Friday, June 7, 2013

Worth Mentioning - Eddie Romero and Pam Grier

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Cody looks over the three films Eddie Romero and Pam Grier were credited on together.


Two events occurred in the final days of May that are of note to fans of the drive-in/grindhouse/exploitation era and the people who helped make it so memorable.

First, May 26th was a day for celebration: the birthday of the amazing, beautiful and badass Pam Grier.

Then on May 28th, Filipino filmmaker Eddie Romero passed away at the age of 88. Romero started off as a writer, making his first short story sale to the Phillipines Free Press at the age of twelve. Romero's soon "fell into the film business" when director Gerardo de Leon read some of his stories and hired him as a screenwriter. Romero was off and running on a movie career from there, ultimately racking up twenty-five producer credits, thirty-seven writing credits, and fifty-one credits as a director. In 2003, Romero received, by Presidential Proclamation, the honorary title of National Artist of the Phillipines in the Cinema category.

Grier and Romero's paths crossed when legendary producer Roger Corman formed his company New World Pictures and decided to make his movies in the Phillipines to take advantage of how cheaply they could be done there during the era covered in the terrific documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed. "Bigger pictures for less money."

The first New World Pictures Filipino production was The Big Doll House.



THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971)

Directed by Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters), this $100,000 women-in-prison production is set in an unspecified country where revolutionary fighters are trying to overthrow its corrupt authority figures, though they don't seem to be having much luck at it.


The film begins with the arrival of a woman named Collier at the womens prison that is the "big doll house" of the title. Collier has been sentenced to serve ninety-nine years for the murder of her rich, abusive, closeted husband, a killing that she claims was done in self-defense. After Collier's person is searched in a humiliatingly thorough way, she's locked up in the cell she's meant to be in until she dies, which is where we meet the rest of the ensemble, her five cellmates. It's a tough bunch of women in this cell, for the most part - Alcott the loner, revolutionary fighter Bodine, tough-talking former street hustler Grear, doped-out Harrad, and cat-loving Ferina.


A lot of the inmates are in there for espionage and crimes against the state. The place is run by Colonel Mendoza, head of the secret police, and when prisoners break rules, or are suspected of having information about the revolutionaries, Head Wardress Lucian lets her hair down to deal out some severe punishments. These punishments include chaining women up in outdoor cages to be exposed to the elements, beating and whipping them, electrocuting them, threatening them with cobras, shutting them in hot boxes, and/or waterboarding them, and are intended to bring them as painfully close to death as possible without actually killing them. A masked figure (could it be Mendoza?) sits by and creepily observes as Lucian carries out the torture.


Fed up with these cruel and unusual practices, our core group of women begin plotting an escape attempt...

Having just recently moved to California from Colorado, Pam Grier was working five different jobs to afford life in Los Angeles when Roger Corman offered her the chance to be in The Big Doll House. Grier was hesitant at first. At this point she had only worked on projects with UCLA film students and been a background extra in a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls party scene, she wasn't sure she could cut it as an actress and didn't want to risk her losing jobs to go off to Phillipines just to get fired from the movie and sent back home. But Corman and Hill believed in her, and fuelled by the writings of famed actor/theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, Grier dove into her role as Grear. The rest is a history of awesomeness. Grier ended up acting in three films during her first stay in the Phillipines, earning a total of $18,000, enough to pay for two years of UCLA tuition.

Grier also sings the film's theme song, "Long Time Woman", a cool tune which is more from the perspective of Collier ("ninety-nine years is a long, long, long time") than her own character.

Though Grier says that some of her co-stars in the Phillipines-shot movies would take the work less seriously than she did, shrugging the whole thing off as "just a B-movie", most of the actors in this film do well in their roles.


One of the other top standouts is Roberta Collins (who also appeared in Minnie and Moskowitz, Terror on the Beach, Death Race 2000, and Hardbodies), who is rather beautiful and badass herself in the role of Alcott. It's totally acceptable to the viewer that she beats Grier's Grear in a bout of mud wrestling, so Collins was clearly doing something right.


Sid Haig shows up in the film as the comedically sleazy Harry, who makes regular food deliveries to the prison and looks forward to the day when he'll find himself in a situation where he gets "raped" by some desperately horny female prisoner. Haig and Hill had worked together a couple times previously, including on the 1968 cult classic horror film Spider Baby, and would make a few more movies together after this, as would Hill and Grier, a couple of those movies being very popular ones that will be featured on this blog at some point in the future.


For fans of this type of film from this era, The Big Doll House is an essential; silly, fun, and full of attractive women to gawk at.

Eddie Romero is credited as an executive producer on The Big Doll House, along with actor John Ashley. Romero and Ashley had become producing partners after the actor had gone to the Phillipines to star in Romero's 1968 film Brides of Blood. Brides went on to be quite successful, Ashley saw the potential of making movies in the Phillipines, and a thirteen film collaboration had begun. They were introduced to Pam Grier on The Big Doll House, and soon cast her in two more of their productions.



THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1972)

Famed scholar/soldier of fortune/hunter Matt Farrell is going about his adventurous life, minding his own business on a scuba diving trip, when he's roped and pulled aboard a fishing boat, taken off to a remote island belonging to a man called Doctor Gordon. This island is 300 miles from anywhere, and once there Matt is trucked deep into the jungle by Gordon's militaristic security force, led by the villainous Steinman, and delivered to the doctor's mansion. It's fifteen miles from the house to the beach in one direction, twenty miles in the other. Escape would appear to be impossible.

Gordon has chosen Matt, because of his mental and physical capabilities, to be part of "the single most important scientific event in the history of the planet". Gordon sees disaster ahead for humanity; the ecological consequences of civilization's pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear bombs will soon destroy the environment and drive the species to extinction if they don't move into the sea, off planet... or remake themselves. Gordon has taken it upon himself to make that last option happen. In his laboratory, he has begun creating a race of superbeings, mixing the genetics of humans with other animals that will be able to live in the wrecked environment. But the mutant hybrids Gordon has created are simple creatures. Matt holds within him a key ingredient that Gordon intends to add to the mix - Matt's essence will be distilled into the animal people. They will all have Matt's memories, feelings, perceptions, personality, and this will ensure their survival. Understandably, Matt is not too keen on the idea of having his brain stewed.

In addition to producing the film with John Ashley, Eddie Romero also directed this one and wrote the screenplay with Jerome Small, the story a reworking of the H.G. Wells novel Island of Dr. Moreau, which has been the basis of many a movie over the years. Romero had produced another Moreau-inspired film in 1959, Gerardo de Leon's Terror Is a Man.


John Ashley took the lead role of Matt Farrell for himself, and does fine work as the tough '70s hero type. In the midst of fighting for his life, he also gets to romance Gordon's conscientious daughter Neva, played by Pat Woodell, who was Bodine in The Big Doll House.

The movie drags a bit in the first half, but it picks up around the midway point when it becomes a pursuit through the jungle as Matt tries to get off this crazy island with Steinman and his men on his trail. The animal people are set free from their cages, and we get to see more of what they're like through their interactions with Neva. The antelope man is pretty normal and chill, the bat man has trouble flying at first, the ape man is a horny bugger, the wolf woman is a good girl...

The Big Doll House reunion
Pam Grier plays Ayesa the Panther Woman, which means she gets no lines to deliver, she just makes panther noises, but at least her animal features are some of the least disfiguring of the bunch. Ayesa also has the most violent nature of the creatures, attacking people, fighting the other animal folks over raw meat, biting throats out, etc.

The Twilight People started out as a New World Pictures production, but Roger Corman and fellow executive producer Larry Woolner butted heads and parted ways. Corman took his name off the picture and Woolner released the film through his own company Dimension Pictures (no connection to the Weinstein company that came later), on a double bill with the bank robbing dogs flick The Doberman Gang.



BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973)

Pam Grier was given a much more substantial role the next time she worked on a John Ashley/Eddie Romero production, she being the titular "Black Mama" in this AIP release, which was also directed by Romero. Her character, Lee Daniels, has been sentenced to prison for prostitution, and "White Mama" Margaret Markov, as revolutionary fighter Karen Brent, is among the other prisoners being delivered to the jail on the same bus as Lee.

At first, it seems that this is going to be a standard women-in-prison film and very much a retread of The Big Doll House. It's set in an unspecified country where revolutionary fighters are trying to overthrow its corrupt authority figures, Grier plays a tough hooker, the female convicts are subjected to cruel punishments (with a side of lesbianic leering) from the matrons in charge of them, one of whom is played by Lynn Borden, who went on to be in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Catfights and shower scenes ensue.


Then it takes a turn around the twenty minute mark. Lee and Karen are shackled together and put on a bus to be transferred to a maximum security prison, where they'll be questioned about the people they know - Karen about the revolutionaries, Lee about her boyfriend Vic Cheng, the biggest drug dealer/pimp on the island. Karen's heavily armed associates attack the bus enroute and the two women escape, running off into the countryside, still chained to each other. And so this story, co-concocted by future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, is actually a gender reversal on the 1958 Stanley Kramer film The Defiant Ones, which starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as shackled together escaped prisoners.


As they make their run for it, the women try to figure out how to get loose from the chain that binds them while arguing and tussling over their different objectives - Karen needs to complete a weapons deal for the revolutionaries, Lee just wants to get off the island with the money she stole from Cheng, she doesn't care about "some jive ass revolution". All the while, they're being tracked down by the police, the island military, Cheng's men, and a second gang of criminals led by Sid Haig as a shitkicker named Ruben, who the authorities offer a $10,000 reward if he can be of help.

Beyond the popularity gained from its awesome title, Black Mama, White Mama is quite an enjoyable movie, nicely paced, with some decent and well shot action beats, and a good sense of humor, Sid Haig's character being especially fun. Grier and the lovely Markov are a great pairing, and watching this movie makes we wish that Markov had a bigger, more prolific career herself.



Three Grier/Romero collaborations, each with their own merits and entertaining in their own way. Romero produced more "respectable" works for the Filipino market, earning many screenplay and directing awards for them, while making these sorts of horror and exploitiation movies for American audiences. I may know him primarily for his grindhouse output, but I appreciate what he achieved with them. I love this type of movie, and Romero had a hand in some of the greats.



R.I.P.
1924 - 2013

2 comments:

  1. jervaise brooke hamsterJune 8, 2013 at 3:19 AM

    I want to bugger Pam Grier (as the bird was in 1967 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

    ReplyDelete
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