Thursday, January 25, 2018

Reviews: The Violent Years; Anatomy of a Psycho

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Violent Years (aka Teenage Girl Gang)
Directed by William Morgan; written by Ed Wood, Jr.
AGFA / Something Weird Video / MVD Visual
65 minutes, 1956 / 2017

I’m happy to say I originally saw this one in the theater. No, not when it came out, I’m not that old. I either saw it at an Ed Wood, Jr. respective at the Thalia Theater in New York City, back in the ‘80s, or, it could have been at the World’s Worst Film Festival, run by the Medved Brothers, but I can’t remember.

Ed Wood, Jr. (d. 1978) gets most of the credit for this film because of the name value, but he was only the writer. The direction is flatly in the hands of William Morgan. Before this, he made mostly B-Westerns, and this was his last one before he died in 1964.

There’s two ways (at least) to look that this film: what it is and what it means; in other words, the film itself, and the message it was infused to give in the context of its history. I’ll start with the easy one, which is first.

This film gets a lot of flak for being a piece of bad cinema. I’m not going to argue with that per se, but there’s a lot of different ways to look at that, as well. To be fair, this is actually no better or worse than most of the b-films that were coming out since the 1940s, especially the cheap and fast ones during wartime. Like most of those, this too was a propaganda film, but I’ll get more into that later.

Jean Moorehead
The basic premise of the film is the non-rise of a girl gang that robs (mostly gas stations), assaults people, and whose members are just angry at life. The foursome is led by Paula (attractive Jean Moorehead, who was the October 1955 Playboy Bunny of the month; Hershell Gordon Lewis would do the same with June 1963 Playmate Connie Mason in his 1963 Blood Feast, but I digress…). Each of the four is given names that are easily masculinized, which they call each other as nicknames, for the filmmakers to subtly indicate to the audience they are not being “womanly”: Paula/Paul, Geraldine/Jerry, Georgia/George, and Phyllis/Phil (no Ringo, though).

The acting overall, yes, is quite wooden, but there are some nice moments, such as when Paula sneers to the wasp-waited Sheila (Lee Constant), their link to the underworld, “I killed a policeman tonight. Yeah, a cop” (it’s in the trailer, below). But mostly, it’s high drama acting where everything is either under- or over-stated. Again, that’s very typical of the period films of this nature. The worst acting, though is the judge (stalwart b-film western actor I. Stanford Jolley), who either looks like he is saying his lines with his eyes closed, or reading the script below him; though the court bailiff who flubs his one line gets honorable mention.

The Girl Gang
Also typical of b-films, this one is just merely over an hour in length. In a time when it was common practice to have double features, the longer the films the less turnover of customers, so they tended to be quick.

Overall, the writing is okay, most of the story is told in flashback, though admittedly clunky. The revitalized print is really good, but nothing could save the many overused studio stock footage b-rolls of the police cars screaming down the streets with sirens blaring.

As for the sociological aspect of the film, well, there is a lot to unbox. Most of the juvenile delinquent films from the ‘50s were geared to two different audiences. First to the parents as a scare tactic (such as the evening newscast in New York City that for decades started with “It’s10 PM. Do you know where your children are!?”).  With the rise of rock and roll, and all the media hysteria that went with it, films like these were used to scare parents about their teens, and also give them a message: pay attention to your kids or they will go bad. Here they imply that because the mother is more interested in things outside the home (in this case charity work, but it could be seen as any employment), it will lead to ignoring the children who will go wrong without direct and constant supervision. That is just one of the subliminal messages meant for the audience.

It could be noted that all the characters here (other than gonif queen Sheila) are middle class, with Paula coming from wealthy parents. The message of stay home with your children seems geared towards white, middle class and upper. It’s as if the lower classes were expected to be lost causes, so the subtext is “these are the children of the future, not those others, so watch your social status or we will lose our advantage!”
The other side of the directed audience is teens, who were coming to be recognized as a marketable demographic in the late ‘50s (that, too, came with rock and roll record purchasing) with some spendable income. Films like this wallowed in cheesy, establishment versions of rock and roll music (very toned down boogie-woogie with lots of sax). This and the teen crime element made it an interesting topic for the young, but it was also a warning to them to stay on the straight-and-narrow. The film opens with some “good citizenship” notes on a blackboard that the main characters walk by (as they are introduced with name title cards), and scoff.

This was the middle period of the Cold War, between McCarthyism and the Bay of Pigs, but the fear was still intense. The fear was palpable back then, so in films like this, they tried to connect the rising imagined JD problem with Communist influence. Here, Sheila hires the ladies to wreck the school, and subtly adds, “And don’t worry if a few (American) flags get destroyed in the process. Let’s just say it’s part of a well-organized foreign plan” (again, check out the trailer).  

And then there’s the ever-present fear of S-E-X before marriage. Or, as they show here, will lead to multiple unwanted consequences (don’t want to give too much away).
The theme of the film is, literally, “so what?,” which is said numerous times. If this film was made today, I wonder if they would have used Anti-Nowhere League as a theme song

This is a really nicely cleaned up print, so great job AGFA and Something Weird Video.

The extras are some grainy (8mm? 16mm?) footage that Wood shot in one day for a film that was never made called Hellborn. Even in those 8 minutes, you can see the difference between his style and, say, the main feature’s. Though seeing Wood in his drag persona is always a pleasure. Some of this b-roll was used in a couple of his other films. There is also the trailer for The Violent Years, but also added is a collection of other youth in trouble films, mostly from Europe, and almost all have the same catch phrase: “Never before has a film been so frank about sex!”
While The Violent Years would have been a great double feature with Switchblade Sisters (1975), it is probably more appropriate to have the following as the second film:

Anatomy of a Psycho
Directed by Brooke L. Peters (aka Boris Petroff)
75 minutes, 1961 / 2017
First, the reason this one is included with main feature is that Ed Wood, Jr. added to the screenplay, under the pen name Larry Lee, so it kinda makes sense.

While the other film deals with saying “no” to society and its norms, this movie deals with more of a psychological aspect, with a criminally insane Juvenile Delinquent. There is a difference between being anti-social and being a sociopath, and that’s where this film has its feet.

A murderous criminal is sent to the gas chamber as the film begins. But the story revolves more about the aftermath of his actions than on him, since he’s smoked less than five minute into the story.

Ronnie Burns and Pamela Lincoln
His normal sister, Pat (the cute and toothsome Pamela Lincoln, who had appeared as Vinnie Price’s wife in The Tingler in 1959), is trying to get over the social shame of having her brother be a murderer. But she’s in love with Mickey (Ronnie Burns, the real-life adopted son of George Burns and Gracie Allen), and her aim is to have a normal life with him.

Their other brother, Chet (Darrell Howe) is another story, and is the titular character. He can’t stand that his brother was executed, and decides to decimate anyone who aided in the arrest. He’s not the Arch Hall, Jr. screaming freak of 1963’s The Sadist, but more the type of tall guy who leans over you with a cigarette dangling in his mouth and idly holding a switchblade. He has his manic moments, especially by the end, but mostly he’ll non-chalantly start a fire, for example. It’s a slow build.

Darrell Howe
Other than a lot of smoking by a lot of characters, one would think the film would be focusing on Chet, but it seems like Mickey is oddly the central character (definitely the biggest name of the cast), as he is arrested for a murder actually perpetrated by…well, you know.

Unlike, say, The Violent Years, his film is not used as a propaganda tool to scare people into doing or being something that society expects, it’s more a straight-out crime that could have easily played on television on one of the many cop shows that were on at the time. Part of the reason for that, I believe, is that the three siblings come from a lower class stratum, so are not seen as socially relevant; though Pat is marrying into supposed respectability, before he is arrested.

While overall it’s a pretty silly film, and Chet is both scary and laughable (at times), in the social context of the time, it is still good escapism. It’s right as a second feature, as it’s not good enough a story to be A-line, but I didn’t feel sorry watching it, any more than spending an evening with a CSI: Whatever or NCIS: Wherever. It doesn’t need to be brilliant to be an enjoyable time killer.

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