Director: John Hayes
Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment

Before he would direct some of the most memorable drive-in features of the 1970s (GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE, GARDEN OF THE DEAD, MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS, JAILBAIT BABYSITTER), John Hayes was a bonafide independent filmmaker. In addition to a currently missing film, THE GRASS EATER, Hayes directed two character-driven dramas starring future “Golden Girl” Rue McClanahan, only to have them re-released with nudie inserts for the exploitation market years later. By the time they were making the rounds in their truncated forms, Hayes had waded into sexploitation with FANDANGO and THE CUT-THROATS. Something Weird hasn’t yet found Hayes’ first film, but paired here are his two earliest surviving works, showing little sign of the delectable exploitation films he would later helm, but proving he was a true visionary with talent to spare.

Melancholy junkyard owner Tony is approached by two shady men in business suits to pull off a heist to the tune of $10 grand, but gets cold feet after meeting and falling in love with depressed stripper Sandy, who’s desperate to become a Hollywood star. He’s so smitten with the young damsel that he beats up a sleazy producer who date rapes her after pumping her full of booze! Tony eventually goes through with the underwater robbery, but decides to take the loot for himself and start a new life with Sandy, that is, if he can get away from the mobsters intent on getting their share of the dough.

Sometimes the exploitation genre can hide a well-done gem featuring a strong script, good performances, and a talented director. As professional and well meaning as HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK is, it’s unfortunately so monotonous that it falls quite short of the unsung masterpiece label some contemporary critics have thrown at it. Part of the problem may be that it isn’t an exploitation film at all; like so many other films of the late 1950s-early 1960s, a distributor spliced in sexy inserts (10 minutes of strip tease acts, as well as brief nude inserts provided for Rue McClanahan’s rape scene) and released the mishmash to an unsuspecting audience. Shot independently by an obviously capable cast and crew, it’s not hard to see why the original film (WALK THE ANGRY BEACH was the original title) couldn’t have been marketed or released as is. Simply put, nothing much happens in this film. The characters aren’t well written enough to hold our interest, and the long stretches of depressing, philosophical dialogue become old quite fast. But at 66 minutes, the film doesn’t wear out its welcome, and is over before severe irritation sets in. You will probably recognize leading man Anthony Vorno as “Sebastian Gregory”, the gruff, burly sexploitation veteran of such memorable outings as HELP WANTED: FEMALE, THE HANG-UP, and COME ONE COME ALL. He comes across as a trained actor in those low-budget wonders, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s very good here. And of course this is one of the skeletons in the closet of “Golden Girl” Rue McClanahan, who I assume doesn’t acknowledge this film or its co-feature, ROTTEN APPLE, too often. That’s a shame, because she’s a very appealing leading lady in both features. She resembles Joan Crawford with a tauter face most of the time.

Opening with an introduction by co-writer/producer/actor Paul Leder (who co-wrote the film uncredited, but claims to have been sent the script by “the studio”!), THE ROTTEN APPLE is an equally meandering low-budget drama featuring Rue McClanahan as another sad-sack female lead and the same junkyard used in HOLLYWOOD. Limping junkyard owner Harry and his musclehead assistant Blowhard steal cars and sell the stolen parts, and reward the goons that help them with sexual liaisons with Harry’s hooker girlfriend, Poochie, while a corrupt cop investigates. Dysfunctional family Ben, Edna, and their baby is stranded on the side of the road when their car breaks down, and when Ben enters the junkyard looking for a spare part, he must somehow escape Harry’s questionable business practices and the sexy wiles of Poochie to finally get back on the road to San Diego.

Boy is this a depressing film! Everyone bitches, whines, rants, raves, or is incredibly pathetic, and unlike similar films like Andy Milligan’s SEEDS, it’s just not captivating viewing. Even the pregnant heroine and hooker with a heart of gold are painted in the worst light possible. After sitting through HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK, with its equally downbeat premise and outlook on life, this one is a real chore to finish. One early scene of a dead cat in the middle of the road as a car drives over it gives a good indication of the broken spirit of the film. It’s too bad this headache-inducing mess isn’t better, because technical specs are top-notch and everyone gives their best possible performance. But it’s simply too bogged down with long stretches of dialogue, trying to be witty about life and human existentialism, to be anything more than a failed attempt at an independent dramatic feature. The two screenwriters responsible for this sleeping pill, Paul Leder and William Norton, would continue in exploitation through the 1970s; Leder would be the man responsible for bizarre psychodramas like I DISMEMBER MAMA and MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING, and Norton would pen Leder’s DISMEMBER, as well as BIG BAD MAMA for New World Pictures, DAY OF THE ANIMALS, and mainstream Burt Reynolds vehicles like GATOR and WHITE LIGHTNING. Once again, Rue McClanahan is much better than the material; it’s no wonder she would continue working in Hollywood until hitting superstardom in her golden years.

Unfortunately this disc is a double strikeout in terms of entertainment value, but both films still look good. HOLLYWOOD looks slightly dirtier, with more debris present, and APPLE is from a crystal clear print with gorgeous black-and-white contrasts. The mono audio is muffled and weak on both features, due to the low budget production values of the time.

The sins of Hollywood loom over the extra features, as the trailers portray more innocent girls corrupted by the lights of Tinsel Town. HOLLYWOOD AFTER DARK’s preview is actually pretty boring, reflecting the film quite well. CALLING HOMICIDE is a hard-boiled detective film from the 1950s, with a sneering detective hero investigating a Hollywood starlet’s murder. FEMALE JUNGLE stars grizzled bad boy Lawrence Tierney “in his toughest role since Dillinger”; the trailer makes a lot of Jayne Mansfield’s brief supporting role, shot well before her stardom took off. This is actually one of her better roles, considering she was rarely given a chance to prove her thespian talents (no, I’m not kidding). HOLLYWOOD BURLESQUE is available on DVD double-featured with PEEK-A-BOO, and if you’re not interested in burlesque films, skip it. SCANDAL INCORPORATED is a 1950s cash-in on the “Confidential” tabloid magazine scandal, long before L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and looks pretty entertaining, with a Hollywood movie star involved in a murder after his name appears in a scandal sheet. David F. Friedman’s STARLET! should be on DVD already, as it was announced as a double feature with THAR SHE BLOWS several years ago; however, it is still only available on VHS or DVD-R through Something Weird’s catalog. It’s easily one of Friedman’s best and most lavish productions, and a very knowing inside look at the sexploitation industry. Lovely Carol Hayes becomes Starliss Knight, a skinflick superstar; Stuart Lancaster stars as a lecherous producer, and John Alderman co-stars as a charming director who beds his actresses. Director Richard Kanter would direct the excellent adult feature, DESIRES WITHIN YOUNG GIRLS, almost 10 years after this one, for famed producer Harold Lime. A SWEET SICKNESS is a Dave Friedman pick-up, starring Vincene Wallace, with some of her sensuality depleted when photographed in black-and-white. This one’s not that good, but it’s triple-featured on DVD with the essential SMELL OF HONEY, SWALLOW OF BRINE and interesting curio BRICK DOLLHOUSE. A VIRGIN IN HOLLYWOOD is also available as part of SWV’s BEST OF BURLESQUE double-disc set, and is actually quite fun, with more focus on goofy comedy and the perils of a lady reporter in L.A. than the requisite stage performances.

Four shorts are also included: “Model School” is a behind-the-scenes look at an actual school for up-and-coming models, as they’re taught how to react for the camera; “Screen Test of Dorothy Van Nuys” looks like it was shot in some producer’s backyard as his latest bedroom conquest parades before his camera (she is quite lovely, though); “Reel Facts” and “Hollywood Peep Show” are peep booth reels, the former of a girl disrobing and putting together a camera, then writhing nude on her couch, and the latter of stage performers like Diane De Layne, Yvonne Marthay, Margie La Mont (“The Cat Girl”), Lolita in “The Web and the Butterfly”, Martha Erickson in “Tiger Boogie”, and Dimples Morgan (“The Texas Cyclone”, who resembles bitchy Jean Fontaine in SINISTER URGE). The disc is finished off with a gallery of ROTTEN APPLE promotional stills. Unfortunately the entire platter is a big blah, and one of the most disappointing Something Weird discs in a long while. (Casey Scott)