Color, 1969, 93m.
Directed by Robert Thom
Starring Jennifer Jones, Jordan Christopher, Holly Near, Roddy McDowall, Lou Rawls, Charles Aidman, Davey Davison
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1969, 93m.
Impossible to categorize and strangely difficult to see since its theatrical release, this nutty would-be cult item for the '60s youth market was designed by American International Pictures as a sure-fire hit after their counterculture success, Wild in the Streets. Producer Sam Katzman, a semi-legend in drive-in circles, recruited that film's writer, Robert Thom, to pen and direct this ode to rock 'n' roll and wild Hollywood excess for his new production company, Four Leaf Productions, with his son serving as producer. Originally released as Angel, Angel, Down We Go, the film opening in August of 1969, the same month the love generation symbolically died with the Manson murders at Spahn Ranch. When the film bombed, AIP reissued it in 1971 under its more familiar title now, Cult of the Damned, usually paired up with The Vampire Lovers and featuring tacky artwork designed to echo the famous real-life murder spree. What viewers got instead was a music-filled black comedy with dashes of sadism and gothic horror, a combination unlike anything you'd ever see on screens today. If you're on the right wavelength, it's an unforgettable and genuinely delirious experience.
The entire film is told through the eyes of Tara Nicole Steele (folk singer Near), the young, plump daughter of two degenerate Hollywood denizens, former stag loop star Astrid (Oscar winner Jones in her penultimate role) and repressed gay businessman Willy (TV vet Aidman). Her childhood was filled with squabbling and barely concealed debauchery, resulting in her being shipped off to a boarding school in Switzerland. Upon her return, Astrid arranges a fancy, flashy debutante ball complete with a trendy rock band, the Rabbit Habit, whose swaggering, shirtless lead singer, Bogart Peter Stuyvesant (Star 80's Christopher), sends Tara into a food-gulping frenzy of sexual panic. After the party she almost gets run over by Bogart's car and ends up spending the night with him, which soon results in his entire band taking over her life and household. Among the unlikely members are Santoro (McDowall), Joe (Rawls), and Anna (Davison), all of whom enjoy escaping from reality through any means possible and playing mind games with the materialistic Astrid, who also ends up in bed with Bogart. Of course, it's only a matter of time before things take a dark, deadly turn for everyone involved.
Clearly influenced by the American underground film movement, the film contains Thom's usual knack for bizarre, florid dialogue (later to be found in Roger Corman productions like Death Race 2000 and Bloody Mama) but shakes things up with a barrage of film school tricks like intercutting collages and stock footage, transforming classical paintings into disturbing images of garish violence, and peppering the soundtrack with a disorienting stream of pop songs (penned by the Wild in the Streets team of hit songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) and caustic experimental music and sound effects. As with Wild in the Streets, it barely flows like a traditional narrative and doesn't build to anything like a normal climax; instead it seems to wander around to the own peculiar tempo in its head and resolves on a note of downbeat, ethereal strangeness. On top of that the visual scheme is genuinely startling, mixing rich, Bava-style lighting in some scenes with flat, mundane TV-inspired set ups in others.
That aesthetic approach fares surprisingly well on Kino Lorber's 2015 release, the first-ever home video edition of this film ever released in any format and prepared in conjunction with Scorpion Releasing. The film was very rarely screened after its '71 reissue and popped up on television only a small handful of times, most recently on some of the Showtime channels in a colorful, open matte transfer that accentuated the more TV-inspired compositions. The Blu-ray and DVD versions correctly matte it to 1.85:1, with the framing snapping things back into focus and drawing attention correctly to some of the more bizarre visual flourishes like a bit of optical trickery to show Tara rolling around on the ceiling above the band members. Colors are appropriately intense and borderline psychedelic at times, with the third act communion scene in particular looking far better than ever before. The Blu-ray is really the preferable option as it does an excellent job of rendering the film's sensual textures with an emphasis on glittering jewels and dense fabrics in almost every scene, and the DTS-HD audio (labeled as stereo but really two-channel mono) sounds excellent. Extras include the theatrical trailer (looking much, much better here than its appearances on past compilations), a gallery of promotional and tie-in artwork and production stills, and an audio commentary by yours truly and Tim Greer, which obviously can't be commented on here but will hopefully add to your enjoyment of this truly unique film.