Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Death Wish Club, The (1984)

... aka: Carnival of Fools
... aka: Case of Gretta Connors, The
... aka: Dark Side to Love, The
... aka: Erskine Caldwell's Gretta
... aka: Gretta

Directed by:
John Carr

One cannot really discuss Death Wish Club in much detail without talking about three other films it will forever be associated with: Cataclysm (1980), Scream Your Head Off (1982 / 1992) and Night Train to Terror (1985). The uneven and sometimes amateurish but very interesting Satanism tale Cataclysm was first announced in 1977 and began filming later that same year according to an article in The San Diego Union. There are numerous stories floating around about what happened from there, but production was closed down for awhile and then picked back up again in the spring of 1979. By that point, they were filming in Utah. After another round of shoots occurred about a year later, it was finally complete. No less than three directors; former documentary filmmaker Tom McGowan, Greek-born Grigorios Thalassinos aka Gregg C. Tallas (who started out as an editor) and former theater actor turned hardcore porn director Phillip Marshak (of Dracula Sucks fame), are credited with the finished product and I'm not sure who filmed what, where and when. I can find no evidence that Cataclysm ever played theatrically, but the first example of a VHS release I could find here in the U.S. was a 1986 tape from Academy, who've re-titled it Satan's Supper. Because it featured known actors like Cameron Mitchell, Marc Lawrence and “Charles” (Richard) Moll in the cast, the film would go on to become a real workhorse on the early home video market; garnering releases from countless labels which all utilized different artwork and one of three different titles (the other common one was The Nightmare Never Ends).

Director John Carr's Scream Your Head Off, a sleazy tale of suicide, hypnosis, bodily dismemberment and a psychiatric clinic fronting for a white slavery ring, was primarily filmed in 1982 but the director never quite finished it. Unbeknownst to him, well over a decade later someone else cobbled what he had shot together and the film was finally released to video under its original title in the mid 90s. Carr himself later shot additional scenes to add to it, removed most of the gore and all of the nudity from the original shoot and prepared yet another PG-13 release called MARILYN ALIVE AND BEHIND BARS, which popped up on DVD in 2006. While the still-unfinished / unreleased SYHO was still languishing in limbo, Carr made another film based very loosely on the 1955 Erskine Caldwell novel Gretta, which was first announced in 1980 (with a different director and producer attached), was filmed in 1982, bears a 1983 copyright date and was the subject of trade screenings in 1984 under the title The Dark Side to Love. A year later it made its way to home video on the Regal label under the new title Death Wish Club. Two years later AIR Video would re-release the movie under yet another title, Carnival of Fools; an apt name considering many people were potentially being tricked into sitting through a film they'd already seen.

So what do all of these films have in common? For starters, each was written by Philip Yordan, an Oscar-winning former producer, writer and major Hollywood player whose entire career is shrouded in controversy and mystery. Yordan is best known for fronting for numerous blacklisted writers during the 50s and 60s and taking screen credit for their screenplays, but there's a lot more to his fascinating story than meets the eye. (For a very worthwhile read about his career, let me now direct you to a well-written article from Alan K. Rode that can be read RIGHT HERE). Aside from Yordan, what really ties these movie together forever is that each of these feature-length films were cut down to about 20 minutes, re-edited, re-titled and had new gore and stop motion special effects added so they could be included in the haphazard horror anthology Night Train to Terror (1985). Ironically, far more people have seen Night Train than any of the full features it ineptly truncated into rubbish. That's unfortunate in the case of Death Wish Club, which is actually a fascinating little movie in its full, 91-minute form.

Filthy rich eccentric George Youngmeyer (J. Martin Sellers) doesn't care much about traditional love or sex but still fancies himself “the last of the great lovers” and considers “one-sided love” to be “the only true emotion.” In other words, he's something of a cynical masochist who wants to meet someone he can lavish with money, gifts and his love; a person who doesn't necessarily have to give a shit about him. Tellingly, in real life, Yordan had once had an affair with, and been jilted by, actress Simone Simon of Cat People (1942) fame. A series of other failed relationships and marriages later, he was quoted (as per the article linked above) as saying “I married them [his first three wives] and supported them in a life style none of them experienced before they met me. That's all I had to offer.” 

George meets his perfect match selling popcorn at a carnival. She – Gretta Connors (Meridith Haze) – is young, pretty and has no issue quitting her menial job and moving in with him after he shoves hundred dollar bills down the front of her shirt. Gretta soon proves to be rude, weird, foul-mouthed, obnoxious, slutty, mentally-imbalanced and uncultured (“I hate Chopin... I'm glad Chopin's dead!”). She wants George to make her a star, so he puts her in porn movies instead. It's in one of these movies that twenty-something college med student / army vet Glenn Marshall (Rick Barnes) sees her and becomes instantly infatuated. He manages to track her down to a smoky nightclub called Club Manhattan where she performs piano in a jazz ensemble wearing just a jacket and a leotard (!) George immediately warns him to stay away because she “lives in the fourth dimension.” Glenn's little fantasy of meeting a beguiling young beauty is quickly extinguished upon meeting Gretta, who proves to be a little too sexually aggressive and outlandish for his tastes.

Philip Yordan putting in a cameo as a "Dirty Old Moviegoer."

Glenn returns to school and work, but a few weeks later George sends his flamboyant male chauffeur Mary Contrary ("Paul" / Norm Keefer) to fetch him because Gretta won't leave a steaming-hot bathtub and stop pretending she's a fish (!!) unless he does. Glenn ends up sleeping with her (in front of George), the two then start dating and she moves into his apartment, proving to be quite the handful in the process. She eats corn flakes and parades around in front of Glenn's uptight mom while topless and refuses to put on clothes when he asks her to get dressed or have friends over. She sells his TV, moves in a huge piano and wants sex all the time. As far as Gretta is concerned, “as long as you can get it up,” everything's OK. When she's not having sex, she's off in her own little world. I guess that's “the fourth dimension.”

Eventually, Glenn is dragged to a party by George and Gretta where he meets a handful of other weirdos who indulge in deadly games. The small secret society, which includes Contessa Pacelli ("Anne Fairchild" / Toni Covington), Federico Libuse ("William Charles" aka associate producer William C. Moore) and Prince Flubutu (Mark Ridley), have each had a near death experience in their past and now get together occasionally to get their jollies putting themselves in potentially fatal Russian Roulette-like scenarios so they can relive “the exquisite ecstasy of death.” After barely surviving getting a fatal sting from a “Tanzanian winged beetle,” Glenn decides he's had enough. He attempts to move on with his life yet again but is rejected by his former girlfriend (Theresa Jenson) when he tries to rekindle things and she (rightfully) suspects he's still in love with Gretta. Next thing he knows, George is showing up at his apartment informing him that Gretta has killed herself.

Right after Gretta's funeral, Glenn goes to Club Manhattan and discovers a now short-haired and very much alive Gretta is still performing there, only decked out in male drag and going by the name of Charlie White. Her suicide attempt, preexisting schizo tendencies and trauma have all caused her to revert to this all-new male personality. Problem is, “he” is straight and Glenn wants the old Gretta back. A shrink buddy recommends our hero go ahead and rape her to shock her back into reality (!) but things don't go quite as smoothly as planned. Glenn finds himself back at the death club several times against his wishes; once strapped to an electric chair and another time held at gunpoint and forced to get inside a sleeping bag while a 1250 pound construction ball swings overhead! There's also a strange comic subplot involving an elderly next door neighbor couple who get their kicks keeping tabs on Glen's sex life and even stranger scenes where Glenn crashes a drag queen wedding ceremony (!) and then uses karate on kidnappers.

Genuinely bizarre, perplexing, tongue-in-cheek, erratic, uneven, frequently hilarious, sometimes eerie, noir-ish and intense and thoroughly one of a kind and entertaining, this refuses to tie itself down to the conventions of just one genre and truly deserves some kind of cult following it has yet to receive. It's also one of those cases where rough production values and some amateurish acting actually improve the end product by enhancing its charm and quirkiness. Not to imply that all the acting here is bad. Quite the contrary actually. Sellers is excellent in his role as a decadent older gentleman / Yordan stand-in and also narrates the proceedings and Barnes does a fine job as the straight-laced, understandably dumbfounded central figure who takes a plunge into a pit of kooky, dangerous oddballs hoping to pull the woman he's grown to love out with him. Lead actress Haze gives an extremely memorable, animated and colorful performance which is, at times, wildly amateurish, but never uninteresting. Only a couple of the supporting players, most notably Keefer, are able to really bring their small roles to life, but every little bit helps. At points, audio problems are an issue and certain lines from certain actors clearly had to be dubbed in later by others.

The biggest surprise of all is that this is a more serious-minded, personal and intelligently-written film than one might expect. Perhaps the true key to unlocking its intentions is keeping in mind its original title, The Dark Side to Love. Chip away all the eccentricities and underneath you have an atypical love story and an insightful documentation about the rocky, sometimes scary road one travels down in virtually any romantic relationship. We follow the Glenn character throughout the whole process, from his initial feelings of lust that first draw him to someone he doesn't even really know, to the distrust and the jealousy once the two begin actually dating and his feelings intensify on unstable ground, to all of the strange and scary revelations that threaten to drive the two apart... After awhile, Glenn finds himself unable to move forward and puts everything at risk (even his own life) for Gretta. Brains, dignity, self-respect and common sense right out the window? Yeah, that's true love for ya. Things conclude with a final scene that's both poignant and perfect.

After numerous VHS releases throughout the 80s and 90s, this received a bare bones DVD release (which appears to be a decent tape transfer) from Trinity in 2007. In 2013, Vinegar Syndrome released it again under yet another new title (Gretta) and included it as an extra on their Night Train to Terror DVD / Blu-ray release. As happy as I am to see this finally available to the masses in good, remastered condition, in another way it's sad that its final epitaph is being an extra "bonus feature" to a notoriously awful headliner that it is far superior to.

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