I Drink Your Blood (1970)

The two things I dislike & distrust most about 1970s grindhouse genre cheapies are the rampant depictions of sexual assault and the lethargic, stoney-baloney pacing. I Drink Your Blood suffers from both, yet the movie charmed me anyway. For all the exploitative & energetic faults I can find in the film as a supposed shock-a-minute gore fest, it’s just too gleefully & gloriously trashy on a conceptual level for me to disregard its merits. A nasty grindhouse gross-out about rabid, Satanic hippie cannibals chowing down on the God-fearing folks of a town just like yours, I Drink Your Blood is perfectly calibrated midnight fare. Even my complaints about its pacing & careless sexual assault issues are more endemic to the era of its genre than indicative of its strengths as an isolated picture; the rape occurs off-screen, not at all played for titillation, and the slow pace allows breathing room for a rowdy public screening party atmosphere (that I was likely missing out on by watching the film alone on my couch via Kanopy). This is one of those curios that’s commendable for the audacity of its own existence, especially considering its ludicrous premise and the extremity of its apparent politics—a movie that’s most entertaining for the disbelief that your watching it all, that it was ever made or distributed.

Satan-worshipping hippies invade a small town, planning to stage sacrificial rituals in the nearby woods. They brutalize & rape eavesdroppers, laugh in the face of local children & elderly, and tiptoe toward graduating from animal sacrifices to their Dark Lord to human ones. Fed up with the adults around him’s unwillingness to confront these youth culture reprobates, a child plans to rid his town of the hippie scum by feeding them meat pies he injects with rabies-infected dog blood. The plan backfires, as the hippies foam at the mouth and become crazed cannibals, eating everyone they can get their mouths on, spreading rabies to survivors. The result is the mayhem typical to a zombie outbreak, with the red acrylic stage blood of most grindhouse productions bathing the town as lives, limbs, and infected rats are liberally strewn about. The rabies is also spread through the hippies’ shameless sexual exploits (such as banging an entire crew of construction workers at once), recalling early stirrings of Cronenberg freak-outs like Shivers. You could probably also track the film as an influence on other mania-driven horrors like George Romero’s The Crazies, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, and even the recent Nic Cage pic Mom & Dad, but ultimately it feels very much like a product of its time, just another batshit insane drive-in horror of the grindhouse era.

Nothing demonstrates I Drink Your Blood’s quality of being of its time quite like the film’s connection to the Manson Family murders. Less than a year after the infamous slaughter of Sharon Tate & house guests, this film shamelessly exploited the public’s fear of acid-dropping, Satan worshipping hippies by making the entire Free Love moment look like a cover for the hedonistic violence that was secretly driving the counterculture. It even makes hippies’ perceived egalitarian racial politics out to be something oddly sinister, with widely varied ethnicities represented among the cannibals’ ranks exaggerated as if they were gangs from The Warriors. And just in case you don’t connect the dots between those killer hippie scum and the killer hippies in the newspapers, the cannibals in the film write “PIG” in lipstick on their first human sacrifice’s stomach, one of the more widely-shared lurid details from the Sharon Tate tragedy, I Drink Your Blood attempts to scare audiences with alarmist depictions of youths gone out of control, the same tactic exploited in later cult pictures like Class of 1999. The irony, of course, is that most of the audience for these shock-a-minute genre pictures is the youth of the day, so that they always play as a kind of perverse, tongue-in-cheek parody of that alarmism.

Despite all of I Drink Your Blood’s shoddiness in craft and laughable attacks on the ills of youth culture & peace-loving (read: Satan-worshipping) hippiedom, the film is still grimy enough to be genuinely upsetting. Its characters’ hyperviolent LSD freak-outs are never accompanied by goofball hallucinatory imagery — instead manifesting as frustrated, sweaty intensity & wide-eyed madness. Even before the LSD or rabies kicks in, the hippies are already at least a little terrifying, especially as they maniacally chase rats out of their new squat with early signs of bloodlust. That mood-setter makes the eventual rabid hippie mayhem feel like a plague of rats spreading through small-town America – a grotesquely reductive, Conservative view of the times (hilariously so). There’s an authenticity to that viewpoint too, as even the crew of this production had territorial fights with the residents of the small town where they filmed, uptight folks who did not want their kind around. I could lie & say that this genuinely disturbing grime & historical context are what makes the film worth a watch, but the truth is that those are just lagniappe textures to the movie’s true bread & rabid dog’s blood-injected butter: the absurdity of its premise. Like most grindhouse fare, this is a movie that’s largely entertaining for its over-the-top conceptual indulgences, something you have to tolerate a little moral unease & impatience to fully appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

Fulci’s Clairvoyant Visions: The Psychic (1977) & A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

When we were first discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the 1977 paranormal horror The Psychic, we were all taken aback by the soft hand of restraint Lucio Fulci took with the film. Outside the opening clairvoyant vision in which a woman leaps to her death off a cliff & smashes her face on every rock on the way down, The Psychic felt remarkably restrained for a Fulci work, not to mention for giallo at large. This restraint extended beyond the film’s violence & sexuality to inform the way the protagonist’s visions were depicted onscreen. Unlike in most thrillers where a clairvoyant protagonist solves a murder based on their psychic visions, the clues in The Psychic are not pieced out throughout the runtime in a gradual reveal. Instead, all clues are dumped in the first act deluge of a single vision, then the individual objects of that one premonition (a lamp, a mirror, an ashtray, etc.) are examined in isolation as the mystery is solved. What I didn’t know while watching The Psychic is that Fulci had already made the movie we were expecting it to be based on its pedigree. He had already gotten the violent, erotic, psychedelic genre expectations of a clairvoyance giallo out of his system with a previous picture.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is much more at home with the giallo genre’s more lurid tendencies than Fulci’s The Psychic. It’s the inferior film of the pair, but after wondering how Fulci exercised so much restraint in the sex & violence of his latter clairvoyance horror, there was something cathartic about watching him him go full sleaze in a nastier picture with the same solving-a-murder-through-psychic-visions premise. Switching those visions from a single psychic premonition intruding while driving to a series of intense, lingering sex dreams involving orgies & lesbianism should clue you in on just how much trashier A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is than its much classier follow-up. The protagonist in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin surfers a lot of the same anxieties as her The Psychic counterpart. Both women are left isolated by absent or unfaithful husbands and discuss the disturbing intensity of their visions with the other men in their lives whose skepticism is letting them down, their psychiatrists. Instead of receiving psychic flashes of past, present, and future murders, however, the protagonist of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin receives her visions in the form of wet dreams. While trying to enjoy stuffy dinners with her family, she can hear the wild orgies thrown by her hippie neighbor on the other side of the wall. This fuels her nighttime fantasies, which typically depict her navigating a complex web of hippie flesh until she can be alone with her neighbor, a meeting that culminates in lesbian erotica staged on red satin sheets. This ritual is disrupted when one of these intense dreams ends with her stabbing the neighbor multiple times in the chest while they make love, an encounter she describes to her therapist & records in her dream journal before discovering it really happened, her neighbor was actually stabbed to death.

The fun of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the prurient first act bursts of its wet dream premonitions. The measured way The Psychic handles picking apart the details of a single psychic vision suggests a maturity for Fulci as a filmmaker, but it’s undeniably fun to watch him let loose in a more sophomoric way in this earlier, hornier work. The psychic visions of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin are prolonged, lingering indulgences that openly gawk at lesbianism & bloodshed. Their penchant for dream logic allows for non sequitur intrusions of strange images like crowded train car orgies, electric chair executions, and gigantic angry swan puppets to disrupt the hedonistic fantasies of the protagonist. You could do worse than watching a film solely to see that kind of visual excess paired with a classic score from Ennio Morricone. The problem is, like with a lot of giallo, after that lurid energy dissipates and the film shifts focus from stylized visuals to setting up the mechanics of a traditional murder mystery, it loses a lot of steam. The Psychic not only shows more restraint in its exploitation of sex & violence; it also does a much better job of constructing a mystery the audience actually needs an answer to in order to leave satisfied. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is only truly recommendable if you’ve already seen that superior work and are wondering what it would look like if it were driven by Fulci’s more salacious tendencies. It was the movie I was expecting to see when we first watched The Psychic, but it wasn’t necessarily made better for delivering on those directorial & genre-based expectations.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

-Brandon Ledet

Silent Running (1972)

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The 1972 Bruce Dern sci-fi epic Silent Running offers an interesting moral litmus test for its viewers. Depending on how you see the film it can either play like an environmentalist screed against the evils of modern Capitalism (think Ferngully set in space) or a chilling tale of crazy-eyed hippie who gets so entrenched in his ideology that he’ll murder any humans necessary to save a few trees. Either way, it’s a strange little film loaded with the kind of production detail that sci-fi cinema nerds crave in their media, the kind that only improves as it becomes more outdated. Directed by a special effects supervisor who worked on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running‘s intricate space ship models & star-filled backdrops are exceptional for a modest pre-Star Wars production. It avoids the swashbuckling-in-space thrills of George Lucas’s future game-changing franchise, however, so that it can focus on its murderous hippie philosophical dilemmas. Once Dern’s long-haired, bleeding heart astronaut murders his entire crew to Save the Forest in the film’s first act, Silent Running proves to be something of a hangout movie, just a calm drift in a vacuum enjoyed by a lonely environmentalist soul, his forest full of wild animal pets, and a few stray robot “drones.” Pesky humanity taken out of the equation, the film finds a sense of peace. The question is where you’ll land on how that peace is achieved.

The film opens on close-ups of delicate animals in a natural habitat: frogs, turtles, snails, hawks, Bruce Dern. This Garden of Eden is soon revealed to be an artificial biodome (for lack of a better term) on a near-nude American Airlines space freighter in outer space. The status quo on this spaceship & the post-apocalyptic Earth they left behind is that Nature was a fixture of the past, not something worth worrying about now that everything worthwhile can be automated & manufactured. As Dern’s resentful hippie tends his space garden, the universe’s last hope for genuine plant life, his shithead co-workers casually cause havoc, running space age go-carts over his flower beds & maliciously smashing his self-grown cantelopes as a means of joshing him. He’s already a bit unhinged at this point, prone to ranting maniacally about how his fellow astronauts are poisoning their bodies with synthesized foods & how a world without Nature is a world without beauty. It’s when the crew’s ordered to abandon their project, nuke the biodomes, and return home that our hero/villain snaps and murders his entire crew. He feels occasional remorse for his actions once the cabin fever/space madness sets in, but mostly he just chills with his dinky robot pals in his pristine space garden and enjoys a peaceful life without his fellow man mucking up his ethereal hippie paradise. The only crisis that arises is when a “rescue mission” arrives to pluck him from isolation in the abandoned freighter and he must choose whether to rejoin humanity to pay for his crimes or to nuke himself into oblivion along with anyone who dares threaten his beloved plant life.

Whether or not you’re interested in the crazed hippie moral dilemma at the center of Silent Running, the film is interesting enough in its production details alone to deserve a look. Besides the obvious care that went into constructing the space freighter models which float by in endless lingering shots of outer space majesty, the dinky drone bots Dern’s savior/killer hangs out with are a strange practical effects novelty. Operated by bilateral amputees walking on their hands in seemingly heavy robot shells, they’re cute little pre-R2D2 buggers with plenty of unwarranted AI personality useful for keeping their crazed killer master some company. They’re also notably the only actors in the film who aren’t all white men, not that you ever get to see them onscreen. I should also mention that, in true hippie fashion, Silent Running features original songs by Joan Baez, who serenades the audience with poetic lines like, “Tell them it’s not to late, cultivate one by one. Tell them to harvest in the Sun” along with some proto-Jill Stein raps about the feeling of earth between your toes. I think there’s some distinct camp value to the way the film succinctly simplifies the cause to Save the Forest by making the forest a small, manageable space that can be saved by murdering a few careless capitalists. Whether you’re a no-bridge-is-too-far hippie activist, someone who’s terrified to death of those activists, or just a sci-fi nerd who enjoy looking at toy spaceships & hand-built robots, Silent Running has plenty to offer in terms of pure entertainment. Whether you see it as a horror film or an inspiring message of hope relies entirely on you.

-Brandon Ledet