Color, 1972, 104m.
Directed by Krishna Shah
Starring Joan Hackett, Robert Klein, Scott Jacoby, Jeanne Tanzy, James Karen
Code Red (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

During the early '70s, the auteur theory was in full swing with young turks like Francis Ford Coppolla and Robert Altman stamping all over Hollywood. This caused a huge shift in the way movies were made and promoted, and for some reason, even now people seem to misinterpret the theory to claim that any director big or small is always the sole author of a film and worthy of being singled out over everyone else behind the camera. (That's the reason you now see big boxes around director's credits on movie posters and weird selling points like "A Jon Turtletaub Film!" shouted during trailers.) Inexplicably, Avco Embassy Pictures took this method to even more bizarre lengths with 1972's Rivals, whose marketing essentially ignored the fine cast and instead pushed it prominently as "A Krishna Shah Film." Never mind that this Bombay-born director had no previous credits under his belt apart from scribing single episodes of The Flying Nun and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; apparently Embassy thought that, based on this film, he was going to be the next big thing. Not surprisingly, once people got a look at the film, it was back to TV for him and a brief '80s career churning out straight-to-VHS fare like Hard Rock Zombies and American Drive-In.

Displaying all the narrative focus of a six-year-old who's chugged down a six-pack of Redbull, Shah delivers a fragmented "story" set in hip, trendy New York City (of course) where art gallery proprietor Christine (Hackett) is finally getting over the plane crash death of her husband. However, her brilliant but obviously unstable son, Jamie (Jacoby), isn't too thrilled when she starts seeing a new beau, "quirky" tour bus driver Peter (Klein). Prone to making odd experimental films and having flashbacks to his childhood potty training, the "ten-year-old" Jamie (who's obviously in his teens) copes with this new stress factor by slowly going insane and plotting revenge against his rival for his mother's affections, and even some incredibly uncomfortable hanky panky with the pigtailed babysitter isn't enough to stop him from going through with a violent plot that will leave one party quite dead.

One of many, many New York indies filled with actors plucked from the local acting scene, Rivals is so bizarre and meandering you have to wonder how many people involved were actually lucid for more than half of the filming. The cast is certainly up to par, particularly as it features excellent made-for-TV staples Hackett (who later appeared in The Possessed and the unforgettable "Bobby" segment of Dan Curtis' Dead of Night, arguably the scariest 20 minutes ever made for TV) and Jacoby (soon to achieve immortality as the creepy star of Bad Ronald and Jodie Foster's co-star in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane). On the other hand, Robert Klein (who was still a newcomer after oddball supporting bits in Hal Ashby's The Landlord and the underrated The Owl and the Pussycat) had yet to really find his dramatic footing as an actor; his comic chops don't really make him appealing here, instead making the character into an insufferable jerk. However, any dramatic tension in the story is undercut by Shah's obsessive fondness for montages; you get to see Klein driving tourists around, the leads going to the zoo, random people eating ice cream, and on and on. However, it's the weird little grace notes that turn this would-be oedipal tragedy into a headscratcher of the first order. For one, a young James Karen (long before Return of the Living Dead) pops up as Jacoby's shrink. Then there's the music. Oh, God, the music. An orchestrator and arranger who worked with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Peter Matz unleashes one of the most horrific soundtracks ever inflicted on a major motion picture. Seriously, the sickly pop arrangements here make the Debbie and Pat Boone songs from The Magic of Lassie sound like Hüsker Dü. Not surprisingly, a soundtrack was never released and Matz got stuck doing TV movies for years until he finally improved in the '80s with The Private Eyes and Lust in the Dust. Incidentally, the "trippy" cinematography here is the handiwork of Harvey Genkins, another relative newcomer who went on to H.O.T.S., The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, and a surefire contender for the most lunatic sequel of all time, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2.

After the film did a quick freefall at the box office, Embassy washed their hands of it and left the VHS duties to the oversized box kings at Continental Video, who changed the title to Deadly Rivals and tried to pass it off as a more traditional thriller. Not many people were fooled, and only those looking for a crazed, genre-smashing blend of pretension and perversity got much reward for taking the tape home. Code Red's DVD restores the original title as well as the theatrical poster art for the cover, which pretty much blows the entire ending. The anamorphic, interlaced transfer is a bit ragged but colorful and detailed enough considering it's from what's probably the best of the few prints still left in existence. (Thankfully, a 5.1 remix wasn't in the cards here; the original mono track is more than enough.) As with other second-tier Code Red titles without significant extras, the disc kicks into play mode right away without a menu, but you do get the long and hilariously pompous theatrical trailer after the end of the film (along with bonus trailers like Alice Goodbody, The Carrier, and The Black Klansman). A real odd duck, this definitely won't be to everyone's taste but should give a peculiar kick to anyone with a weakness for twisted, self-important little '70s obscurities.