Scorsese’s Search for His Own Bonnie & Clyde

Arthur Penn’s 1967 free-wheeling crime thriller Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the start of the so-called New Hollywood movement that reached its creative & cultural heights in the 1970s. An upstart director making heroes out of amoral, cop-killing bank robbers struck a chord with the youth culture of the day, especially in its gleeful depictions of shameless lust & ultraviolence. Other young directors were inspired to make their own antihero hagiographies in its wake, now with financial backing from major Hollywood studios – names like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, and so on. Opera-composer-turned-filmmaker Leonard Kastle was far less inspired by the film, particularly in the ways it failed to fully subvert Hollywood glitz & glamor. With his first (and only) film The Honeymoon Killers, Kastle set out to right the wrongs of Bonnie & Clyde, explaining “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Kastle wanted grime in his true crime cinema, something much closer in aesthetic to early John Waters provocations like Multiple Maniacs than anything mainstream Hollywood would dare to produce. To help accomplish this goal, Kastle employed a fresh-out-of-film-school Martin Scorsese to direct his picture, a true life drama about the theft/murder spree of Raymond & Martha Beck, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1940s. Scorsese previously made a huge critical splash with his vibrant, energetic, and above all grimy debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a film that made him appear perfect for Kastle’s pet anti-Bonnie & Clyde project. The partnership was short-lived, however, with Scorsese only surviving a couple weeks of production before being replaced in the director’s chair by Kastle himself (and several other uncredited collaborators). That didn’t stop Young Marty (to refer to him by his SoundCloud rapper name) from directing his own answer to Bonnie & Clyde, however. Instead, he paid his dues as a New Hollywood brat by taking his Bonnie & Clyde-aping ambitions to a much more traditional collaborator for his contemporaries: Roger Corman.

Many New Hollywood players got their start working for Corman, from Peter Bogdanovich working on bullshit projects like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to Peter Fonda testing out early revisions of Easy Rider in Corman productions The Wild Angels & The Trip. Although they were both working under AIP, Kastle was much less valuable as a career-starter than Corman, as he approached The Honeymoon Killers as a singular-obsession passion project, while it was typical for Corman to juggle a dozen productions at once. It’s probably best for Scorsese’s overall career, then, that he was fired from Kastle’s picture to instead pursue his own Bonnie & Clyde romantic thriller under Corman’s wing, but the circumstances of that change-up are a little baffling. Kastle reportedly booted Scorsese from The Honeymoon Killers for taking too much time to set up, shoot, and break down individual scenes, delaying production to great cost. It’s unclear whether Scorsese had taken to heart the lesson of needing to prioritize speed over artistic fussiness by the time he worked with Corman on his next feature or if the increased budget of that production allowed for more careful preparation on a day’s shoot. Given Corman’s own notoriety for cheap, rapid-fire filmmaking, it’s most likely that Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable career lesson in the firing, one that would become much less useful by the time he was allowed the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted in sprawling epics like GoodFellas, Silence, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese was capable of delivering his auteurist vision on an AIP schedule & budget, as evidenced by pictures like Who’s That Knocking? & Mean Streets, but his heart wasn’t really in it. That’s not only indicated by his firing from The Honeymoon Killers, but also by the quality of the Bonnie & Clyde knockoff he eventually completed for Corman instead: Boxcar Bertha. There’s a slickness & attention to detail in Scorsese’s best works that could not shine through under AIP’s prohibitive budgets & shooting schedules, even when he was shooting his pet-favorite subject of cool-looking antihero criminals behaving badly.

1972’s Boxcar Betha splits the difference between Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers, leaving itself a middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the process. Given the grimy, ultraviolent aesthetic he carved out in early pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver, you’d assume Scorsese’s own take on the Bonnie & Clyde template would be in line with Kastle’s, but those instincts did not translate to the screen in this instance. Barbara Hersey & David Carradine star as train-hopping armed robbers in the 1930s South, never quite matching the spiritual ugliness of the Lonely Hearts Killers nor the Hollywood glamor of Bonnie & Clyde. Boxcar Bertha is listed as a “romantic crime drama” on Wikipedia (a descriptor that fits all three of these works well enough), but it mostly functions as a road trip movie, detailing a loosely connected string of anecdotes as its romantically linked antiheroes drink, rob, shoot, gamble, and prostitute their way across the 1930s railways. This ramshackle lifestyle earns them much unwanted attention (and gunfire) from the law, ultimately to predictable tragedy. It’s a rote tale of Depression Era Southern pastiche, one with far fewer distinguishing details than either The Honeymoon Killers or Bonnie & Clyde, which is surprising given that its source material is entirely fictional. While both Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers were based on true stories heavily reported on in the papers, Boxcar Bertha was an adaptation of a fictional novel from the 1930s, Sister of the Road. That didn’t stop Corman from including a “based on a real story” title card at the start of the picture, solidifying its function as a Bonnie & Clyde mockbuster. In most ways, Boxcar Bertha feels far more akin to Roger Corman’s typical output than Scorsese’s, which isn’t all that surprising considering how green the director was at the time. The film was a stepping stone to New Hollywood infamy for Scorsese, one that faithfully took the shape of New Hollywood’s own stepping stone to mass audience success.

Like most directors’ early collaborations with Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha’s greatest asset to Scorsese was an opportunity for hands-on experience. The most he puts himself into the work (not counting the literal instance of his cameo as one of Bertha’s johns) is in the excruciatingly Catholic imagery of a character being crucified with railway spikes for their crimes. The rest of the film is a straight Corman mockbuster of Penn’s seminal film, the exact opposite of what Kastle set out to achieve in The Honeymoon Killers. I suppose Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable lesson himself in booting him from that anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, but it’s very tempting to wonder what The Honeymoon Killers might have been like if Scorsese had remained onboard throughout. Maybe Scorsese’s Honeymoon Killers would have been just as great as the film Kastle delivered on his own. Maybe the lethargic shooting schedule would have tanked the picture entirely and there never would have been a Honeymoon Killers in the first place. Either way, the result certainly would have been more interesting than the far less blasphemous Bonnie & Clyde echoes of Boxcar Bertha, easily the dullest Scorsese pic I’ve seen to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Dementia 13 (1963)

Before the New Hollywood movement busted up the established dinosaurs of the Studio System, one of the best ways for young outsiders to break into filmmaking was through the Roger Corman Film School. Because the maniacally frugal producer would hand off cheap, quick film shoots to anyone he suspected might be competent enough to handle the task, many young filmmakers who would later define the New Hollywood era cut their teeth with on-the-job training making films for Roger Corman & AIP: Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda, Hopper, Demme, etc. There was a kind of freedom to this pedal-to-the-floor cheapo genre film production cycle, but many projects Corman handed to his de facto “students” were . . . less than ideal, considering their art cinema sensibilities. That’s how the world was gifted weird mishmash projects like Peter Bogdanovich getting his start directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women by smashing together scenes of over-dubbed Soviet sci-fi films with new footage of beachside bikini babes. Another future New Hollywood upstart, Frances Ford Coppola, got his foot in the door recutting & dubbing those same Russian sci-fi films alongside Bogdanovich in the editing room. Coppola also got his own start directing “mainstream” narrative features (as opposed to his earlier nudie cutie work) through a hodgepodge project Corman handed to him in a rush. Hastily slapped together on the back of $20,000 of budgetary leftovers from another AIP production, Coppola’s Dementia 13 is one of those Corman projects like Blood Bath or The Terror that are left almost entirely incomprehensible by their corner-cutting, behind the scenes shenanigans. The film afforded Coppola the opportunity to experiment with his sense of craft on the job, though, as he strived to make a more serious, artful picture than what’s usually expected from Croman fare. The results were mixed, but worthwhile.

Urged by AIP to deliver a quick, cheap riff on Psycho, Coppola filters a Hitchcockian mad-killer plot through a Gothic haunted house template. Packed with axe-murders, underwater doll parts, badly dubbed performances, and gradual descents into madness, the film often feels like a cheap black & white take on giallo surreality. Like giallo, it values imagery over narrative coherence, requiring a Wikipedia read-through of its basic plot after the end credits roll. It opens with a Psycho/Carnival of Souls-style setup of a lone woman in flight from her past crises. In this case, she’s a money-hungry schemer who pretends that her late husband is still alive so she can ingratiate herself to his mother for inheritance money. She moves in with the “not” dead husband’s family in their Gothic manor, which is lousy with hidden passageways and dark family secrets. The family is unhealthily obsessed with the drowning of their youngest daughter years in the past, a weakness the woman hopes to exploit to con them out of their money. What happens from there is up for interpretation, as the past drowning death and a series of current axe murders open the film up to hazily-defined mysteries befitting of the world’s most incomprehensible gialli. Although the producer afforded Coppola total freedom to write & direct the film he wanted, Corman was frustrated with its incomprehensible plot, which he decided to punch up with a series of changes that dampened its art film appeal: Irish accents dubbed over with unenthused American ones; Jack Hill-directed inserts of comic relief; a runtime-padding intro that administered a mental stability test to the audience in a William Castle-style gimmick. Corman didn’t clarify the plot of Coppola’s film so much as he compromised its overall artistic vision. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it’s clear the film would have would have been a total mess either way.

What an interesting mess, though! Although not as fun as similarly incomprehensible horror cheapies like Blood Bath or A Night to Dismember, Dementia 13 at the very least provides a stage for a young Coppola to test out his visual experiments to varying success, without any real stakes for them having to pay off (it wouldn’t be the first or last time someone wasted AIP money). As it opened on a double bill with the excellent sci-fi horror The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, possibly Corman’s best directorial effort outside The Masque of the Red Death, it’s clear that the student had yet to become the master. Like many other future New Hollywood film nerds, though, Coppola was better for the Roger Corman Film School having afforded him an opportunity to gain mainstream experience behind the camera, even if the immediate results weren’t as compelling as a Targets or even a Death Race 2000.

-Brandon Ledet

Abby (1974)

In Shock Value, author Jason Zinoman discusses the fact that The Exorcist was surprisingly popular with black audiences in 1973, so it was only natural that a blaxploitation follow up would appear relatively quickly. Appearing on screens for only a month in 1974, Abby, written and directed by William Girdler (who had previously scripted and helmed cult classics like Three on a Meathook and Asylum of Satan, and who would go on to direct Pam Grier in Sheba, Baby), raked in an astonishing four million dollars before attracting the attention of Warner Brothers. WB sued American International Pictures for copyright infringement and won, leading to virtually every extant copy of the film to be destroyed, with only the film negatives thought to still exist. Until a long-forgotten copy of the film was discovered at the bottom of a box of 35 mm trailer reels at the American Genre Film Archive, that is. It’s unclear what will happen with the film now and whether it will see a new home media release (a very low quality 16 mm print was converted for DVD release in 2004, but it’s just awful), but it definitely deserves one.

The narrative opens on Reverend Emmett Williams (Terry Carter), who is going to Nigeria to perform missionary and humanitarian work during a plague. On the other side of the world, his son Garnet (William Marshall) has ascended to the rank of Bishop and taken charge of a church in Louisville, with his faithful wife Abby (Carol Speed) at his side. She, too, is active in the church, having just been certified as a marriage counselor and organizing church activities seven days a week. The two have just moved into a new home near the church, with help from Abby’s mother “Momma” (Juanita Moore) and brother Cass, a police detective. When the elder Williams opens an ebony box in Nigeria and unleashes an evil orisha spirit named Eshu, Abby becomes possessed by it and begins behaving in bizarre and dangerous ways, prompting her loved ones to try and find a way to save her, body and soul, before it’s too late.

For all that Warner Brothers did to bury Abby, they certainly had no issue taking some elements from it when drafting a script for The Exorcist 2, including the connection to ancient African myths and legends. That aside, Abby is marvelous, aside from a little bit of drag in Act III. Speed’s performance as Abby is heart-wrenching, as she struggles to make sense of the actions taken while possessed during her moments of clarity. Of particular note is the scene that follows her first episode, in which Eshu forces her to slice her wrist; Abby awakes to find her wrist bandaged and her baffled cries and moans are enough to stir even the hardest of hearts. Speed, who had recently lost her lover to a random shooting in the street outside of their home, took the role to distract herself from the tragedy, and she pours that emotional vulnerability and intensity into every scene. Also of interest is the fact that Eshu is not solely expelled through the power of Catholic exorcist intervention, but by the elder Williams donning a dashiki and kufi hat over his priestly collar, combining western Catholic tradition and ancient African mythology to solve the crisis at hand. It’s a thoughtful way to handle the film’s denouement, and serves to differentiate it from many of the run-of-the-mill Exorcist clones that followed William Friedkin’s more famous film.

Tracking down a decent copy of Abby may be no small feat, but it is highly recommended.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)

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three star

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If there’s any doubt of my contention that the 50s drive-in creature feature I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a zeitgeist shift in its first-ever depiction of a teenager-turned-monster as its central threat, just look to the fact that the film’s wild cultural success lead to an immediate onslaught of imitators. There are countless movies that have followed in the cult classic’s wake that all turned the horrors of puberty into literal monstrous transformations, far too many to list here. There are even enough teen werewolf movies that followed that the plot device can be considered its own genre: Teen Wolf, Ginger Snaps, Cursed, Twilight, and, from the very same year as the original, Teenage Monster all fit snugly under its umbrella.

More often than not, though, Hollywood producers will learn the exact wrong lessons from a film’s success. So, when Sam Arkoff & AIP decided to strike while the iron was hot with a follow-up to their surprise hit I Was a Teenage Werewolf, they ended making a film that was nothing like the wild idiosyncrasy of the original. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein completely missed the point of why I Was a Teenage Werewolf struck it big with drive-in audiences. In the werewolf picture teens watched their peers talk hip slang (or at least what adult screenwriters assumed was hip slang), rough house, make-out, and transform into hideous beasts at the cruel hands of puberty. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, by contrast, shows almost no teens at all during its entire runtime. Even the titular teenage Frankenstein monster appears to be a man well into his 20s (not that you ever get a good enough look at the actor to really make a judgement call on that).

The one thing I Was a Teenage Frankenstein did keep from I Was a Teenage Werewolf‘s formula was the idea of a mad scientist experimenting on teen subjects. In the original a rogue scientist plots to “save” the world by bringing man back to a primitive state through hypnosis-aided de-evolution. In the Frankenstein version of this story, an equally ambitious man of science (and direct descendant of the more infamous Dr. Frankenstein, of course) wants to save the world by creating some kind of superbeing out of disposed body parts. His exact goals are a lot fuzzier than his werewolf-creating predecessor’s, but they have something to do with experimental eugenics & bodily reconstruction due to a belief that the world is in danger because morons keep breeding morons. He believes he can do a better job of constructing the human body than God & Nature. Gathering the pieces-parts of his teenage specimens from a head-on car crash, the doctor creates a modern Frankenstein monster in total secrecy, even keeping his lab assistant & nosy fiancee in the dark. Inevitably the experiment gets out of his control & the monster ends up killing a few unsuspecting victims, both by accident & through coercion, despite having a genuinely kind teenage heart resting in his undead body.

You pretty much can guess how this film winds up, which is largely what holds I Was a Teenage Frankenstein back from achieving the glorious heights of its predecessor. Rushed to theaters less than five months after the release of I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the film feels like it was made without any real knowledge of what even happened in its source material, let alone what made it popular. The only teens I can recall seeing in the picture arrive in the final third during a brief trip to a Lovers’ Lane parking lot in the monster’s search for a new face, which separates the film so far from its lycanthrope counterpart that it’s a wonder they even share a title the way they do. Still, as a standard drive-in era monster movie the film is a surprisingly decent watch. The teen Frankenstein’s monster make-up is downright grotesque in its hamburger meat visage, the doctor’s fiancee has a sincerely great gravitas to her performance, and the doctor’s disposal method for unused body parts is to feed them to a stock footage alligator, which is something of my schlock-loving dreams. I also really appreciated the doctor’s relentless cruelty, which was surprising in its viciousness even for a villain in a monster movie. For instance, when he first brings his creation to life, the teen freak immediately weeps at the crushing weight of its own existence & the doctor exclaims, “It appears even its tear ducts function!” That’s pretty cold. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein may have missed the point of its more teen-oriented predecessor’s success, but it stands well enough on its own as a straight-forward genre exercise with a heartless villain & a truly horrific monster design.

-Brandon Ledet