Hello all! After keeping all of my writing for the 1965 movie zine exclusively to those who purchased a copy, I’ve decided to also make it available here for everyone or anyone that is interested. If you like what you read, please buy a copy of the zine where you’ll also find lots of cool collage work exclusively centered on the films of that year. I wrote about thirty-one films from 1965. This third post will cover The Nanny through Rat Fink.
The Nanny (UK / US / Holt)
The Nanny, my favorite film from the height of the psycho-biddy cycle, gets lost in the shuffle compared to iconic films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or front-facing schlock like Strait-Jacket. It’s not surprising given that it doesn’t operate with the garishness you expect. It is dominated by excellent camerawork courtesy of Harry Waxman and future Kubrick camera operator Kelvin Pike. Bette Davis’ affectations are purposely robotic here. Her character’s unyielding loyalty and unbreakable propriety create the narrative uncertainty at the film’s center: is Davis knowingly a killer, is she delusional, or has this wilfully defiant son misunderstood something enormous? One of the things I love about The Nanny is that its mileage doesn’t live and die by the answer. Everything built out from this question is so psychologically astute and specific. It is sadder and less straightforward than you’d expect. What impresses most is the perfect alchemy of psychodrama achieved by the actors and director Seth Holt. The unseen past, which has fractured this family so completely, feels like it was actually lived. So often, even with great films, you’re dropped into relationships and families with supposed histories, told that these actors are related to one another. It’s the bit of audience buy-in required from acting, but our senses don’t often go beyond what materializes in front of us. But there’s a phantom tangibility to what was and has been between these characters and their tragedies. That’s a hell of an accomplishment.
One Naked Night (US / Viola)
A mild sexploitation flick with an endearing chemical mix of the taboo and tame. You can sandwich it directly between Who Killed Teddy Bear? and I Knew Her Well. One Naked Night shares Who Killed Teddy Bear’s preoccupation with sleaze and sin in the Big Apple. Both films also feature the of its time predilection for lesbian characters who are supportive but, because of course, predatory. Pre-Giuliani New York City footage will upgrade anything, but when it’s before the 1970s, when the often gritty NYC was a routine sight, it’s a coveted luxury. The 1960s saw a number of underground filmmakers shooting in the city, snapshotting the streets and illustrating the fact of fringe life through renegade subjects and autonomous DIY productions. Doris Wishman (Bad Girls go to Hell), Andy Milligan (Vapors), Andy Warhol (Empire), are part and parcel during this era. On the other side is I Knew Her Well, so different in both tone and respectability, but taking on the same country girl tries to make it in the big city formula that lays out countless sexploitation films to come (Bad Girls to go Hell also features a girl fleeing to NYC). They even have the exact same ending. Where I Knew Her Well purposely scrambles this familiar framework to examine issues of Italian identity, One Naked Night thrives by hitting every dimestore novel beat. Think Barbara Perkins opening narration in Valley of the Dolls carried through for seventy minutes. Barbara Morris’ voiceover has all the romanticization and elucidation of a children’s book – it is green and corny, yet also eloquent. The reliance on voiceover also allows Albert T. Viola all the mileage he can get out of shooting sans audio, often using montage that rotates between the same five or six shot set-ups while narration or Chet McIntyre’s score coat the images. Mcintyre’s jazz score is genuinely great, at-times reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown compositions. One Naked Night is another example of exploitation in its infancy, on the other end of the spectrum from Wishman’s far more genuinely transgressive film from the same year. Yet I just can’t help but prefer this (certainly less weighty) film a lot more.
Planet of the Vampires (Bava / Italy)
When I was a toddler, I had a Playskool flashlight with a knob on the side. When you turned it one way, a red filter would slide over the light. The other direction had a green filter. It provided some sort of essential sensory satisfaction – the same exact kind as Planet of the Vampires. It’s usually discussed as an undeniable inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien, but that’s not what interests me about it. It’s all about the Bava. Mario Bava was a magician, honing the penny-pinching in-camera effects wizardry of his pioneering papa to materialize anything out of scraps. Here, he brings horror into space by using recycled bare-bones sets, fog, lighting, and all of his tricks of the trade to create a B-movie Renaissance painting, an interplanetary purgatory that’s like the Aggro Crag from GUTS made real (pardon me for going full 90s). It’s got a potentially goofy stiffness and pace that isn’t for everyone (including me once upon a time). But between the negative space and an often economical shot set-up, there is a haunting futility to the way we get to know these sets so well. The whole movie looms, accompanied by a wall-to-wall sonic soundscape of electronic hums and ambient warbling and whooshing. The only other films that feel remotely like it are a few others by Bava. He’s the ideal filmmaker to put on late into the night when the lights are out you’re on the verge of fading. Of all the Bava films, Planet of the Vampires is the one best suited for this, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Rapture (Guillerman / France/ US)
Would pair well with The Fool Killer, another dark coming-of-age story that gets you musing “curiouser and curiouser”. Patricia Gozzi is unrelenting as the troubled Agnes. Everything feels like a highly fractured fairy tale; delusional, grand, and run-down. It’s keyed into French New Wave sensibilities but isn’t led by them. The location shooting, on the coast of Brittany, creates a gorgeous open-air isolation. The camerawork is wide in scope and character-driven, able to spread its wings only to be yanked back down to the coast’s contradictory confinement. The family dynamics sit somewhere above us, slightly inexplicable but visible all the same. There are three films featured here that revolve around entrenched family dynamics: Rapture, The Nanny, and Fists in the Pocket. All three are mired in some degree of delusion. Here, Gozzi is convinced that on-the-run criminal Dean Stockwell is her scarecrow prince, and uses that childlike delusion to misguidedly be the bridge between girlhood and womanhood. A sumptuous, sad, and troubling one.
Disclaimer: It must be noted that this film features explicitly sexual scenes and contact between the then 32 year old Dean Stockwell and the then 15 year old Patricia Gozzi.
Rat Fink (US / Landis)
Rat Fink was actor Schuyler Hayden’s go-for-broke bid for Hollywood stardom. He put up $200,000 of his own money to fund the film (which he produces, stars, and sings in) and even threw himself an Oscar party in the hopes of creating buzz around his performance. He took his shot and it went nowhere. The film made squat and was eventually repackaged under the title Wild and Willing. Meanwhile, Hayden would only appear in one more film before disappearing to Hawaii in reclusivity. According to his daughter, Ursula Hayden of the real-life GLOW, he was planning to make another go of it in the industry when he became 1 of the 144 who perished in the 1978 PSA Flight 182 crash. As if that weren’t enough, the film he left behind, this flop that nakedly carried the totality of one man’s ambition, was lost for half a century. It has only very recently been discovered, restored, and released to the public.
Part of the reason Schuyler Hayden’s life (what little we know of it) is pertinent is because in Rat Fink he plays a man who does get famous. Putting aside the shocking crimes Lonnie commits, Ursula describes her father as being very much like his character. That Lonnie is a loner ‘nobody’ driven to prove he’s somebody no matter the cost makes Ursula’s observation pretty heartbreaking. For the first half of Rat Fink, Lonnie is impossible to pin down. All you’ve got is inscrutability and a disdain for mankind. His even keel steadiness and ruthless remove are sociopathic. Is he out for world domination? Is this Tom Cruise’s origin story? The mind goes many places. Then, at roughly the same time Adriana visits her farm home in I Knew Her Well (another kind of drifter character), Lonnie visits his childhood farm and the psychology clicks into place.
Rat Fink is an essential addition to one of my very favorite sub-sub genres. It sits alongside Nightmare Alley, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and What Makes Sammy Run? (to name a few); stories about men driven by self-loathing and meager origins to be somebody, using any means necessary to will themselves into places of status. The early career cinematography by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond (then credited as William) captures abject loneliness and the emptiness of cruelty and fame in his frames. Rat Fink has a real mean-streak; it’s not quite gleeful, but it’s unapologetic. It’s part of the unmatched corner of outlier American films from this era itching and able to explore and indulge in darker impulses. They were a bit genre, a bit rogue, and more than a little bit transgressive (Something Wild, Private Property, and James Landis’ previous film The Sadist are other examples). Something I especially love about Rat Fink as part of the Rags to Riches Con Drifter canon is the one crucial way Lonnie doesn’t fit its typical protagonist mold. These characters tend to combine their id-driven aims and natural deceptive abilities with the hard work of self-taught skill-sets. Frank Abagnale Jr of Catch Me If You Can teaches himself about confidence scams. Stan of Nightmare Alley steals Pete and Zeena’s code act but also works his ass off to learn and perfect it. In contrast, Lonnie can sing a song fine, but otherwise can’t be bothered to put in any real work.
Rat Fink accurately depicts fame as a fantasy mostly created and sustained by the hard work of others whose job is to make sure the public continues to know and worship you. I’m so grateful Rat Fink is no longer lost. With the discovery of its survival and subsequent blu-ray release, hopefully others will find their way to the nihilistic manifestation of Schuyler Hayden’s hopes and dreams.