Thursday, October 6, 2016

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)

Written by: Thomas Casey
Directed by: Thomas Casey
Abe Zwick as Paul
Wayne Crawford as Stanley
Don Craig as Hubert
Robin Hughes as Vicki

We open on the least convincing man-dressed-as-a-woman I have ever seen returning home from a shopping trip and getting bothered by his nosy neighbor Mrs. Adams (played by the unbelievably named Yanka Mann) for Aunt Martha and her nephew to have dinner with her and her daughter. Saved by the bell, “Martha” runs in to answer the telephone and discover that it's her “nephew,” Stanley, who is out with a girl, much to his phony aunt's disapproval. Aunt Martha, you see, is actually a dude named Paul. He and Stanley are criminals on the lam, hiding out in a quaint little Floridian suburb posing as nephew and aunt.

Paul relieves some of his frustration with Stanley by throwing a dart at a poster on the wall of the kitchen. This poster is maybe the oddest non sequiter in the flick. It features a naked woman wearing a cowboy hat, facing away from the camera, with lines on her body marking out different cuts of meat like one of those pictures of a cow or pig you'd see in a butcher shop, and bearing the slogan, “Break the Dull Steak Habit,” but with no indication of what the hell product or idea the image is actually trying to sell.

Out back of the house is a shed where Paul has stashed some of their stolen loot in a jewelery chest identical to one my mom has, which was a jarring thing to see in a movie like this. Paul runs out to the shed to check on their stash, and brings the jewelery box into the house so he can keep a closer eye on it. Not a bad idea, considering that the succession of girls and fellow hippies Stanley hangs out with tend to use that shed as a little pot-smoking hideaway.

One night Stanley brings a homeless junkie named Hubert home from the local diner where he and his friends hang out. He took sympathy on the old man's sob story, which will eventually be his and Paul's undoing. Hubert may be hooked on dope, but he certainly isn't one. He twigs to what's going on in the house pretty quickly and blackmails the two hoodlums for a place to sleep and three squares a day. Not a totally unreasonable request, at the end of the day.

Things start to get out of control when Stanley brings home the daughter of the diner owner and two other friends to get high and make out in the shed. It's all going very well until she tries to get in his pants. We already know from a previous romantic interlude gone tits-up in entirely the wrong way how this is going to turn out. You see, Paul and Stanley's relationship is even weirder than it looks at first. Not only are they wanted criminals posing as aunt and nephew, not only is one of them a dreadfully unconvincing cross-dresser; they're also a closeted, self-loathing, emotionally abusive May/September gay couple who may or may not actually be physical lovers. Stanley certainly likes being around women, and has no problem smooching on them some, but when things start to go south he loses his shit, as if spiders suddenly started crawling all over his dick.

After Stanley flips out on her, she starts to suspect there's more going on around the house than meets the eye and starts snooping. Hubert discovers her first an warns her that she's putting herself in danger. Sure enough, Paul overhears the conversation and follows her out to the shed where he kills her with a shovel.

Hubert doesn't know exactly what happened to the girl, but he's starting to get the idea the longer he sticks around these to wackos the more danger he'll be in himself, so he decides one day while the boys are out of the house to grab that mysterious chest Paul looks after so carefully and get the hell out of there. Paul and Stanley arrive just in time to see Hubert trying to escape with their loot and catch him as he's halfway out the door, which unfortunately coincides with Mrs. Adams bringing Stanley a birthday cake as repayment for the kindness and friendship he'd been showing her daughter of late. Things escalate quickly to include murder, suicide, and a misguided amateur C-section. I'll leave it at that and let you see for yourself, and you really, really should. Where else are you going to see one of the world's first gay relationship dramas dressed up as a crime thriller masquerading as a psychotronic grindhouse horror movie?

When you've seen enough of them, you can start to tell Florida exploitation movies apart from the rest of them. Maybe it's the humidity or something else in the air down there causing a chemical reaction with the film unique to the area, but the look of the film and the weird tint to all the colors look different from movies coming out of any other region at the time. The original print of Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things is missing and presumed lost to the ages, so the Vinegar Syndrome DVD is cleaned up from a print, but it still looks astonishingly good for a movie of this type and vintage. The only problem with that is the exhibitor who had the print to begin with seems to have gotten squeamish and cut some stuff out. There's a really awkward edit during the C-section scene that suggests it almost certainly went all the way with the gore effect, and I have a feeling it would have been incredibly disturbing. Maybe some day the negative or a more complete print will turn up and we can see this one in all its icky glory.

The performances are solid all around, especially the two leads. This is the only screen credit for Abe Zwick, which is almost certainly a pseudonym, and that is a damn shame because he's great and could have been a huge exploitation star. He displays a perfectly controlled scenery-chewing lunacy that at first looks like he's completely out of control, but the more you watch it, there are moments of restraint that make it obvious he knows exactly what he's doing at all times and it's a level of talent that's always a pleasant surprise to see in a movie like this. He could have been the Jeffrey Combs of Floridian 70's sleaze. Don Craig as Hubert actually could have used a little less restraint. He's supposed to be a junkie whose habit is so bad it cost him his job, his home, his family, and yet he delivers his lines like he's used to doing Shakespeare in the park.

The flick also features Brad Grinter of Blood Freak fame and William Kerwin of a whole bunch of H.G. Lewis movies fame, in small roles. The Florida movie scene was similar to the Norwegian black metal scene, always swapping members from existing bands to create new ones. Someone may direct one movie, then go be a grip on another movie being made by a friend, and then they both go and do lighting work for another guy. William Grefe and just about everybody else from the Florida exploitation market also did second unit work on the James Bond movie Thunderball!

This type of movie definitely isn't for everyone, but if you're reading this page already, it probably is for you. If you like to dig around at the bottom of the cinematic barrel and see what slimy surprises you can find, give Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things a look. It stands out from the Florida drive-in pack through the quality of its performances, and is such a strange melange of themes and moods and set pieces and weirdo characters, it's one you really need to experience for yourself because there's nothing else quite like it.

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