CULT OF THE DAMNED (1969) Blu-ray
Director: Robert Thom
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Directed by the writer of the previous year’s WILD IN THE STREETS, CULT OF THE DAMNED (aka ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO) is one of AIP’s strangest and rarely-seen stabs at counter-culture cinema. Never before released on home video, on Scorpion Releasing’s thankful recommendation, Kino dig deeps into the MGM vaults for this time-capsule musical cult oddity.

Eighteen-year old debutante Tara Nicole Steele (songwriter and folksinger Holly Near, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE) is a troubled girl. Overweight and suicidal, Tara (named that way since her mother was fond of GONE WITH THE WIND) is in denial that her middle-aged parents are perfect, with her mother Astrid (Jennifer Jones, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE) a former stag movie actress, cigarette girl and possible hooker, and her father Willy (Charles Aidman, DIRTY LITTLE BILLY) having a past homesexual affair with a much younger man (the bickering couple also happen to be the richest in the world). At her “coming out” party at the family’s mansion, “fat girl” Tara becomes infatuated with performing rock singer Bogart Peter Stuyvesant (Jordan Christopher, RETURN OF THE SEVEN), who is seen withering and gyrating on a stage shirtless and wearing black leather pants, much like The Doors’ Jim Morrison. Taking her frustrations out by binge eating, Tara later run away from the gala, only to nearly get run over by Bogart’s convertible. He gives her a lift, seduces her, and introduces her to his small flock of followers as his new band “The Rabbit Habit”: Santoro (a 40-something Roddy McDowall, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE), Joe (soul singer Lou Rawls) and pregnant blond Anna (Davey Davison, THE STRANGLER).

After Bogart (named for screen star Humphrey, since his mother went into labor during one of his gangster movies) and his cohorts make Tara (a licensed pilot) fly the plane they take a skydiving endeavor from, she is reunited with her parents, who believed she was a missing person. Bogart and company infiltrate the Steele mansion, but his classless behavior and big mouth don’t impress mom and dad, as he professes his love and desire to marry Tara. Although Astrid hates Bogart at first (Willy, desperate to marry off his daughter, seems more accepting), she too is quickly seduced by him (when husband Willy goes away to Hong Kong on business) and like her daughter, becomes the subject of one of his songs. Despite the generation gap and Astrid’s not relating to the idea of getting high (preferring drinking and occasional pills), she is lured into a decadent world and dangerous games, which include taking her million-dollar necklace for ransom and being forced into a deadly group parachute jump.

Featured here in a role which was supposedly turned down by Jeanne Crain, Jones’ appearance here follows a trend at the time of former Hollywood glamour stars past their prime, juxtaposed against a 1960s drug subculture setting and youthful co-stars (other examples being Lana Turner in THE BIG CUBE and Rita Hayworth in THE NAKED ZOO). The 50-year-old Oscar and Golden Globe winner is often shown in diffused close-ups, gets to utter such outrageous lines as, “I made 30 stag films and never faked an orgasm”, is seen bedded and heavily petted by the much younger Jordan and with her eyes gouged out during a trippy hallucination scene. The resulting film is a bit indescribable, with none of the characters being at all likable (Jordan’s Bogart is a loathable, already wealthy pop star looking for more riches and single-handedly making an entire dysfunctional family’s life hell). But it’s never boring, highly stylized and certainly fits in with AIP’s roster of trashier drive-in movies. This was the only film that Thom directed (his prolific writing credits include BLOODY MAMA, DEATH RACE 2000, CRAZY MAMA, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA and this), and with an odd but entrancing ensemble cast, he uses many an opportunity to be different and edgy, and it certainly embraces the hallucinatory drug culture, even if no one is actually seen using (there is a bit where Tara thinks she’s affixed to the ceiling that uses a clever optical effect). There’s continuous abstract montage imagery (including black and white head shots of some of the characters in rather grotesque and perverse scenarios), an avant garde editing style (which at times resembles an R-rated episode of “The Monkees”), dialogue which could have been derived from beat poetry, childhood flashbacks that borderline on taboo, and an all-around surreal and dreamlike quality.

Although McDowall had already done his fair share of oddball movie roles during the “swinging sixties” (including LORD LOVE A DUCK, THE COOL ONES and IT!) it’s still a bit jarring to see him as long-haired freak-out character (as well as seeing his bare buttocks) and at one point somberly monologuing about when the draft board rejected him for being homesexual (he also rambles on about being turned on by a carrot). Ironically, Rawls doesn’t do any singing, and the soundtrack tunes were written by the successful team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, with Jordan performing them on screen, including "Angel, Angel Down We Go," "Mother Lover," "Hey, Hey, Hey" and "Hi Ho", but “The Fat Song” (at which point a very happy Tara is seen prancing around in a long blue negligee) is actually the most catchy. Produced by Jerome Katzman (and executive-produced by his more famous father, Sam, no stranger to exploitation cinema), as ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO, the film was a flop with bold ads which depicted a metal screw piercing the Earth. Under the quick re-title CULT OF DAMNED, the misleading advertising obviously was exploiting the then-recent Manson murders (“LOVE CULT! Drugs, Thugs and Ritual Murder”) but the film was still a failure and relegated as second feature on a double bill with THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, which was on its first run.

Never before released on home video in this country, CULT OF THE DAMNED showed up censored on the USA Network in the mid 1980s (at a time when they were also airing AIP’s DE SADE) and more recently it showed up uncut on cable TV. Kino now gives the film a much-needed gorgeous Blu-ray release, using MGM’s HD master, with the film being presented in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Largely free of debris, the image is rich with color, with natural skintones, and crisp detail. The grain texture is also pleasing, and the English mono DTS-HD master audio mix is clean and sturdy, with dialogue and music serving the film well and accurately representing the movie. No subtitle options are included. Kino is also releasing the film on DVD for the first time.

The extras, produced by Scorpion Releasing, include an audio commentary with film historians Nathaniel Thompson and Tim Greer who share loads of background information and tidbits on the film, including that it was originally to be made a roadshow picture (much like DE SADE was meant to be) by AIP; that the film was shot mostly on the MGM lot; that original casting/audition choices included Ava Gardner, Shirley Knight, Lynn Redgrave and Robert Stack; background information on director Thom and some of the stars; etc. They also give their own views about the feel of the movie, its production, its advertising campaign and box office failure, and question why it’s been largely unavailable for so many years (and it’s always nice to hear a couple of film buffs talking at length about AIP). A still gallery (which shows color shots, production stills, advertising art, the soundtrack LP and paperback tie-in) is included, as is the original trailer under the CULT OF THE DAMNED title. (George R. Reis)