Thursday, July 29, 2021

Buster and Billie (1974) review

Jan Michael Vincent (Buster Lane), Pamela Sue Martin (Margie Hooks), Clifton James (Jake), Robert Englund (Whitey), Joan Goodfellow (Billie Jo Truluck) 

Directed by Daniel Petrie

The Short Version: Having seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth, BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974), a genre-defying coming of age tale set in rural Georgia 1948, has been both rescued, and restored from its original internegative. Now, those who saw this atypical motion picture back in '74 can relive the experience; and those who will see this curiously uncomfortable movie for the first time can see a type of film you'll never see again. Largely a Romance-Drama, B&B doesn't necessarily fit into a specific genre, It's more a look into the lives of flawed characters and all the pent-up frustrations, libidinous desires, love and rage loosed in the film's 99 minutes, culminating in a cheerless coda. Bolstered by excellent performances and striking cinematography, BUSTER AND BILLIE is a love story; and one where everybody lives unhappily ever after.
In a rural Georgia town in 1948, Buster is the most popular young man in high school; engaged to be married to his sweetheart, Margie Hooks. However, he feels there's something missing in their relationship; and not just that Margie won't have sex with him before they're married. Soon, Buster becomes curious about Billie Jo Truluck, a quiet, introverted gal with zero self-esteem whom the boys in town view as an "easy lay".  Like Buster, she too wants something more in life. She wants legitimate acceptance. Initially wanting nothing more than to satisfy his own libidinous desires, Buster soon falls in love with Billie Jo, and she falls in love with him. This doesn't sit well with the town, Buster's fiance, his parents, and especially Buster's circle of friends who no longer have access to their outlet of gratification. What began as true love turns to tragedy where the lives of these young teenagers are changed forever.

BUSTER AND BILLIE is a unique, long-thought lost movie set among a small rural community in 1948 Georgia. At its heart, it's a Romance-Drama; a coming-of-age feature about young teens discovering themselves and each other; and all the fragile egos, life-altering decisions, broken dreams, betrayals, love and tragedy that unspools along the way.

The picture's three-tiered structure essentially makes the movie almost unclassifiable. The first quarter feels like an 80s-style teen sex comedy, with its light-hearted tone and crude language. Then the film settles on being a romantic drama, focusing on the title lovers and their burgeoning romance. Finally, things take an abrupt, eyebrow-raisingly dark turn in the last twenty minutes.

BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974) is one of those obscure movies you've heard about over the years; a film surrounded in mystique and mild controversy. In the case of Daniel Petrie's movie, that mystique is in his film's lack of availability... until now. The level of contention seems to be centered around a surprisingly frank shot of male frontal nudity; and then there's the shockingly abrupt violence of the film's aforementioned finale.

Actually, there's a lot of nudity in the film; more than you'd normally find in a romance picture. But then, Petrie's movie transcends the traditional 'Boy Meets Girl' scenario. Aside from the nudity, there's A LOT of crudely comical language of a sexual nature that makes BUSTER AND BILLIE seem like it's foreshadowing the teen sex comedies that would surface several years later. Here, it's in the form of a bunch of horny high schoolers gathering in the bathroom or elsewhere talking about the size of women's breasts; getting laid; the female form, etc.
Most movies in the 70s tried to outdo one another in making their endings as breathtakingly tragic as possible. With BUSTER AND BILLIE, you don't see it coming, and it won't be explicitly revealed here. Aside from the seemingly out-of-left-field finale, that Buster, the most popular guy in high school, gets with Billie, the frowned-upon, promiscuous, and ostracized gal in school, is an intriguing spin on the dramatic form. 
Buster is initially the beau of Margie (played by Pamela Sue Martin of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE LADY IN RED). Buster is the typical, hot-blooded American male; at that age where libido consumes every thought. Margie is a virgin who wishes to keep her purity intact till marriage even though she enjoys semi-naked romps in Buster's pick-up truck. Buster, though, doesn't wish to wait. There's minor moments where Vincent's performance displays nuances--where he's lost in thought, playing with a lighter, or a lamp--pondering that maybe Margie isn't right for him. 
Out of frustration, he decides to hook up with Billie Jo Truluck, a shy gal shunned by most everyone in the community due to her reputation for being "friendly" with all the boys. Initially, it is nothing more than him using her to satiate his sexual desire. But then he wants to see her again; and the two begin a gradual romance that leads to Buster breaking up with Margie (at 1 o'clock in the morning, no less). The scene where Buster and Billie Jo show up at church together, shocking everyone in town, is one of the film's funniest moments. It's also a sequence that inconspicuously foretells the film's gloomy finish.

Buster's friends are a motley clutch of boys who spend much of their time hiding an inability to associate with the opposite sex. They exaggerate to Buster about all the girls they've made it with. They all want to be like him but haven't any inclination as to the how. So they hide their lack of confidence and low self-esteem by way of the young Billie Jo Truluck, who has an even greater level of low self-worth. Her popularity with them is prominently displayed on the bathroom walls of the local high school. Once it becomes apparent she's no longer available to them, their fragile, immature egos are shattered and Billie must be taught a lesson in order to make them feel whole once again.

Buster's best friend is the teenage adolescent, Whitey. We never learn his real name, but he's so called due to his being an albino. Buster and Whitey have a tight bond; Buster is like a big brother to him. When Whitey accompanies Buster, his level of confidence is elevated. Without him, he's incompetent, child-like, and incapable of making logical decisions; particularly what transpires at the end. 

Jan Michael-Vincent is fantastic in the lead role. It was another peek into the greatness of a star that would ultimately collapse within himself. Vincent was akin to Burt Reynolds--he could do everything no matter the genre. Sadly, Vincent would allow his personal demons to destroy him. In a way, BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974) is as much about Jan Michael-Vincent's career trajectory as it is a doomed romance.
One of the many facets to his character is that he's similar to a typical jock-style character, but one with emotional layers. He's extremely loyal to his friends, and especially with the above-mentioned Whitey. Unlike his circle of friends, he knows how to love. He has many of the film's funniest lines that are crudely enlightening at times. Such as when Jake asks him why he doesn't go join his friends dropping by Billie Jo's place and Buster replies, "I'll tell ya', Jake. There's two things I think oughta be private... takin' a shit and gettin' laid."
Another moment is when he's taking up for Whitey in front of the school. Margie's best friend comments on him asking her out and how ugly he is. Buster takes great offense and quickly responds with, "When was the last time you won a beauty contest you hoot-owl lookin' bitch?!"
Memorable in virtually everything he appeared in, some of the man's highlights were co-starring with Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC (1972); the volcanic levels of machismo overflowing in VIGILANTE FORCE (1976); playing an aspiring stuntman with Burt Reynolds in HOOPER (1978), and in his most famous role as the pilot of AIRWOLF (1984-1987). There's a great biography about the man by David Grove that you can read a review for HERE.

The character of Billie is essayed by Joan Goodfellow in an almost silent performance. Her facial expressions do most of the talking. She never even smiles till Buster shows she no longer needs to lay on her back to feel like she fits in. A social misfit, you can see the boredom on her face during the moments she's being used by the emotionally ineffectual boys. You can also see the longing for something better in her face; her eyes looking away from the immature teen lying atop her, clutching her breast and deliriously murmuring, "I love you" like a little baby over and over again. 
Some of the best scenes between her and Vincent are when he gives her a few presents. Her reaction shows a young lady who's never been shown this level of appreciation, even from her isolated parents. Another scene is where Billie looks after a sick Buster, sitting by his bedside reading a comic book to him. And in another, the two lovers are anxious to catch a sunrise, sitting in a field covered in a blanket till the sun's rays break over the horizon. These are simple moments between two people who genuinely love one another. They are so simple it makes their reactions and their relationship seem all the more believable. 

A stage actress and singer, Goodfellow worked with director Petrie a few more times before halting her film and TV career in the early 1980s. Some of her other works include a similar hillbilly tragedy, LOLLY MADONNA XXX (1973) and SUNBURN (1979), starring Farrah Fawcett and Joan Collins; both for director Richard Sarafian.

The first role of Robert Englund, the future Freddy Krueger makes a grand first impression as Whitey while leaving no inclination of the horrors that lie ahead in his vast career. Englund would display a similar level of dramatic chops in movies like THE GREAT SMOKEY ROADBLOCK (1977) and as the timid alien Willie on V (1983), V: THE FINAL BATTLE (1984), and its single-season television series. Famous for his horror work and especially the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, some of those others include EATEN ALIVE (1976), GALAXY OF TERROR (1981), DEAD & BURIED (1981), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989), and THE MANGLER (1995) to name a few.

The director, Daniel Petrie, directed numerous TV movies and dozens of television episodes with a peppering of motion pictures on his resume. The 'R' rated material is vastly different from what is permissible on the small screen and Petrie seems more than comfortable handling it. Prior to BUSTER AND BILLIE Petrie directed the TV horror MOON OF THE WOLF (1972); the silly underwater SciFi hokum THE NEPTUNE FACTOR (1973); and about a decade later he did the thriller FORT APACHE, THE BRONX (1981) with Paul Newman, and the comedy SIX PACK (1982) with Kenny Rogers.

Aside from the performances, something else the film does incredibly well is in capturing late 40s Southern Americana with its wide expanse of rural locales; isolated farm land and dilapidated barns; picket fences, and old country roads. The man responsible for the cinematography was Italian Mario Tosi, DP of the underrated horror thriller THE KILLING KIND (1973), and the major league horror classic CARRIE (1976). The title theme is sung by Hoyt Axton. You'll remember him as the enterprising inventor of many failed innovations like The Bathroom Buddy in GREMLINS (1984).
The movie was reportedly a hit in its day, with most critics praising the performances but others taking issue with the nudity and unusual ending. The studio, though, didn't seem to care much about the movie, and was possibly integral to it falling into obscurity for decades. It's quite good, and a testament to the talents of those involved. Throw expectations out the window and prepare yourself for a comfortless conclusion. Instead of placing it within genre parameters, it works just fine as 100 minutes spent with your average, typically virile teens--some more troubled than others--growing up experiencing life (and death) in late 40s rural south.

Presumed lost and its negative destroyed for 40+ years, Zephina Media has magnificently restored this unique film from its original internegative, discovered in Sony's underground film vault. You can learn about its restoration and order a copy of the blu-ray HERE.
This review is representative of the Zephina Media/Metropolis Post bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1; running time: 01:39:09

Friday, July 23, 2021

Sssssss (1973) review

Strother Martin (Dr. Carl Stoner), Dirk Benedict (David Blake), Heather Menzies (Kristina Stoner), Richard B. Shull (Dr. Ken Daniels), Tim O'Conner (Kogen), Jack Ging (Sheriff Dale Hardison), Reb Brown (Steve Randall), Noble Craig (The Snake Man)

Directed by Bernard Kowalski

The Short Version: From the producers of JAWS (1975) and some of the award winning makeup artists from PLANET OF THE APES (1968) comes the most unusual killer snake movie that ever slithered across a movie screen. Strother Martin, in a quieter version of Dr. Frankenstein, is a mad scientist dedicated to mixing man with serpents at an isolated country house while selling off his failed experiments to a nearby carnival. It feels like a TV Movie with some added scenes of exploitation, but director Bernard Kowalski's movie does something no other snake flick did; and that's impress character into some of its cold-blooded co-stars that may make some viewers feel a little warm inside. SSSSSSS is modest SciFi-Horror, if sssssssurprisingly potent.
Dr. Stoner is a herpetologist specializing in snakes. He runs a scientific research lab out of his isolated country home, occasionally putting on small-scale shows with King Cobras with the help of his daughter. Requiring a new assistant, Stoner hires the young David Blake; who learns too late he has been an unwitting subject in Stoner's real intentions--to ensure some semblance of mankind survives a future holocaust by way of injections that will turn men into snakes.
Movies about snakes slithering amuck follow the traditional genre narrative with only slight variance. SSSSSSS is probably the first film to exclusively feature killer snakes (FROGS from 1972 had a snake attack among its array of herpe-horror), so it was a trendsetter. Additionally, its unique storyline melds various themes and ideas from other movies like FREAKS (1932) and WILLARD (1971). It's also fascinating in its genre for something else it does with its ophidian co-stars, but we'll get to that momentarily...

Director Bernard Kowalski started out in low budget horror with flicks like NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST (1958) and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959) before getting into bigger budgeted, more ambitious fare with KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (1969), STILETTO (1969), and MACHO CALLAHAN (1970). His career as a Hollywood director didn't pan out, so Kowalski found a home helming dozens of TV movies and episodes of countless television shows. One of his few theatrical features between his newfound settlement on the small screen was the Universal SciFi-Horror, SSSSSSS (1973); the only movie whose title you don't say it, you hiss it (as per its memorable tagline).
Kowalski's work isn't often the subject of conversation, but he's certainly got some intriguing titles on his resume--in a career that began in low budget science fiction; then on to bigger budgeted, and or mainstream fare; then back down into the lower rung again, where he settled into television movies and episodic programming. SSSSSSS (1973) is the best and most fascinating of his handful of SciFi pictures. Oddly enough, it feels like a Made For TV movie; but one that's punctuated by a few shock moments and a surprisingly strong pedigree.

Produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown (before the executive duo would perform the same function on JAWS), the production also had Oscar winning makeup artist John Chambers on board. Chambers (along with others like Tom Burman and Daniel Striepeke; the latter a writer and producer on SSSSSSS) created and headed the makeup team that made the facial and full body appliances seen in the movie.
The man-into-snake transformation was highly touted and, while it certainly is a highlight, it's mildly disappointing. Dr. Stoner wants to initiate the next stage in man's evolution; so you expect this arcane conjoining of a human with a scaly reptile to have features of both; something along the lines of the Snake Man in the underrated DREAMSCAPE (1984). Instead, Stoner's unwitting test subject is turned into a King Cobra while retaining the intelligence of man. He doesn't have time to figure out a method of escape, though, as he's immediately attacked by a mongoose in the final minutes of the movie.

The other main attraction is, of course, the real snakes the actors interact with on-screen. SSSSSSS (1973) shows off some imposing specimens--including some of the most venomous in the world. Some three King Cobras were imported along with an African Python (that eats a man whole!), and that frighteningly fast fangster, the Black Mamba. There's also a docile Boa Constrictor named Harry, Stoner's "obedient serpent" as he calls him.
Harry is one of the bright spots in this unusual movie. Probably for the only time in cinema history a snake was not only a main character, but the script by Hal Dresner (based on the story by Daniel Striepeke) does something astonishing by deriving sympathy for Harry; imbuing the snake with human characteristics. If you ever wanted to see a snake drink beer you'll see that here. If you ever wanted to see a snake listen intently while his master reads a book to him, you'll see that too. Harry figured prominently in the film's promotion as well; participating in some of the off-camera publicity photographs with the actors. As for the more lethal co-stars...

A Black Mamba can end your life with just two drops of its venom; or, a single bite has enough venom to wipe out 10 men. At lengths ranging from 8-14 feet long, it's the second fastest snake in the world; so running away from one probably won't save you. There's a few shots where you see the actors being bitten by the Black Mamba, too. Presumably, the Mamba is either defanged or it's a different species of snake subbing for one. Sadly, this question and others aren't asked on either of the two interviews present on the blu-ray extras. 

The King Cobras seen in the movie make up some of the creepiest footage you'll ever see in a film featuring snakes. The largest venomous snake in the world grows anywhere from 10 to 18ft in length and, unlike giant CGI snakes that move faster than some cars in films like ANACONDA (1996), these real reptiles slither slowly, and they're even scarier when they're not moving at all; doing a Michael Myers impersonation, staring at you from the inside of their glass tank. King Cobras can raise themselves up as high as 6 feet and, while their venom isn't as powerful as some smaller snakes, the amount of venom injected from a single bite is enough to kill 20 men.
Anyone reading this has likely seen popular character actor Strother Martin a multitude of times in small, if memorable roles; but fans are going to love seeing him in a rare lead role. Martin essayed dozens of quirky, demented characters over the course of his career; and as Dr. Stoner, while certainly coming off as being of sound mind and body on the outside, has darker, more deranged intentions.
What makes Strother's portrayal even better is that he reportedly was terrified of snakes. You'd never know that by the ease in which he shares the screen with them. The way he handles them in his lab makes it appear it's a second profession. The scenes with him and Harry sharing alcoholic beverages and reading a book together are both funny and genuinely touching. Likely inspired by WILLARD (1971), Harry is strictly a pet as opposed to an instrument of revenge.

A really good selection of Martin's character roles can be found in his GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) appearances; some of which were written by Sam Peckinpah. In every one of them he either plays a kindly, if wholeheartedly naive individual (season four's 'The Constable'); or an easily manipulated retarded man (season one's 'Cooter'; season two's 'Dooley Surrenders'); or crazed lunatics (season twenty's 'Island in the Desert' Parts 1 and 2). One of his best turns on the show would be one of the darkest of the series' B/W days (which is saying a lot) in 'No Hands'. In it, Martin plays Timble, a good, charitable woodcarver who runs afoul of the psychotic Pa Ginnis (DUKES OF HAZZARDs Denver Pyle) and his quartet of equally depraved and doting sons. This episode is one of a handful that could've been among the TWILIGHT ZONE roster.

Strother Martin would be a regular face in numerous westerns (including many with John Wayne) like THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and HANNIE CAULDER (1971); and other movies like HARD TIMES (1975) starring Charles Bronson; as well as dozens of television programs; one of special interest being 'The Grave', a classic horror episode from THE TWILIGHT ZONE's third season. Easily one of his most famous portrayals came in COOL HAND LUKE (1967) where he played as the villainous Captain, delivering the classic line, "What we've got here is failure to communicate".

You'd never guess it by the countless parts he played, but in his teenage years, Martin was an accomplished swimmer. Sadly, this amazing character actor would die from a heart attack on August 1st, 1980 aged 61.

Dirk Benedict's character is very likable, if wholly naive. His level of gullibility is staggering; even after he's come to the realization he's been Dr. Stoner's guinea pig the entire time, he still looks to the man for help. The scenes between him and Heather Menzies are more successful in developing their burgeoning relationship that we all know is going to end in tragedy. This type of movie seldom spends much time on romance, but the script balances it well against the light moments of horror and PG levels of sleaze.
Menzies is likewise saddled with a level of naivety as Dr. Stoner's daughter. She is excellent in the role of Kristina to the point you believe Menzies IS that bespectacled, shy, and virginal girl. The relationship between she and Benedict is another strong attribute of an otherwise little-discussed movie. There are two scenes involving nudity between the two lovers; but these moments have been covered in post with strategically placed fauna or household items to ensure the film's PG rating.
Heather Menzies played the polar opposite of the meek Kristina in PIRANHA (1978), as a spunky reporter who, along with Bradford Dillman, uncovers a military plot involving genetically altered piranha that have been unleashed into a lakeside community water supply.
Aside from Strother Martin's misguided aspirations, a more straightforward villain is played by fan favorite Reb Brown. An early role for the muscular actor, Brown was an athlete off-screen and plays one on it here as short-tempered football player Steve Randall. You can see his future acting style on display; with all the shouting and easily agitated behavior patterns largely showcased in his Italian movies like STRIKE COMMANDO (1986) and ROBOWAR (1988) a large segment of his cult following is known for. In his prime, Brown was a striking physical presence, and oftentimes roles he was given took advantage of that; whether in small parts playing antagonists, or lead roles as a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type action hero.
He's best known, though, for playing CAPTAIN AMERICA in two Made For TV movies in 1979. They're comparable to the WONDER WOMAN (1976-1979) television series starring Lynda Carter, but less so to the seriousness of THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1978-1982) series starring Bill Bixby. His other memorable work in movies include BIG WEDNESDAY (1978), UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), and DEATH OF A SOLDIER (1986).
Billed here as Nobel Craig, military vet Noble Craig lost both his legs and right arm after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam in 1969. SSSSSSS (1973) was his first movie appearance, making his debut as Tim, Dr. Stoner's previous assistant and failed experiment. Sold to a local carnival, Tim is a sideshow attraction for curious onlookers as The Snake Man. Craig later appeared in movies like POLTERGEIST 2: THE OTHER SIDE (1986) and in the finale of BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR (1990). Noble's life was a movie-worthy story in itself. One of many stories of Strength Through Adversity, Noble never let his war-caused handicaps inhibit his life in any way. The man also survived cancer; was an avid hunter, ran a skeet range, drove himself around, was heavy into water sports, and raised five kids. Despite losing most of his limbs, Noble Craig lived a full life. He died April 26th, 2018.

SSSSSSS (1973) is one of those forgotten movies that people have a fleeting recollection of seeing in the wee hours of the morning in the late 1970s. Languishing in obscurity for near two decades before surfacing on VHS in the late 90s and DVD in the early 2000s, it's more of an interesting, well-made curio than anything in the classic mold. If you've a fear of snakes you'll want to stay far away from this one. For everyone else, SSSSSSS (1973) is quite well made, and possibly the best of its kind. It only carries a moderate bite but it's well worth getting wrapped up into for 100 minutes.

This review is representative of the Scream Factory blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1; interviews with Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies; photo gallery; theatrical trailers; running time: 01:38:51
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