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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: 'Gator Bait (1974) review


Claudia Jennings (Desiree Thibodeau), Sam Gilman (T.J. Bracken), Douglas Dirkson (Leroy Bracken), Clyde Ventura (Billy Boy), Bill Thurman (Joe Bob Thomas), Don Baldwin (Peter Bracken), Ben Sebastian (Ben Bracken), Janit Baldwin (Julie), Tracy Sebastian (Big T)

Directed by Ferd Sebastian

The Short Version: Claudia Jennings is Born On the Bayou as Desiree Thibodeau, a slippery and sexy swamp dweller who battles it out with cops and horny, vengeance seeking Cajuns. This is essentially the inbred offspring of the 'Danger In Dixie', 'Hooch n' Hillbilly' and revenge movie stylings. Crude and rough around the edges, this popular Passion Pit cheapy has a grubby atmosphere and a lot of sex appeal emanating from Jennings running around barefoot in skimpy clothing.

The lovely and wily swamp rat, Desiree lives deep within the Louisiana bayou with her brother and sister. Billy Boy, the deputy of a nearby town and Ben Bracken, a local hillbilly, catch her poaching and plan to rape her. Desiree proves she's too hot to handle and in the ruckus, Ben is accidentally shot in the head by Billy and dies. Laying blame on Desiree, the sheriff and the Bracken patriarch get their redneck posse together to catch, kill and do worse to Desiree and her siblings.

Oddly enough, this well remembered cult Drive In hit has yet to make its way to DVD. It's not a particularly great movie, nor all that memorable, although it is a semi-important piece of 70s exploitation trash cinema; especially during the home video boom of the 1980s.

The VHS box art is probably responsible for keeping the film alive long after its theatrical run during the 1970s than anything in the film.

Still, the image of Claudia Jennings strutting around wearing a barely buttoned shirt and a pair of daisy dukes hiked up into her ass is an indelible image in itself.

The Sebastian's were responsible for several instances of disposable trash with this cheap vehicle for cult siren Jennings arguably being the most well known.

Like other Sebastian pictures, this one's a family affair and good ol' Ferd's cinema-tography captures the bayou in all its muddy, unkempt glory. It's one of the beauties of 70s cinema that the characters and performers playing them almost always seemed real, even if the acting was below par. There were no proliferance of Calvin Klein or Victoria Secrets bodies among the casts in so many of these movies, but a myriad selection of natural looking people. Somebody made the comment to me once that "people sure were ugly back in the 70s."

There's been a number of attempts in recent years to hearken back to this crude and candid filmmaking style, but just like Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell song, 'Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing'.

In what amounts to a chase picture, 'GATOR BAIT briefly, and disturbingly enters rape-revenge territory, before lightening the tone just a bit once Desiree begins "leading the men on" to their doom. One gets the impression that the filmmakers may not have been exactly sure what sort of film they wanted to make, but in the end, it's exploitation through and through.

There's very little blood onscreen and only one major moment of shocking brutality that you don't quite expect to end up the way it does. Outside of this one sequence, the violence is tepid at best, or occurs offscreen. However, there's definitely a sleazy atmosphere throughout that's enhanced by the thick, humid swamp surroundings. The cast are real troupers for working in what was undoubtedly an uncomfortable, and hostile environment.

Claudia Jennings (GROUP MARRIAGE, TRUCK STOP WOMEN, UNHOLLY ROLLERS) doesn't shed her clothes to the level of most of her other movies, which may disappoint some, but damn if she doesn't fill out a pair of daisy duke shorts! She does a lot of bending over and strutting around in what little clothes she wears. Her shirt does fall open near the beginning during a boat chase revealing her breasts, which is the extent of her skin exposure here.

The bulk of the nudity goes to the young, doe-eyed Janit Baldwin, whom many will remember from the Curtis Harrington curio, RUBY (1977). She also featured in the inflammatory Made For TV 'Women In Juvy' flick, BORN INNOCENT (1974) starring Linda Blair. Baldwin also had a sizable role in the horrible HUMONGOUS from 1982.

Of the major cast, Bill Thurman had the most extensive Drive In career appearing in pictures ranging from the TV mainstay CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976), THE EVICTORS (1979) and the so-so New World slasher MOUNTAINTOP MOTEL MASSACRE (1986). He was also in the killer animal TV movie, THE BEASTS ARE ON THE STREET (1978). In the 1960s, Thurman could be seen in a bunch of awful Larry Buchanan movies like THE EYE CREATURES (1965), ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS (1966), IN THE YEAR 2889 (1967) and IT'S ALIVE! (1969), the latter a boring flick about a creature in a cave.

Douglas Dirkson as Leroy Bracken steals the show with his off-kilter, insane performance. He's encountered Desiree on a previous occasion losing a piece of his anatomy in the process. He reminds me of a redneck Tiny Tim in some shots, such as the one to the right.

Everyone else does reasonably well with their Cajun and Southern Fried accents; Jennings especially, although there's a bit of a struggle in some scenes.

Considering this isn't a big budget movie (actually, this was likely closer to a 'no' budget movie), with a healthy shooting schedule, it's not all that big of a deal. The simplistic, occasionally trite dialog will grate on the nerves and the foreshadowing to the gruesomeness of the films title will disappoint as it's mentioned, but never happens.

'GATOR BAIT earned itself a sequel more than a decade later with 'GATOR BAIT 2: CAJUN JUSTICE (1988). The VHS cover is just as eye-catching as the one for the first picture, but the film itself failed to attract the same modicum of cult appeal of the Sebastian's original.

Although it sometimes gets confused if it wants to be a low-key, adult bayou chase picture, or a hard R redneck revenge movie, it's still Hixploitation from start to finish. It's one of those Drive In movies that has attained something of a reputation, but has lost a bit of its luster over the years. An enjoyable timewaster for lovers of 70s trash, 'GATOR BAIT and its Swamp People will find few new fans outside of the devout cult film circles this sort of picture caters to.

You can purchase a quality DVD-R of the film HERE.

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