THE PHYNX (1970)
Director: Lee H. Katzin
Warner Bros. Archive Collection

Since its aborted release by Warner Bros.–Seven Arts in 1970, THE PHYNX has gained a reputation as one of the most obscure and notorious cult films of all time. Its paper-thin, patently ridiculous plot of a prefab rock group created to save a gaggle of faded Hollywood stars being held captive in communist Albania has piqued the interest of many a bad film fan over the years, promising high camp value, but it has been nearly impossible to see — rarely, if ever, screened on television and never officially released on any home video format. All of that is remedied now that Warner Bros. has dug it out of the vault and released it on MOD DVD as part of their Archive Collection.

Of course, the burning question has always been why exactly Warner Bros. shelved it in the first place. Is it really that bad, or controversial, or perhaps even offensive, that it had to be withheld from the public and buried deep in a vault somewhere? And is it perchance a lost gem, an overlooked classic—or a brain-dead piece of garbage? As the sage once remarked, sometimes there’s a reason why things are obscure and forgotten . . . .

In an attempt to bring down Western Capitalism, communist Albanians have kidnapped a group of “important world figures” (including Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, Xavier Cugat, George Jessel, Patty Andrews, Joe Lewis, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen, Col. Harlan Sanders, Rudy Vallee, Dorothy Lamour, Andy Devine, Jay “Tonto” Silverheels and John “Lone Ranger” Hart) who are being held prisoner in a castle fortress by Col. Rostinov (Michael Ansara—THE DOLL SQUAD). The United States SSA (Super Secret Agency, who has undercover agents disguised as bikers, hookers, Chinese laundry workers, Boy Scouts, Ku Klux Klanners, Madison Avenue ad men, and Black Panthers) seeks the advice of their sexy, anthropomorphic computer/robot Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans (M.O.T.H.A.), who tells them that the best way to free the captive Americans is to form a pop group and get them invited to perform in Albania, where they can then rescue the hostages.

To this end, they kidnap four young men (a Native American, an “Afro-American,” and a couple of WASPs) and begin training them for their mission. The four lads, dubbed The Phynx, are instructed in various subjects by a number of American cultural icons, including Trini Lopez (music), Richard Pryor (soul), Harold “Oddjob” Sakata (martial arts), Dick Clark (dress and grooming), and drill instructor Clint Walker (who “hilariously” blows himself up with a land mine). The “most high groovy” record producer, Philbaby (an obvious parody of eccentric music mogul Phil Spector), is flown in—suspended over the ocean from a helicopter—to produce their hit single (“What Is Your Sign?”), the title of which he steals at the last minute from a newspaper headline. James Brown presents The Phynx with a Gold Record for “largest selling album in the history of the world” after they strong-arm record stores into making it a hit. (I’d love to have one of those fake Phynx LP covers for my collection.)

At the completion of their training, the disgruntled Phynx are given 24 hours to do whatever they want (without leaving the barracks) before embarking on their mission, so they immediately leave the barracks for a wild night out. Flown to gigs in London, Amsterdam, and Rome prior to their show in Albania, the group is granted their request for a (PG-rated) orgy, then are provided with eyeglasses that make people’s outer clothing invisible so they can piece together a map of Albania tattooed on the stomachs of three women (Sue Bernard—FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, Sherry Miles—THE VELVET VAMPIRE, and Ann Morell—BOXCAR BERTHA).

Finally, after almost 70 minutes of the 90-minute running time, the group is on its way to Albania to execute the mission, invited by Col. Rostinov to play a concert because it’s an election year and he wants to throw the proletariat a bone. George Tobias (BEWITCHED’s Abner Kravitz) and Joan Blondell (WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?) are the hep-talking Albanian president and first lady, and their fey Eastern bloc–style hippie son (“gimme some skin, Gunga Din”) is the commissar of the Rock and Rollers Appreciation Society of Albania. A prime degrading moment is provided as all the kidnapped “guest stars” are individually introduced in front of the assembled group. It all winds up with a stereotypical 1960s “anarchic/chaotic” ending where The Phynx’s amplifiers cause the fortress walls to come crashing down, and they smuggle the hostages out in carts loaded with radishes (the Albanian state flower).

THE PHYNX was reputedly given extremely limited theatrical distribution (IMDb shows a release date of May 6, 1970), but no posters or other advertising materials, other than still photos, have survived, making the existence of even a limited release questionable. It was then immediately withdrawn (or shelved, depending), virtually never shown on television, and never legitimately available on any home video format, with even bootleg copies being hard to come by. (I’m actually kind of puzzled as to why THE PHYNX was withdrawn; while it’s certainly not a Good Movie by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve seen far, far worse pieces of dreck that were given wide distribution.)

Apparently inspired in equal part by THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE MONKEES, and previous star-laden comedy epics such as IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, THE LOVED ONE, and A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN, THE PHYNX was obviously fashioned to be a hip, self-aware cultural satire in the mold of DON’T MAKE WAVES or THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. I would place THE PHYNX into the genre I like to call “Youth Market Movies Made by Clueless Old Codgers” (see RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP, MARYJANE, WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS, THE YOUNG RUNAWAYS, and so on), except that director Lee H. Katzin was only 34 at the time. Katzin had been a prolific TV director and assistant director for nearly a decade, and helmed several acclaimed theatrical releases, including LE MANS and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE (not to mention two 1980s DIRTY DOZEN TV movie sequels) so he was obviously a capable director, given decent material to work with. The original story was co-written by producers Bob Booker and George Foster, who had been involved in several of Vaughn Meader’s First Family LPs, with the final screenplay by Stan Cornyn, a former songwriter, record producer, and head of creative services for Warner Bros. Records (THE PHYNX is his sole movie credit).

No matter how bad one of these 1960s teenflicks is, you usually get at least some decent musical performances to break the tedium (for example, IT’S A BIKINI WORLD). Unfortunately, no such luck here. All the songs in THE PHYNX were written by Mike Lieber and Jerry Stoller (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Kansas City,” “Stand by Me”)—whose days as hitmakers were winding down by this point—composing in a number of musical styles that were apparently not their forte. “What Is Your Sign” sounds like lower-tier Monkees or Boyce & Hart, there is a recurring bossa nova cue, some Nilsson-ish tin pan alley pop, a slice of “psychedelia lite,” and several nondescript Mamas & Papas–style “good time” pop-rock tunes. None of the songs are particularly awful, but, unfortunately, none are particularly memorable either (their big number in Albania comes close).

On the positive side, being a major studio release, production values are adequate, and I’d be lying to say that none of the intentional humor is effective, but the laughs are pretty sporadic. The Philbaby segment is actually quite amusing (he gets violently ill if he touches money, so has to have his purple-haired assistant, played by Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, collect his fee), and Dick Clark, George Jessel, and Pat O’Brien are given some pretty funny one-liners. There are also effective gags involving Richard Nixon, race-based advertising, then-governor Ronald Reagan, the 1969 moon landing, and even transvestism.

On the downside, there is some borderline offensive, or at least tasteless, racial and sexist humor, and the characters of The Phynx members are never developed beyond their initial stereotypes. The X-ray Spex sequence and the scene where the Dutch nubiles line up to have sex with the band are truly embarrassing, and feel like relics from an early-’60s nudie-cutie. Craggy character actor Mike Kellin as SSA chief Bogey is consistently irritating and annoying rather than comical, and poor Lou Antonio as the SSA liaison is forced to wear a woman’s wig and fruity hippie garb throughout (apparently Hollywood hairstylists hadn’t yet figured out what a man with long hair looks like). But the main problem with THE PHYNX is that’s it’s just not all that funny, its hit-or-miss gags inducing groans more often than laughter. If anything, THE PHYNX proves the axiom that bad drama can actually be funny, but bad comedy is just unbearable.

Most of the blame must be laid at the feet of screenwriter Cornyn. Frankly, the script is a mess—alternately clever and mortifying, pseudo-hip and hopelessly square, funny and tiresome—and manages to waste literally dozens of respected actors and musicians, who are literally given nothing to do (most of the star “cameos” consist of a closeup and a line or two of dialogue, if that, and are literally over in seconds). It tries hard for that “wacky” Laugh-In vibe, but mostly feels forced and self-conscious, and many of the gags just misfire badly. You really have to wonder to whom this movie was targeted. It’s not hip enough to please the youth market, and too odd and “mod” to hold any appeal for most fans of the guest stars, many of whose careers were finished or floundering 10 years earlier.

In the final analysis, THE PHYNX is neither an insufferable bomb nor a so-bad-it’s-good camp classic, but more of an incongruous curiosity, like one of those Ultra-Lounge “On the Rocks” CDs where you have The Lettermen covering The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.” While there are moments of genuine humor (intentional or otherwise), mostly it’s a cringeworthy slog, and seeing so many former matineee idols, musicians, and comedians relegated to prop status is kind of sad and even a bit creepy. In trying to appeal to everyone, the movie ends up pleasing no one (although I’m sure it would be more enjoyable with a few like-minded viewing partners and some controlled substances). If you’re a big cult or bad movie fanatic with a weakness for tone-deaf 1960s youth market cheese-fests, this may deserve a place in your collection. All others, consider yourself warned (and this from a guy who loves the nearly universally reviled SKIDOO).

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer offered on Warner’s MOD DVD is perfectly adequate, especially considering the quality of the movie itself, with acceptable black levels, contrast, brightness, and color saturation and balance, and the English audio track is clean and clear. Sharpness and detail are a bit soft but not unacceptably so. There is some minor speckling and blemishing, particularly in the opening and ending sequences, and grain is evident from time to time but generally unobtrusive. Overall, the image is quite pleasing, if not exactly stunning. As we have come to expect with MOD discs, there are no extras whatsoever, but the fact that this has been released at all should be cause for celebration by bad movie lovers everywhere. (Paul Tabili)