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Things Have Changed: Films You'd Be Insane to Make Now

  It has become a clichĂ© to say that taking offence is one of the main uses of the internet in the twenty-first century, that it is the engine that fuels social media and popular news outlets, but then again, there's just so darn much to take offence at. If being offended gives you a thrill, then a good way to generate that sensation is to look to the past: few are saying the present is perfect, yet casting back to the cultural misdemeanours of yesteryear provides endless material for disdain. It seems almost every film, television series or book from the last century can provide something that does not tally well with the now, especially from that period when the world was waking up to its duties in representation and simply understanding how to get along without keeping down the other guy (or gal). But then there's always that illicit buzz of seeing something that comes across as so wrong that it becomes horribly fascinating, almost against your will.

Films are a good supply of that sensation, and in the nineteen-seventies and eighties as we tried to get to grips with sexism, racism, homophobia and the like, there was a curious tone to much of what was produced. Some used this consciousness-raising for humour, some for social goals, others to shock, but every so often there would be something that went too far even for those unreconstructed yet trying to improve days. Something like 1971's Goodbye Uncle Tom, for instance. This was a so-called shockumentary from the godfathers of the mondo movie, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, who had earned that title from their original hit Mondo Cane the decade before, but come the seventies they needed to push the boundaries back even further. They claimed to be operating from a position of social justice, of righting wrongs, but this account of the horrors of slavery had problems of its own.

It was shot in Haiti, under the agreement that their then-dictator Papa Doc Duvalier would assist the production, therefore he found countless locals only too happy to recreate the slavery of a century before, though they may not have had much say in the matter. There was a difference between acting and actually coming close to putting your cast through the humiliation the script demanded, and the directors here looked to have crossed that line, not accidentally, but with undue enthusiasm, under the conceit that they had travelled back in time (in a helicopter!) to interview the slave owners in the Deep South and collect footage of the victims, ostensibly to show how awful it all was. However, there was a degree of relish in their approach that they could not entirely conceal, the spirit of the mondo moviemaker undeniably present, therefore no matter how much they condemned the practice, they were clearly delighted it had given them shock scenes to portray.

But here's the funny thing (funny peculiar rather than funny ha ha): in this full-blooded immersion in as much depiction of the harrowing facts of slavery they could muster, they did manage to craft an indictment that went far further than later, well-meaning drama like Amistad or 12 Years a Slave; even Mandingo, made not long after, did not go as far and that project was more sincere than Goodbye Uncle Tom would ever be. Though there was an artificiality to the construct, the actual sequences of the degradation captured Africans went through was so authentic-looking that you could believe you were watching an absolute Hell on Earth, and the pathetic excuses the whites gave for their society were all the more chilling for being what they believed were justifications. In the latter part, a modern day African American preacher reads about Nat Turner and fantasises about slaughtering white families, as the film tips over into utter irresponsibility.

That was Italy going about as far as it could, but what of Hollywood? The big studios were wrestling with the newly slackened censorship rules and finding they could get pretty extreme themselves, often more so than they would ever attempt now, or not without turning certain films into niche material, but in the mainstream, the popular genre of crime was becoming more violent and less moral to reflect the general mood that the world was going to Hell in a handbasket. Hence a new breed of brutal cop thrillers ushered in at the start of the seventies like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, genuinely fine films that revelled in their new freedoms to concoct tales of ambiguity and suspense. On the other hand, the buddy cop movie was coming into its own too, especially with humour added, which was why you got efforts such as Busting, The Super Cops and the most notorious of them all, Freebie and the Bean from 1974.

A film with a racial slur right there in the title - Bean is a Mexican - it starred James Caan and Alan Arkin (in browner makeup) as the two police investigators trying to pin down a gangster boss they believe they can arrest if they manage to uncover the evidence. They do so by demolishing most of San Francisco and beating up and shooting a bunch of its citizens, the lines between the law and the criminals so blurred that the only way we could tell the heroes were indeed the good guys by dint of the fact they were supposed to be figures of fun. Nobody would mistake these two for effective enforcers, and throughout director Richard Rush's tone was one of outright lampooning of these macho, belligerent buffoons. So there was one reason Freebie and the Bean would not cut it in the climate of later cop movies - they may have been the forerunners of Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys, but at least their characters were good at their jobs, these guys are hopeless.

However, there was more to it than that, in the shape of racism, sexism and homophobia, that terrible trio that saw so many of its contemporaries reassessed decades later. Freebie throws around racial insults like they're going out of fashion (and there's no way Arkin and his screen wife, blue-eyed Valerie Harper, were actual Mexicans), women barely figure except as objects of fun or annoyance (Freebie accidentally shoots a dental nurse in the bottom in one joke), but it is the identity of one villain that made the movie a target of opprobrium. Christopher Morley, who played him, was clearly gay, and most regarded his violent treatment as part of the disgust the script had for homosexuals, even transgender people as he dresses in women’s clothes (though his character is simply named "Transvestite"). What made this curious was that when Bean is shot, he and Freebie share a tender moment that could pass for the love that dare not speak its name. Confused? Yup.

It was not solely the big studios that were testing how far they could go, the independents were too, and in the wake of low budget, high impact items like Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the market became flooded with tawdry pieces that were as lurid as they could possibly get away with. Even if they were not really getting away with it, they produced them anyway, and the American drive-in and grindhouse market were reaping the benefits of these spiritual offspring of Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! But as the decade wore on, whatever trashy verve that could be claimed for some would not necessarily be applicable to all, resulting in works you would have to be very brave to admit to enjoying among polite company. Impolite company may have had a problem with your taste in entertainment too, which brings us to 1978 and The Toolbox Murders.

Directed by an episodic television specialist, Dennis Donnelly, and presented in about as unimaginative a style as possible - almost no style, if that were conceivable - it unspooled the yarn about an apartment complex which one shocking summer falls victim to a serial killer. His choice of victims was what caused the most controversy, as they are the women in the building, mostly younger women (though his first choice is a middle-aged alcoholic) who, as the title suggested, he murdered with the contents of his toolbox: drill, nailgun, and so on. Making matters worse, at least two of these killings were sexualised, with nudity and in one case naked masturbation before she's offed, creating a link between sexuality and murder that was unhealthy to say the least, and not one purely in the minds of the sickest beholders, either. This was why it was held up as one of the worst of its kind in rendering seventies horror synonymous with misogyny.

Remember, the seventies was the decade where news stories of the serial killer phenomenon had gripped the aghast public, and though films like The Toolbox Murders (and indeed, John Carpenter's Halloween, a far bigger hit than this) were a reaction to that, it was not the done thing to be seen to encourage it. What made this more bizarre was the killer, who was revealed half an hour in, was played by Cameron Mitchell, now more notorious for his "pay me" escapades in the lowest rent cheapies, but back then he was, hey, that guy off The High Chaparral on TV. Plainly sensing the bankrupt nature of the bad taste here, he proceeded to riff on his character, singing away, rambling to the girl (Pamelyn Ferdin) he has kidnapped, and generally out of control in a low-key manner. That this turned into an abduction drama didn't make it any more palatable, and ending on an act of paedophilia as a grand finale would be a real no-no for the twenty-first century.

As the seventies became the eighties, the dark underbelly was still very much prevalent in the horrors and thrillers being released, and the slasher movie had become the defining genre of the time, no matter that in retrospect the eighties is considered to be glitzy and chintzy. It's not that there wasn't material like that around, but the amount of violence portrayed was going far more mainstream than the seventies had allowed, especially when makeup effects were advancing in leaps and bounds. This was, in Britain, the era of the video nasty, where the worst excesses of the seventies were controversially banned from home video or heavily censored, but that did not appear to prevent certain filmmakers from getting as down and dirty as they could, and some of those included efforts with big budgets and major stars. Perhaps an unsung hero of this, though not for long, was bona fide star Al Pacino - yes, he made Scarface for Brian De Palma in 1983.

But before that was a film he increasingly became embarrassed by, a work that was protested while it was being made and protested when it hit the cinemas: William Friedkin's 1981 thriller Cruising. It was set in the gay underworld of leather bars and sadomasochistic sex, where Pacino played an undercover cop seeking a serial killer in New York's gay district, meaning he had to pretend to be gay himself to get to the bottom of the mystery, to coin a phrase. With an actual anti-homosexual serial killer having operated within living memory of the New York community, and these outsiders showing up in that world to seemingly exploit it for cheap thrills, they were not best pleased, and made clear their displeasure at featuring so heavily in a shocker that portrayed them either as victims or perverts who would take their inclinations too far into actual murder. Watching it now, you can see their point, though ironically modern gay viewers have made it a cult film.

However, with James Franco making his own drama-documentary spin on Cruising with Interior: Leather Bar in 2013, and the French oddball camp horror Knife + Heart from 2018 riffing on Friedkin's endeavours, it seems you can approach this material from a twenty-first century perspective, it's just that in both there is a queer sensibility that is not really present in the source. When Pacino moves into the district, he is curiously lacking in personality and remains so throughout, so that once the finale has arrived and he has apparently been "contaminated" psychologically by hanging out with horny gay men (!) to the extent that he may be carrying on the diabolical work of the killer, it's difficult to see how Friedkin could have justified the film; the subjects were not exactly the target audience, but the general public were not interested either and it flopped. Yet again, we have a deeply confused item (though do check out Pacino's dancing).

But never mind cruelty to humans, what about cruelty to animals? It goes without saying that the likes of Cannibal Holocaust from 1981 are beyond the pale with their unstaged animal slaughter, and nowadays the wonders of computer graphic technology can represent even the most dangerous beast so there is no need to corral them into "acting" for the camera, but also in 1981 there was a film that the public turned its nose up at that latterly gained attention for its outright madness, and that was director Noel Marshall's Roar. Shot at his personal California wild animal sanctuary and taking the best part of a decade, more in fact, to complete, it stemmed from he and his wife, ex-Alfred Hitchcock star Tippi Hedren, who were crazy about big cats and wished to do something to promote their welfare. Inspired by sixties true life megahit Born Free, they set about crafting their own adventure with the one hundred and fifty-strong collection of creatures.

The results bankrupted them, ruined their marriage, killed countless animals in natural disasters, and it was a miracle none of the humans involved were killed too, though not for want of the lions and tigers and panthers and whatnot trying. The most famous casualty was Hedren's actress daughter Melanie Griffith, who was mauled and needed extensive plastic surgery - the fact that Marshall included footage of her being attacked and screaming that was unfaked gives you some idea of his totally irresponsible priorities. He and his family starred in this, and you can imagine the scientist character he played was basically himself, treating the wild beasts like overgrown pussycats instead of the seriously dangerous fauna they were, and saturating the experience in a cloying, misguided "animals are people too" message underlined by cheesy ballads and his own nutzoid behaviour, diving into lion fights to break them up and being visibly injured in the process.

In all, around seventy of the cast and crew were mauled, some to the point of nearly losing their lives, and it was all for naught as the conservationist seventies had moved onto the materialistic eighties by the time it was ready to put out, after flood, fire, disease and the generally major hint from Mother Nature that Marshall really should not have been making this film, a warning that went unheeded. Basically the plot took the form of one long game of hide and seek with large carnivores, since the animals would not take direction and they had to make up whatever story they could from whatever the non-humans did. Looking like the overblown home movie it was, most family pet videos do not have the edge of barely suppressed hysteria of Roar, or you would hope not, but as spectacle it is guiltily compelling, guilty because there was real animal mismanagement going on, and people were getting savaged left, right and centre. At least Tippi later said she regretted it.

But what of Blighty? British heritage cinema had taken off around this time, just as the sex comedies of the seventies were being treated with embarrassment that any of the nation had gone to see them and - ulp! - enjoyed them too. Fortunately, there were Brit directors willing to keep the smut flag flying, and Michael Winner was at the forefront of that, so after his dalliance with Hollywood to produce the likes of Death Wish, which was both the making of his reputation and the motive many had to dismiss him, he returned home and made a deal with Cannon to manufacture more product for them. Cannon was the epitome of the eighties studio since nobody in their right mind would follow their business model all these decades later, yet as their name has become synonymous with lowest common denominator tat, it somehow seemed inevitable they would team up with the erstwhile restaurant critic to remake one of the favourites from Gainsborough.

The Wicked Lady had been made before in 1945, starring British star Margaret Lockwood in the title role as a noblewoman satisfying her need for thrills by holding up coaches on the roads nearby her mansion, and a lot of fun it was too, but Winner, who was a fan of the original, felt there was something missing which he could deliver in spades. To be precise: make it in colour (fair enough), and cram in as much female nudity as he possibly could, not to mention a dose of violence to keep the audience awake as well, and if he could combine the two, so much the better. For a director known for his predilection for rape scenes, it could have been worse, but presumably imported star Faye Dunaway wouldn't have stood for his usual techniques; she was, mind you, assaulted by her lover (Alan Bates) in the latter stages, only it wasn't as explicit as it would have been had some struggling young actress seeking her big break in showbiz as promised by Mr Director taken the role.

Anyway, that's not what grabbed the headlines, as Winner with his keen eye for the lurid added his own sequence to the source that guaranteed the censors were up in arms and the newspapers were chattering about it. This was the whip fight between Dunaway and, making her debut, future Star Trek: The Next Generation star Marina Sirtis, who got into a tussle with the leading lady resulting in her being whipped while topless and returning the favour to Faye (who was notably not exposing herself). Winner brought in some famous names to boost his campaign, and the scene was passed with a bit of trimming, but the whole project was littered with bosoms bared for no other reason than it kept the viewers' minds off the fustiness of the rest of it. Glynis Barber refused to appear nude, so she had a body double who looked nothing like her - yes, Winner let us see the double's face. Well done. But the days of adding gratuitous nudity to the mainstream were fading.

Well, that's Italy, The United States and Great Britain, three countries united in their dedication to bad taste. Where else to go last but Australia? Barry Humphries had been observing his nation's culture for decades, often with his most famous creation Dame Edna Everage, Housewife Superstar, who brought an Aussie suburbanism to the table, with a strong degree of Humphries' barbed wit. A highly intelligent man armed with a fine sense of the ridiculous and indeed a nose for the hypocritical, he was still spawning controversy in his eighties, though why anyone was that surprised an octogenarian had unpalatable views on the transgender community was perhaps more of a mystery than why he had those opinions in the first place. But on watching his film output you would not be completely shocked, as his two films featuring his comic strip character, The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie and Barry Mackenzie Holds His Own, you would be forewarned.

Those two efforts, especially the second one, seem almost indescribably unsubtle and without care for the audience's feelings, evidence of Humphries' caustic, take no prisoners satire, yet also examples of sheer, unfettered filth. He did not make many films where he had creative control, and was more often seen on the big screen in cameos, anything from Bedazzled to The Marsupials: Howling III to Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, but the ones he did make were undoubtedly authored by him to test the boundaries of offence. Alas, in 1987 he gifted the planet Les Patterson Saves the World, and the reaction was not pretty - had he finally gone too far? Maybe not, seeing as how it did his career no real harm, but his targets in that movie prompted him to express regret for writing and acting in it at all, since it was greeted with aghast distaste by even his staunchest supporters: was this a comedy making fun of AIDS victims?

The plot had Sir Les making a faux pas as the Australian ambassador at the United Nations, setting an Arab delegate ablaze when one of his enormous farts catches light, so for a start, there's a joke that nobody in their right mind would include in a twenty-first century comedy, and not only because the wrong people might take umbrage. But as he is dispatched as a diplomat to the delegate's small, rich, Middle Eastern country of origin, after a coup is staged on his arrival he uncovers a scheme to infect the West with a deadly virus called HELP, which is caught by using dosed toilet seats in a riff on an AIDS myth that was doing the rounds in the eighties. Yet while it was clear Sir Les was designed to insult the too-delicate sensibilities of the day, terming women "ceiling inspectors" for instance, the wisdom of the admittedly occasionally funny enterprise was only going to be called into question. And there you go: no matter how P.C. you see your contemporary times as, there was always someone in the past with precisely the same ideas; there's nothing new under the sun, be they offensive or offended or just plain reasonable, and willing to think things through. Assuming anybody ever does that.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018