An absurdist retelling of the life of Jesus Christ, it's difficult not to compare GREASER'S PALACE to Alejandro Jodorowsky's EL TOPO. Both films feature a desolated desert landscape as their backdrops, both are peppered with random acts of violence and both relish in their use of religious imagery. GREASER'S is however far more satirical in its execution. It is after all a comedy, or at least that is one way of looking at it. It’s also a western, a musical, a sardonic examination of the Christian faith and a surreal good time.
After parachuting to Earth from the Heavens, Jesse (Allan Arbus, COFFY), a zoot suited Christ figure, sets out on a journey to Jerusalem to become a singer-dancer-actor. Wandering into a small western town, Jesse runs afoul of Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson), the proprietor of the local bar and saloon. Seaweedhead doesn’t quite know what to make of Jesse but after he resurrects his son Lamy (Michael Sullivan, Dippy in Joe Giannone’s MADMAN) from the dead, he, along with most of the other townsfolk, decide to follow Jesse as he makes his way to meet with the agent known as Morris. Throughout their travels, Jesse amazes his new found flock by walking on water and healing a cripple but it isn’t until he makes his way back to Seaweedhead’s saloon that Jesse is allowed the opportunity to reach for his own dreams. After a rousing performance by Cholera (Luana Anders, EASY RIDER), the bar's sole female entertainment, Jesse hits the stage with his own unique song and dance number, one filled with soul, spirit and stigmata.
Shot on location in New Mexico, GREASER'S PALACE was financed by producer Cyma Rubin's husband who, despite being told by Downey himself that the picture would not be profitable, foot the bill for the production in its entirety. With funding in place and having been given free reign on the film's script, Downey let loose with PALACE, resulting in an entertaining, though at times meandering surrealist comedy that mixes religious imagery with crude jokes about constipation and sex. Many of the film's religious allegories and characterizations are quite blatant, such as The Holy Ghost who appears sporadically throughout the movie as a man with a white bed sheet draped over his body. Others are more open to interpretation, assuming they have any meaning at all. Dressed in red with a fish bowl over his head, its safe to assume that Morris, played by Don Calfa (THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) is the Devil, he is after all an agent, but what then of Seaweedhead, the tyrannical bar owner who repeatedly kills his son with whom he refers to only as “Homo”? Is he God or just some asshole so full of himself that he keeps a mariachi band imprisoned next to his 3rd story outhouse in order to help ease the pain and suffering of his blocked bowels? GREASER'S PALACE is chock full of just such ridiculous scenarios and even more ridiculous names, such as the Devil Monster Jesse calls “Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You'll Be Gary Indiana", but such ludicrously entertaining scenes are unfortunately heavily padded by long stretches of people walking, crawling and riding. Said scenes draw out the picture and leave little other than a few, albeit breathtaking western landscapes to hold one's attention.
There are a number of familiar faces in GREASER’S, some of which will be instantly reconcilable, such as Hervé Villechaiz (FORBIDDEN ZONE), while others may not be. I know it took me a minute to place her but the topless Indian girl who can only communicate via umpire signals is Toni Basil (FIVE EASY PIECES), best known for her 1980s pop hit “Mickey”. GREASER’S is also one of the first screen roles for Downey’s son, Robert Downey Jr. RDJ plays a young boy traveling with his Ma and Pa via cart and wagon, though the family unit doesn’t make it far as after stopping to camp one night, the family's mother wakes up to find her husband and boy killed, their throats slit. After burying her kin, the mother then crawls across the prairie and desert where she is repeatedly shot by both bullets and arrows by an unseen attacker.
Released on DVD by Image Entertainment in 2000, Scorpion Releasing has resurrected PALACE with an anamorphic widescreen transfer in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. While there are some instances of dirt and debris they are nominal and hardly a distraction. Colors appear accurate and grain, while present, is never overpowering. Dialogue on the English mono track is quite clear though there is slight crackle when the sound drops out during those many walking scene I mentioned earlier. This releases sole extra is a brief (12:47) but thoroughly entertaining interview with Robert Downey Sr. Reflecting on the picture Downey appears to have enjoyed the experience immensely as it was one of the last times he was allowed to work free and clear of any studio system.
It has its lulls but GREASER’S PALACE is a hard picture to forget, or figure out for that matter. Fans of Downey’s early work as well as fans of surreal 1970s cinema in general will no doubt find much to enjoy and bewilder here. (Jason McElreath)
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