Friday, December 26, 2008

Marjoe Gortner/Ozploitation reviews MUFF 2008


[Notes for Melbourne Underground Film Festival catalogue, October 2008]

“Bad, But Not Evil”: The Cinematic Rise And Fall of Marjoe Gortner

Marjoe Gortner: former child evangelist turned hippy, acid freak and Seventies B-movie phenomenon following the release of the Academy Award-winning documentary Marjoe (1972). The name – his parents’ amalgam of Mary and Joseph - may not be familiar these days but in his salad days he was a flash from above, even hitting the charts with a solo album “Bad, But Not Evil”, capitalizing on his post-Baptist notoriety. Translating his pulpit persona into an idiosyncratic acting style, he had a promising start in TV movies and the drive-in hit Bobbie Jo And The Outlaw (1976). Then his career hit a string of box-office disasters (The Food Of The Gods [1976], Viva Knievel! [1977]), culminating in Marjoe’s greatest failure, his own production of the stage play When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder starring his soon-to-be-ex-wife Candy Clark. Following a handful of B film roles in the Eighties (Mausoleum [1983], Hellhole [1985]), he all but disappeared from cinema and TV screens, and was last seen sponsoring charity golf tornaments. But afficianados of forgotten cinema are left with an astonishing legacy of a wide-eyed Marjoe’s eccentric performances both on and off the pulpit - “bad”, sometimes, but even in the most abominable of his cinematic turkeys never uninteresting, and once seen, certainly not forgettable.


(dirs. Sarah Kernochan & Howard Smith, 1972)

Majoe Gortner

A fully-ordained preacher aged four (or so his Pentecostal parents claimed), Marjoe would leave the Church in his teens for a years-long sex and LSD binge that left him broke and willing to go on the fire-and-brimstone circuit one more time – with a camera crew following him through every back door and painful childhood memory. With his charisma and showmanship honed through a huckster’s lifetime of manipulation, Marjoe uses the cinema screen as his confessional booth: stories of an emotionally abusive mother who would beat sermons into him until memorized, the con-artist tricks of the evangelical trade, and even the fact he never once believed in God. As an expose on religious tent shows it’s essential; as a real-life character study – and what a character! - it’s flawless.

Bobbie Jo And The Outlaw

(dir. Mark L. Lester, 1976)

Marjoe Gortner, Lynda Carter, Jesse Vint, Merrie Lynn Ross, Belinda Balaski

Genius White Trash exploitation with all your key Seventies drive-in essentials: rednecks and rubes, guns, bloodshed, freaks and hippies versus the Pigs, and a topless Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter as Bobbie Jo, a carhop waitress and would-be country singer teaming up with an arrogant young hustler Lyle Wheeler (Marjoe) who fancies himself as a modern Billy The Kid. From then on it’s Thelma And Louise done right (or Bonnie And Clyde gone horribly wrong!) as they’re joined by Bobbie’s friend Essie (Balaski), sister Pearl (Ross) and Pearl's psychotic boyfriend Slick (Vint) on their crime spree through New Mexico. Cute, nasty, and oh-so-cheap and tacky!

Viva Knievel!

(dir. Gordon Douglas, 1977)

Evel Knievel, Gene Kelly, Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons, Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Mitchell, Dabney Coleman, Marjoe Gortner

Grotesque all-“star” vanity project courtesy of an incognito Irwin Allen, and possibly his greatest filmic disaster epic ever. Real-life daredevil Evel Knievel plays himself: Stunt Pony extraordinaire , ladies’ man, faith healer ("You’re the reason I’m walking, Evel!") and target for a drug syndicate who plan to ship back $50 million in cocaine… inside Evel’s dead body! Marjoe here plays eighth or ninth banana yet still shines in the pivotal role of Jessie, Evel’s young protégé who yearns for Evel’s limelight – and thus makes him the weak link in Evel’s chain of command. The ever-moralizing Evel gives the greatest “Just Say No” speech EVER (“Your bodies are like a fuel tank…”) amidst cunning stunts that’ll make your wig flip. Two words: Pure Evel.

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?

(dir. Milton Katselas, 1979)

Candy Clark Marjoe Gortner, Lee Grant, Hal Linden, Peter Firth

Based on Mark Medoff’s award-winning play, it’s clear critics and audiences alike weren’t ready for the sheer train-wreck of Marjoe’s torturous yet utterly mesmerizing performance as Teddy (Gortner), an ex-‘Nam veteran turned long haired drug dealer and foaming-at-the-mouth sociopath, breaks down – in every sense of those words – in a small town. He proceeds to terrorize a diner filled with locals and out-of-towners, and through an elaborate performance bordering on Theatre of the Absurd, strips each emotionally frail character – the city intellectuals, sanctimonious bumkins, a would-be Jimmy Dean and even Teddy’s partner-in-crime (Clark) herself - back to the basest of their motivations. The message, hammered home with the subtlety of a concrete enema, is this: we’re all doomed. Thus endeth the lesson.

Ozploitation Retrospective

Next of Kin

(dir. Tony Williams, 1982)

Jacki Kerin, John Jarratt, Alex Scott, Gerda Nicolson, Charles McCallum

An unfairly forgotten gem from the early 80s slasher mania, set in an isolated Gothic retirement home in which something evil lurks. Linda (Jackie Kerin) returns to her sleepy country town to take over her late mother’s position at Montclare and rekindles an old flame with local boy Barney (a youngish John Jarratt). As the “accidental” deaths of her elderly charges stack up around her, New Zealand director Williams deftly switches tone from a slow-burning Old Dark House chiller to explosive psycho thriller, with a blood-drenched expressionist finale and Goblin-esque score worthy of prime Argento.

Wake In Fright

(dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1971)

Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, John Meillon

Outback guignol with the Australian landscape as a monster from the Id or existential Hell, take your pick. Little seen since the early Seventies, Wake In Fright is a journey into darkness for a slightly effete schoolteacher (Gary Bond) waylaid in a small sweatstain of a country town. Once the obliging townsfolk and the endless supply of alcohol erode his civilized veneer he becomes seemingly trapped forever in the seventh layer of Dante’s Inferno, peopled with such grotesqueries as the perverse whiskey doctor (Donald Pleasence), Jack Thompson as a beer-crazed roo shooter, and the iconic Chips Rafferty as the unsettlingly benign ersatz Sheriff. Unnerving beyond belief, and perhaps Australian Cinema’s greatest undiscovered classic.


(dir. John D Lamond, 1979)

Glory Annen, Christopher Milne, Joni Flynn, John Michael Howson.

Beautifully shot tale of a young convent-schooled teenage girl (Glory Annen) and her sexual awakening in Hong Kong. For once Aussie smut cinema has created a genuinely erotic reworking of vaseline-lensed glossy Euro softcore decadence a la Emmanuelle. One of the best known of all Aussie sex films overseas due to its universal theme, the pulling power of cult star Annen, and its classy veneer due to the amazing production values squeezed out of its micro-budget by exploitation genius Lamond (Australia After Dark, Pacific Banana).

The Man From Hong Kong

(dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1975)

Jimmy Yu Wang, George Lazenby, Roger Ward, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rebecca Gilling

The unlikely pairing of Village Roadshow and martial arts studio Golden Harvest produced Australia's only true blue kung fu flick. Imported kung fu superstar "Jimmy" Wang Yu plays a Hong Kong cop out to bust Bondian supervillain (and former James Bond) George Lazenby in a flurry of flying fists and tough guy theatrics. From the film's opening chopathon atop Ayers Rock to its window-shattering finale, expatriate action specialist Brian Trenchard-Smith keeps tongue firmly in cheek whilst wringing remarkably straight-faced performances from Rebecca Gilling, Frank Thring, a young Sammo Hung and Mad Max's Roger Ward and Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Cosy Cool

(dir. Gary Young, 1977)

Gary Young, John Wilson, Laurie Moran, Richard Allen, Pam Jackman, Sharlene Webb

Astoundingly Z-grade DIY biker home movie starring producer/director Young as frustrated country lad Cosy Cool and John Wilson as his best mate (and self-confessed “space cadet”) Gracious Grytt who blow their car show prize money on a freedom bike ride and cavort around with two young playthings, only to be framed by a town of rednecks for their ritual murder. The final massacre involving real-life Commancheros linked the film forever with the Fathers Day Massacre in 1984, in which cast member Foggy and Wilson’s then-girlfriend were killed; the film should be remembered instead as a bizarre time capsule of biker culture circa 1975, with the most wretched production values possible and endlessly, deliriously quotable dialogue (“Negative waves! Negative waves!”).

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