesman who promises to help her escape only to have Eddie hiding in the backseat culminating in him beating her with a belt for attempting to get away; a TEXAS CHAINSAW worthy shock moment when the cast discovers what's really for breakfast, and a bloody downer ending wherein Liz is being forced to marry Eddie in what ends up being some kind of homage to Peckinpah.

"Does it make you feel hot to sit where her ass has been, huh?"

This unique film, like so many less than tasteful 70s drive-in fare, contains a surprising stock of well known faces and accomplished performers. Lead actress, Leslie Uggams was a Tony Award winning singer who also dabbled in acting. She's quite good here as the somewhat cold, not altogether friendly Liz Wetherly. She's a strong character and considering the time the film was made, is far more realistic than the more familiar, larger than life Pam Grier type tough girl persona that was popular at the time. Ted Cassidy, Lurch from THE ADDAMS FAMILY essays a similar role here as Keno, the caretaker of a deranged "family" not all that dissimilar from the Addams household.

"And what the hell is that supposed to mean?! 'I don't need a drink, lady'."

Multi award winning actress Shelley Winters was just coming off of an Oscar nomination for her role in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). Around this time, it wasn't unusual to see this big Hollywood star appearing in low budget drive in movies. Winters is, like everyone else in the cast, memorable as Bertha and is the least loony of the rest of the cast. Bertha is an aging starlet who finds solace in both a bottle and Eddie's arms. With her much younger lover having lustful eyes for Liz, this pushes big Bertha further into alcoholism and leads to some shining moments for Winters to flex her range.

"Would ya' like to suck on a tomato?"

Slim Pickens is hilarious as the slimy sheriff Orville. His dialog, along with that of jovial character actor Dub Taylor entail some of the more memorable moments throughout this muddy, porcine populated production. Pickens is a major highlight during the scene wherein Liz is taken down to the police station to report her being raped twice at the hands of Eddie. Orville's line of questioning is offensive and the entire time he's asking, instead of writing down Liz's responses, he's drawing crude pictures of various sexual positions!

POOR PRETTY EDDIE finally making its way to legit DVD in a restored version, but as good as this restoration is, there's a few spots where damage has resulted in some missing frames including the films title! The 'in POOR PRETTY EDDIE' moniker appears right after Slim Pickens credit, but on the new DVD, it skips immediately to the screenplay credit. Speaking of the opening credits, a particular atmosphere is captured as we see the passing of the early morning hours. David Worth's photography oozes Gothic resembling something Hammer might have shot had they ever filmed in deepest, darkest Alabama.

The editing by Frank Mazzola is also infectious and incredibly experimental for a film of this nature. A multitude of dissolves, slow motion and bizarre inter-cutting techniques combine with Worth's worthwhile cinematography to fashion a surreal experience for such a sleazy endeavor. The unsettling sound design is also commendable affording an additional layer of unease. The music from Grant Boatwright is also key to the creaky, eerie aura that looms heavily over 'Bertha's Oasis' and the surrounding locales. Twangy Country and chicken pickin' tunes imbue an even deeper local flavor. All these elements add so much realism, you'd swear the likes of Winters, Cassidy, Pickins and Taylor really lived in this far flung forest encroached land that time forgot.

Unjustly neglected since its original theatrical release (and numerous re-releases), this curious oddity has survived on the bootleg market amidst a circle of loyal fans for years. The film was recently saved from the bowels of obscurity and restored even managing a showing on Turner Classic Movies as part of their Turner Underground late night series. The DVD/Blu Ray combo release from earlier in the year is cause for celebration for hardcore fans of 70s exploitation cinema and those seeking something well off the beaten path. Among the extras is an insightful, completely thorough 21 page essay from Chris Poggiali from the essential blog, The Temple of Schlock that covers the entire production from gestation to release. Arguably the most surreal exponent of the Hixploitation sub genre, POOR PRETTY EDDIE deserves rediscovery and holds its own alongside other more well known Southern Gothic's and Deep South hixploitation pictures. If you enjoyed vacationing at MACON COUNTY LINE (1974), then staying at 'Bertha's Oasis' yields a similar experience.

This review is representative of the CULTRA/HD Cinema Classics DVD/Blu Ray combo

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