Monday, July 21, 2014

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)

... aka: Don't Spank Baby

Directed by:
Thomas Casey

Well, now here's something a little different. Martha Baxter and her aimless 18-year-old nephew Stanley live in a quiet suburb of Miami, Florida. Stanley ("Scott Lawrence") is your typical young hippie who likes his wild times, his pot, his coke, his hash and his LSD. He's also on the run from the law because he may have murdered poor old Mrs. Johnson up in Baltimore. Thankfully, his loving Auntie scooped him right up and drug him all the way down South to hide out. Martha outwardly seems a respectable sort and is never seen out in public without a sensible blouse and conservative skirt. However, she also has a box full of expensive diamond jewelry that she may have acquired during a bank robbery. Stanley is goofy, immature and annoying. Martha is a neurotic nag who never stops chewing him out about staying out too late, bringing girls back to the house, smoking weed, drinking water directly from the faucet, leaving the refrigerator door open or looking at her the wrong way. Oh yes, and they both happen to be completely bonkers. As it turns out, Martha isn't Stanley's aunt. "She" isn't even a woman. "She" is actually a guy named Paul (Abe Zwick) and his relationship with Stanley is quite unlike anything you'll see anywhere else in what plays out like some sort of deranged R-rated 70s sitcom.

Stanley has a bad habit of running around with free lovin' chicks who are completely wrong for him. He enjoys their company and the drugs to an extent... until they demand sex from him and then things get weird. Stanley is either unable or unwilling to perform. In fact, just the idea of it repulses him so badly it makes him turn violent. After he gets fucked up he brings an aggressive blonde named Alma (Marty Cordova) back to the home, but cries out for his "Aunt Martha" when she tries to take off his pants. Paul - who's more than just a little possessive of young Stanley - pops in, calls her a "filthy bitch," chases her outside and finally slashes her throat. When Stanley ends up in a sexual situation with Alma's roommate Dolores (Maggie Wood), he flips out and starts trying to strangle her. "Martha" later finishes the job when Dolores starts snooping around the house looking for her missing friend and she catches her by surprise with a shovel hit to the head. This comfy albeit demented living arrangement is threatened by the presence of Hubert Williams (Don Craig); an acquaintance of Stanley's from Baltimore. Hubert is a heroin junkie into astrology who blackmails the duo into letting him live in the home, but he may be up to something else. OK, he obviously is. We just don't know what.

Also complicating matters is nosy, lonely neighbor Mrs. Adams (Yanka Mann), who is very pregnant, has a bad heart and keeps trying to force a friendship with "Martha." Her sweet, straight-laced nurse daughter Vicki (Robin Hughes) has something of a crush on Stanley as well and could conceivably be a nice counterpart to all the loose-livin' chicks he's usually accustomed to. Unfortunately, Paul is insanely jealous ("I hope you get a good case of the clap!") of any girl who threatens to come between him and his confused partner-in-crime, and therein lies the point of most interest in this bizarre, impossible-to-categorize  film. Though nothing is explicitly shown, the basis of their relationship lies directly in their repressed sexuality. Paul offs any female who shows interest in Stanley, tells him "You know I love you," frequently hugs and puts his arm around him and alternately behaves like a parental-figure and a spurned lover. Though Stanley is a little more difficult to read, he isn't quite innocent in the equation either. Not only does he seem turned off by the idea of sex with a female but, during one memorable scene, he makes a comment about "balling" Paul, strips down to his underwear and then joins him in bed under the covers! This kind of stuff seldom made its way into films of any stripe at this time, outside of perhaps more underground films by the likes of Andy Warhol or John Waters.

There's a little blood and some female nudity to please the exploitation / drive-in fans of the day but what really holds this quirky and amusing (though uneven) film together are the two lead actors. Top-billed Zwick is great as Paul and manages to create a pretty memorable character within the confines of the script. He even does a hilarious husky feminine voice in his "Martha" persona. Sadly, this was Zwick's only known role and nobody seems to know what happened to this guy. The same cannot be said for his co-star Scott Lawrence. Lawrence starred in several other shot-in-Florida cheapies during the early mid-70s before reverting back to his real name Wayne Crawford. In 1983, he wrote and produced the surprise hit comedy Valley Girl, then went on to produce the successful comic sci-fi / horror flick NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984). He continued to act through the years as well and had starring roles in HEADHUNTER (1988), THE EVIL BELOW (1989), Snake Island (2002) and numerous others; sometimes also directing, writing and / or producing these films himself.

Director Casey had his hand in a number of low-budget exploitation films shot in the Sunshine State, like the awful SCREAM BABY SCREAM (1969). Harry Kerwin, director of God's Bloody Acre (1975) and Barracuda (1978), both of which starred Lawrence / Crawford, was the production manager. His brother, William Kerwin, who's best known for starring in horror flicks and nudie cuties for cult director Herschell Gordon Lewis, can be briefly seen as a detective running into the Studio City building where the finale takes place. He also receives a grip credit and may also be the "Thomas Woodburn" who helped to edit the film (he frequently used the aliases "Thomas Wood" and "Thomas Sweetwood," so why not "Woodburn," eh?) Another Lewis alum, Gruesome Twosome star Chris Martell, was the assistant director. Most amusing of all is the presence of Brad F. Grinter, mastermind behind the bad movie classic BLOOD FREAK (1971), a film that involved a 'Nam vet biker turning into a blood-drinking, gobbling turkey-monster. In that film Grinter co-starred as an on-screen narrator who sits behind a desk chain smoking and coughing. In this film he plays a police lieutenant sitting behind a desk with a cigarette dangling from his lip!

Aunt Martha received enticing write-ups in such fanzines as Psychotronic over the years, so I'm quite surprised by just how few people have actually seen this one. Availability is probably the issue. Though the film received video releases through at least two different companies here (Active Home Video and Video Treasures), it has yet to get a legitimate DVD release, which probably doesn't help matters any.

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