Gruesome twosomes

Pub date February 27, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

Grindhouse Psychos!

(Shriek Show)

CULT DVDS Nepotism is hardly absent from mainstream Hollywood. But off-grid exploitation and sexploitation flicks have oft been a family affair by low-budget necessity. Russ and Eve Meyer, Ray Dennis Steckler and Carolyn Brandt, and Ron and June Ormond are only the most stellar names amongst many who purveyed legendary cinematic trash from the sanctimony of holy matrimony.

By coincidence, two of three features in Shriek Show’s not-too-shabby new discount box set Grindhouse Psychos! illuminate comparatively obscure marital exploitation couples. Cop Killers is a 1972 hippie drug-deal meller featuring actors who’d later go on to produce and star in the classic softcore spoof Flesh Gordon (1974). It’s not bad, though nowhere as good as the packaging ("In front of them, cops. Behind them, dead cops!"). Making a punchier impression are early-’80s titles that kept it all in the family.

Actually, Roberta Findlay’s 1985 Tenement, a.k.a. Game of Survival, a.k.a. Slaughter in the South Bronx, was released several years after husband Michael died in a bizarre helicopter-decapitation accident. Together they’d done it all: a kidnapping-rape film with pre-fame Yoko Ono (1965’s Satan’s Bed); an infamous trilogy of ultrasleazy late-’60s "roughies" (1968’s The Curse of Her Flesh, etc.); the 1974 cannibalism-meets-Bigfoot schlock masterpiece Shriek of the Mutilated; porn films both gay (Michael, Angelo, and David) and straight (Funk in 3-D). They engineered 1976’s Snuff, which capitalized on urban legend by intercutting crude new fake-documentary "murder" footage into a 1971 Findlay film shot in Argentina called The Slaughter. That con made millions.

Widowed Roberta soldiered on variably as director, cinematographer, producer, and scenarist for another decade, often under masculine aliases. Her activities ran a short gamut from porn (Lifestyles of the Blonde and Dirty) to horror (1987’s Blood Sisters). Tenement was an exception — an urban thriller à la Death Wish 3 (1985), Class of 1984 (1982), or any other ’80s movie where the evil gang was mixed race, punk, and dedicated to exterminating decent society. Here, one such crew gets arrested for shooting up in a Bronx apartment building’s empty basement. Freed five seconds later, they exact revenge by trapping and killing residents one floor at a time. Natch, the tenants fight back.

Considered so violent in 1985 that it was given an X rating, Tenement survives as the kind of vigorously crass grade-Z exercise that gives vintage exploitation a good name. Findlay is bemused and delightful in her DVD-extra interview, recalling the shoot amongst real junkies and gangs like a retired teacher might remember naughty third graders.

Much less prolific than the Findlays were Joseph Ellison and Ellen Hammill-Ellison, creators of just two New Joisey B flicks. Their incongruous 1986 doo-wop musical, Joey, bombed. But six years earlier, Don’t Go in the House made the full drive-in and grindhouse rounds, achieving disreputable immortality as an oft-cited example of extreme horror misogyny. Emotionally scarred by a late mother who’d used the gas stovetop as a disciplinary tool, Norman Bates–like nebbish Donny (Dan Grimaldi, The Sopranos‘s Patsy Parisi) lures women to his creepy hilltop home, where he gets back at mommy by burning them to death.

The reason this movie became notorious is the first such death. It left a lingering icky stain on my brain — among many others — and is mighty disturbing still. Gentleman Donny offers a ride to a stranded flower-shop proprietress (Johanna Brushay), who’s given enough screen time to seem like a real person rather than slasher-flick cannon fodder. Knocked unconscious after an unsettling buildup, she wakes to find herself naked, suspended from ceiling to floor in a metal-walled room he’s assembled for his new pastime. Entering in a flame-retardant suit, he douses her with gasoline, then applies a blowtorch at length — the grisly result patently faked by FX superimposition but horrible nonetheless.

Nothing else in this flaming Psycho imitation is so vividly appalling. But that sequence alone places House firmly in the special category of overenthusiastically female-abusive films one can’t quite believe a woman actually helped produce, let alone cowrote.