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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971) review


Abe Zwick (Paul Sutton), Wayne Crawford (Stanley; as Scott Lawrence), Don Craig (Hubert), Robin Hughes (Vickie), Yanka Mann (Mrs. Adams), Marty Cordova (Alma)

Directed by Thomas Casey

The Short Version: Little seen Hippies, drugs, and psycho cross-dresser shocker about jewel thieves, Paul and Stanley (not to be confused with the KISS frontman), who share more than just their loot. Less a horror movie than a psychological thriller with a touch of black comedy, Casey's flick is a fascinating nosedive into the lives of two criminals with serious mental issues. A truly bizarre film, its mixture of genre styles strikes a wildly erratic tone, but this only adds to the quirkiness of the storyline. Serious Drive-in and exploitation buffs should see this one at least once; those seeking blood and gore might want to pass it by. Despite budgetary shortcomings, Sometimes Filmmakers Make Memorable Things.

Two mentally disturbed jewel thieves hide out in Florida after committing a murder in Baltimore, Maryland. Disguised as "Aunt Martha", Paul Sutton keeps house with Stanley, his drug-addicted, mental midget of a partner. To protect their cover from prying eyes, a junkie strung out on Astrology, and Stanley from the lascivious allure of sex, drugs and rock and roll hippies, Paul kills anyone who comes in the house. As bodies continue to pile up, Paul and Stanley can't keep their twisted actions hidden for long.

Nearly unclassifiable, director Casey (who directed nothing else) wrote the unconventional script to this minor gem that, up to now, was mired in perpetual obscurity; its VHS availability in the 1980s possibly got the film more exposure than its theatrical run ever did back in the 70s. Marketed as horror, the picture is crowded with other genre styles and some fascinating characterizations.

At times Casey's celluloid conundrum feels like a comedy; at others it takes on the guise of a crime thriller; then it segues into a horror film before starting the whole cycle over again. Aside from the omnipresent hippie and drug culture, one theme is constant, though: the mania of its primary antagonists. Casey doesn't go to great lengths to divulge the backgrounds of either of them, but drops just enough information for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. It's the kooky relationship, the exposition between the two main characters that keeps AUNT MARTHA from being a dreadful movie.

We learn early on that cross-dressing Paul (Abe Zwick, who acted in nothing else) is only wearing women's clothes as a cover after an incident in Baltimore that ended in an old woman's death. He's not a very convincing woman, either, yet effortlessly fools nosy neighbors and anyone else who happens by. As screen time passes, it becomes apparent that Paul is very comfortable emulating the female form. At times Paul seems to get lost in his "Aunt Martha" guise--posing and admiring his legs in pantyhose, or addressing and castigating Stanley like a mother would a child.

The implication of a sexual relationship between the two is obvious in a few scenes. This is hinted at in the first ten minutes when Paul becomes highly irritated Stanley isn't where he's supposed to be; another example occurs a short time later when Stanley latches onto Paul's arm proclaiming he "needs him" after spurning the forceful sexual advances of the blonde waitress Alma.

Wayne Crawford (GOD'S BLOODY ACRE, BARRACUDA) plays the drug-addicted Stanley as an easily manipulated, yet irresponsible teenager who, at times shows interest in girls--but once their pants come off (or try to remove his), he turns into a preadolescent who's fearful (maybe even disgusted) of a woman's advances. That he's heavy into drugs only reinforces the ease with which Paul controls his partner in crime. The few times Paul feels he's losing his grasp on his petulant paramour, his demeanor is overtaken by a jealous rage that leads to murder.

Aside from that, the most intriguing facet of Paul and Stanley are their dual personalities. Both men are seemingly conflicted as to who they really are--the demented Paul to his dominant role as both male and female. Interestingly, we only see him murder when he's dressed as Aunt Martha (save for one crucial moment). As Paul states at the beginning, the disguise is supposed to allay suspicion yet it's the "skin" he wears when he kills people. It recalls the disturbing mother fixation of Norman Bates.

Stanley is the bigger societal outcast of the two. One sequence of a bare-chested Paul wearing a bra, admiring himself is juxtaposed with a girl disrobing in front of Stanley. He couldn't be less interested. He's not even looking at her. Towards the end, though, Stanley seems to detach from Paul, if momentarily, by becoming interested in Vickie, the shy, innocent daughter to the nosy Mrs. Adams who lives across the street. It would appear Stanley might actually be drawn to Vickie, a woman of purity who is the polar opposite of the drug-loving hippies he normally hangs with; but then Paul uses his power of persuasion to reel Stanley back in--leading to the film's sole gruesome moment involving the removal of a baby from a dying pregnant woman. There's also a big reveal during the finale you'll probably already guess well before then.

With all of AUNT MARTHA's substance out of the way, Thomas Casey's movie is a monetarily bare bones affair. The music score is made up of library tracks, some of which will be recognizable to fans of Shaw Brothers kung fu movies. Just the same, director Casey does wonders with limited resources. Shot in Florida, it has that unique Floridian pallor of other films shot there by directors like William Grefe and Herschell Gordon Lewis-- but lacks the sleazy punch found in Lewis's BLOOD FEAST (1964) and Grefe's STANLEY (1972), to name two examples. Aside from its strengths in its subtext and performances of its main participants, AUNT MARTHA is weak in the horror and gore department. 

The kill scenes themselves aren't that bloody, and the editing of them reveals some graphic material may have been scissored out at some point; this is unfortunate as had the brutality been more pronounced, Casey's film would be palatable for a wider contingent of the trash film spectrum. Even without splatter, SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS is worth checking out for its bizarre, blackly comedic qualities. A shame Christopher Casey didn't direct more features; his sole directorial excursion into celluloid weirdness is an overlooked anomaly in the field of 70s exploitation cinema.

This review is representative of the Vinegar Syndrome DVD. Extras and Specs: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary by filmmaker David DeCoteau and film historian Nathaniel Thompson.

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