Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder


Marjoe Gortner (Teddy), Candy Clark (Cheryl), Peter Firth (Stephen "Red" Ryder), Hal Linden (Richard Ethridge), Lee Grant (Clarisse Ethridge), Audra Lindley (Ceil Ryder), Pat Hingle (Lyle Striker), Bill McKinney (Tommy Clark), Anne Ramsey (Rhea Childress), Stephanie Faracy (Angel Childress)

Directed by Milton Katselas

The Short Version: It's Marjoe Gortner's world and we just live in it as seen in this fascinating curio from 1979 based on a Mark Medoff play (who also wrote the screenplay) of the same name. Gortner takes command and rules the screen with a never ending stream of quotable moments that will both amuse and shock you. It's also quite possible this movie acted as a text book for Quentin Tarantino and his particular writing style that would emerge over a decade later. Sadly, the film has been mostly ignored since its theatrical release save for a small cult of fans who discovered it on cable television or bootleg outfits. When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder, indeed.

"I'll tell you one thing for sure, Red... those boys had guts. You got guts, Red? How you rate your own self on a guts scale?"

An eclectic group of individuals gather at Benton's Cafe, an out of the way dusty diner situated within a small New Mexico town. Their lives are turned upside down and placed in danger when a homicidal Vietnam vet, along with his hippie girlfriend takes them all hostage after their vehicle breaks down. Subjecting everyone to all manner of psychological and physical torture, this long-haired loon proceeds to "set them free", paying special attention to a young man whose name sparks memories of old Hollywood cowboy heroes.

Some movies you can never forget and others are simply forgotten. RED RYDER falls into the latter camp. Seemingly ignored and tossed by the wayside upon its original release, it has remained submerged within the mire of obscurity even on home video; a predicament that doesn't appear to be changing any time soon.

"My god! The unspeakable audacity of a punk like you wearin' a tattoo like that! Why the real Red Ryder woulda' hung'em up anyone who told'em he was associated with pig shit like that! I'll tell ya' one thing else, boy... You'd never found the real Red Ryder sittin' around a dump like this starin' at some tourists lady's tits! I swear to goddamn christ I'm tempted to tear those eyes out of your head and cut that tattoo outa' your arm!"

Based on a play by Mark Medoff, this film version plays much like a stage play once the action shifts to the diner; the central location of the movie. Prior to that, we're introduced to the town's various denizens and bits and pieces of their background. We are also presented with a bickering, sexually frustrated married couple from California. By the time this motley crew of festering emotional outbreaks converge together within the country-western eatery about 45 minutes into the film, the setting never changes till the last ten minutes. It's also this locale where a cruel instance of karmic happenstance (in the form of the unstable Teddy) sends these individuals on an emotional roller coaster that liberates at least one of the tormented few by the finale.

One could write a college dissertation based on Gortner's performance alone. Despite his overwrought insanity, he is the moral crux of the film; although that morality is drowned in ambiguity. While his character is clearly demented, he's something of an angry wraith; the good and evil residing within us all sent to both "enlighten" and punish a society that has condemned its heroes and kept progress awash in fear and stagnation.

"Nice ol' cripple, ain't he?"

If you thought Jack "CUCKOO'S NEST" Nicholson was the representation of cinematic overacting, Marjoe Gortner manages to trump him here echoing Nicholson's famous line, "Wait'll they get a load o' me", from 1989s BATMAN some ten years prior. The play must have struck a chord with Gortner as he is on board as a producer as well.

An evangelist in his younger years before ousting the fakery of the Gospel rackets, Gortner manages to relive those days for a good 70 minutes of the films original 113 minute running time. Instead of a group of gullible, god-fearing Christians with their life savings at the ready, here it's a different crowd in need of saving. Gortner's Teddy is the psychotic alter ego to the sort of carnival level showmanship the evangelical leeches would get up to.

"Praise god most o' them Kennedy's are dead, huh? Mr. Nixon wins this election, he'll get this thing straightened out, believe me. You gotta stop them little yellow bastards somewhere... otherwise the next thing you know you'll be stickin' yer fingers up a whole lot'a Oriental asses right here at the border, then where we gonna be, uh?"

The difference is that Teddy is sneeringly honest such as the scene where he and his hippie girlfriend cross the Mexican border into America. They're asked about the contents of their vehicle and Teddy brazenly, if sarcastically states they are carrying a satchel full of cocaine! The resulting body cavity search scene is one of the best moments in the film among a long line of memorable moments. It is also in this scene where an elder statesman relates his WW2 experiences condescendingly in relation to the then current situation in Vietnam.

"Yeah, I know a lot o' good ol' boys who became somebody by gettin' their good ol' asses shot off. I can't remember their names, either. You might as well stick around here, Red. Someday they'll make you head of the parkin' lot."

The topic of Vietnam is occasionally broached by the characters or as part of newscasts heard over radios. The character Gortner plays is the epitome of the empty shells that returned to a less than hero's welcome upon re-entering the United States of America. That he is unhinged because of his experiences is vague, but Teddy, for all his inflamed histrionics and homicidal tendencies, is a revelation for the patrons he terrorizes.

Obsessed with western movies and old fashioned Hollywood hero types, Teddy showcases his love for sagebrush archetypes right off the bat with his Eastwoodian outfit during the opening scene. In it, he rips off two Mexicans during a cash exchange for a small satchel of cocaine. Teddy shows off his skills with a gun and forces the two peasant smugglers to leave without their clothes.

"Tell me who Gregory Peck is and I'll show you a trick. I'll knock the hell out of all that fear."

One of Teddy's heroes is Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER from 1950 as well as many other Hollywood gunfighters including bullwhip specialist, Lash Larue. Furthering his wild west sensibilities, Teddy plays the main theme to THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY on a jukebox, thinks the Lone Ranger is a "homosexual fruit" and speaks in a western drawl through the bulk of the movie. During the earlier body cavity search sequence, he retorts to the man probing him in regards to WW2, "That was the one Mr. John Wayne won for us, wasn't it?"

Teddy's preoccupation with cowboy heroes of the past comes to the fore when he learns Stephen Ryder's nickname is "Red". Referring to him as Red Ryder for the remainder of the movie, Stephen becomes the main target of Teddy's rage. Much of this rage stems from a tattoo on his arm that says "Born Dead", which acts as the antithesis of Teddy and his participation in the war overseas. Our borderline psychotic takes offense that Red should bear such a mark having never endured a life-altering experience worthy of wearing such a tattoo.

Later in the diner, Teddy forces the patrons to take part in a mock western play whereby Red Ryder will be the main star, but not before being humiliated and degraded. By the final moments of the film, Teddy becomes something of a twisted messianic martyr during the ending confrontation with Red Ryder. At least some of the characters and their bizarre, dangerous altercation with Teddy results in them abandoning complacency. We never do find out what happened to the sexually frustrated Ethridges.

In addition to mocking previous decades leading up to the socio-political climate change of the 1960s, Gortner further mocks religious conventions with this film much in the same way he "exorcised his demons" with his Oscar winning 1972 documentary, MARJOE. He skirts the subject briefly in some of his tirades, but this is visualized in a few scenes showing people in church being "healed" and feeling the spirit of the lord they are promised will save their souls so long as they contribute on Sunday's.

"Now Red, I want you to take this knife ... I want you to cut that tattoo out of your arm and I want you to give it to me to take with me when I go."

The acting is top notch across the board with Gortner stealing the show, of course. It's his world, we're just living in it. Accusations of overacting are way off base in my opinion. The role demands it and considering the subject matter, few others (if any) could pull off such a magnificent, comically bonkers performance than Gortner. Forget about his roles in such fare as FOOD OF THE GODS (1976), STARCRASH (1978) and MAUSOLEUM (1982). Those are entertaining, but this diatribe against the decline of western civilization is personified by Gortner's eye-popping delivery. Considering his past as an evangelist, this dialog heavy role fits him like a glove, not to mention the plethora of memorable lines could fill a dozen Quentin Tarantino movies.

Everyone else, from Hal Linden, to Lee Grant, to screen heavy Bill McKinney, are all window dressing for Gortner's rabid devouring of every ounce of scenery in sight.

Music plays an important part in the film and there's some great tunes on display from the likes of Tammy Wynette and B.B. King (his version of 'The Thrill Is Gone' plays during a bedroom scene with the Ethridges even though his version didn't come out till two years after this film is set).

Unjustly ignored by audiences and maligned by critics upon its initial release, the film remains a forgotten curio. Considering it is nearly unclassifiable, audience indifference isn't difficult to fathom. No doubt losing nearly 30 minutes of its running time back in 1979 did the film little favors.

WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER is the second coming of Marjoe Gortner. Unfortunately, on the third day the film remained dead and hasn't risen since save for the chosen few within Gortner's cult of followers praying for a shiny new widescreen DVD release.

A DVD-R of the complete 113 minute version can be obtained HERE.

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