Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Night God Screamed (1971): or, The Wrath of the AY-TONER

With a title like that, it surprised me that I had never even heard of Lee Madden's 1971 killer-hippie movie The Night God Screamed before stumbling across its poster over at the excellent site Moon in the Gutter (overseen by noted horror blogger Jeremy Richey, along with many other exemplary blogs). Of course it shouldn't come as *that* much of a surprise--if my treasure-hunting forays into the lower depths of cinema have taught me anything (and I'm not saying they have) it's that no matter how many hours you spend in front of the TV, scouring the internets, or dumpster-diving behind out-of-business Mom & Pop video stores, there's always going to be *something* flying under your radar. Therefore, when you discover one of these hitherto-unheard-of items, well, you just have to learn to take advantage.

Which is why upon finding the flick's ad materials at Jeremy's post here, I immediately sent out my scouts in search of this potentially delicious booty. Of course the Vicar's scouts are the BEST scouts, so soon I was cupping said booty in my greedy, grabby hands, thoughtfully caressing its curvature and wondering what delights might be in store for me once I spread its warm casing and probed and prodded for its tasty, forbidden secrets.

Man, I love movies.

We open with a very ominous figure walking slowly through some very shadowy woods. He is wearing a monk's robe, the hood of which completely hides his features, and bearing a cruciform staff like a crusader or plague-crier. Watching his deliberate progress, our time frame could be anywhere from the 1500s to the present day to the far future. Luckily Madden gives us another clue, as the figure finds his way to a watering hole absolutely infested with free-love hippies!

What a long, strange dip it's been

It doesn't take long to establish that these are hippies of the Manson-esque cult variety, as their leader Billy Joe Harlan (an excellently wacked-out Michael Sugich) baptises a few of his flowery children before laying down his unique form of the Gospel. Gesturing to his followers, he cries out in a loud voice, saying: "They was all just a bunch of sinners, Lord, fighting and bothering each other...but I saved them, Lord! I showed them that using dope was the way to turn on to You!" Gimme that old time religion! And always pass the Eucharist to the left.

Far from being a harmless eccentric preacher-man, however, Billy Joe quickly puts the "freak" in "Jesus Freak" by encouraging the prosecution of pigs, squares, and anyone else not with it enough to see the light: "We got trouble! The Heat won't leave us alone! They want to bust us for being hooked on You! Them pigs is watching us, Lord...they don't dig our kinda thing!" The answer? Pray for plans to off the phony preachers, stop the pigs, and bring the new gospel to the youth of today. Inspiring, no?

Having learned a thing or two from Jesus's lackadaisical attitude toward betrayers in His flock, Billy Joe next singles out a hippie chick who has refused baptism, and calls down the hooded figure to take care of her. This Warrior of God is known only as The Atoner (or as Billy always pronounces it, "AY-TONER"), and his method of bringing strays back to the flock involves baptising them till their hearts are filled with the holy spirit and their lungs with a couple gallons of water. The rest of the flock looks on impassively as the girl gives up the ghost, or maybe they're just really, really stoned.

Next we cut to a gritty urban scene, where middle-aged do-gooder Fanny Pierce (former Hollywood starlet Jeanne Crain) is bringing groceries back to the mission where her preacher husband Willis (Alex Nicol) feeds the hungry. When a drunken bum steals the food from her right outside the door of the soup kitchen, Fanny begins having a crisis of faith in her husband's calling--particularly when the preacher expresses more concern in the loss of foodstuffs than in his wife's post-robbery safety. Willis has big ideas about building a church "in a nicer area," one that would bring in more money in offerings, showing himself the kind of profit-oriented preacher Billy Joe had been railing against. Fanny replies archly, "God isn't going to make our house payment!"

In an effort to fund his mission and get a leg up on starting the new church, Willis spends a good chunk of the couple's savings on a gigantic wooden cross, which he plans to erect outside the revival hall he's rented in a more affluent suburb for a one-night only performance. As they haul the cross cross-country, the marital tension gets even thicker, with Fanny bemoaning her 25 years of sacrifice for nothing and Willis doing his best to convince her that big cross is their meal ticket. When they stop at a filling station where it just so happens Billy Joe and a biker henchman are also filling up, the stage is set for confrontation and tragedy.

"Don't mind me...just checking the fit."

While the biker boy makes lazy sexual innuendo with the shocked churchwoman, Billy Joe asks lots of pointed questions about Willis' cross and his plans for revival. The exchange between the two self-styled evangelists is fraught with dramatic irony, as the preacher happily admits his fund-raising motivations for the soup kitchen, which we know is just the sort of thing to get Billy Joe in a smiting frame of mind. Sure enough, once the Pierces are on the road again, Billy Joe calls his apostle aside and gives the word: "We're going to a revival meeting tonight...we're going on a crusade! Just you, and me, and Izzy...and the AY-TONER."

Sure enough, after a sermon with all the passion of a college history lecture that brings in much less money than they had hoped for, Fanny goes outside with Willis' assistant, leaving him alone in the revival hall. The hippies move in for the attack in a shadowy and fairly effective suspenseful scene, wherein Billy Joe pronounces a sentence of death on the "false prophet," and the other hippies hold Willis down while the AY-TONER crucifies him on his own cross! Drawn back inside by her husband's screams, Fanny can only cower in the shadows as the hippies torture and murder her husband, his cries of "Fanny, help me! For God's sake, hellllp meee!" going forever unanswered.

The feet of Justice move swiftly in the early 70s, as we now jump cut to a courtroom scene in which Billy Joe and his accomplices--minus the still-at-large AY-TONER--are on trial for the murder of Willis Pierce. Judge Coogan (Stewart Bradley) is too busy to learn his lines, reading them instead from a prominent sheet of "evidence" on the bench in front of him, but he's not too busy to quickly pronounce a death sentence on the would-be messiah. This gives Sugich a chance for one more excellent crazy outburst--"You son of a bitch! You DUMB son of a bitch! YOU'RE MAKING ME A MARTYR! AHAHAHAHAHA!"--while the unindicted cult members surround Fanny and promise revenge for their leader's death. Fanny, obviously wracked with guilt for her failure to help her hubby, wanders off in a daze.

"I'd like to cross-examine, your honor."

Lucky for Fanny, the Judge is in need of a housekeeper to keep his two sons and two daughters (all teenagers, it seems) in line, and the next thing you know she's working as a kind of PTSD-afflicted Alice to the Coogans' Brady Bunch. When the Judge and the wife decide to head off for a dirty weekend at some swinger's camp or other, he offers Fanny half a c-note if she'll spend the weekend at the Coogan residence babysitting. Fanny is still afflicted by reverbed-out voice-overs of her husband's dying cries, though, and doesn't want to have to worry about kids being out all night and not coming home. The horny judge fixes this, however, by grounding his kids for the weekend so they can stay right under Fanny's watchful gaze--which of course makes her very popular with her young charges.

While giving Fanny a lift to his pad, the Judge tut-tuts her worries about the two hippies on motorcycles who seem to be following them, and then goes on to instill some social relevance in the pic. "Those kids, like the ones who murdered your husband...they come from broken homes...poor education...they're just dropouts! Not like *my* kids!" If your ironic foreshadowing meter isn't going off by this point, it's probably time to have it serviced.

Once at Chez Coogan it becomes clear not everythign is rosy between the judge and his kids. Nancy and Sherry are upset about missing a hot date and a play rehearsal respectively due to Fanny's overprotectiveness, but it's eldest son Peter (co-scripter and curly-headed punk Dan Spelling) who is most upset, as he's missing out on an important tennis tournament. He lashes out at his dad, is unforgivably nasty to Fanny, and generally does a great job of making himself intolerable to the audience in under 2 minutes of screen time. So nice job there.

Peter learned the hard way that for Mrs. Pierce, there was but one penalty for sassy-mouth: squozen balls.

As you probably expected, the rest of the movie involves a seige of the Connor residence by outside forces, presumably the group of vengeful hippies and the never-seen but glimpsed every-now-and-then robed figure of the AY-TONER. It starts with heavy-breathing phone calls and threats, then escalates to phone-line cutting and door rattling, all while the kids are getting more and more snotty and Fanny is freaking further (the fuck) out. Snotty Pete takes command when Fanny's shock gets the best of her, sending younger brother Jimmy (Gary Morgan, future busy stuntman and the only halfway tolerable Coogan kid) out on a fatal escape attempt and not seeming too surprised or broken up when he doesn't make it. Things progress about the way you'd expect, with a somewhat facile twist you'll probably see coming nearly AYTONED for by a similarly unsurprising but still nicely-done coda.

On the film's plus side, Madden does a good job with the pacing, pulling you right along and never letting things get too boring. This is especially impressive during the seige section of the film, since the director sets himself the challenge of building tension from the victims' pov without ever showing the attackers themselves. He accomplishes some of this with sound (the ominous phone calls and Fanny's "voices"), some with light (the hippies hit the breaker box) and occasionally even with a creative tracking shot or two. It's not just the god-damnedest direction I've ever seen in my life, but considering the low-budget constraints, it's not the worst either.

The acting is all over the board, with Sugich as Billy Joe Jesus on the top of the scale and the younger Coogan kids at the bottom. In fact, Sugich is such an arresting presence as the maniacal cult leader that once he's safely on death row, the wind really goes out of the movie's sails and never fully recovers. That said, Spelling makes a good villain substitute with his counterpoint of snotty entitlement and unfeeling selfishness. I wish I had more good things to say about Jeanne Crain, but she's really merely competent here, and everyone else does worse.

"I'll open that hippie like a god-damn letter."

On the negative side, the twist is fairly telegraphed, though whether that bothers you or not depends on your ability to enjoy something that doesn't necessarily surprise you--a good ability to cultivate, imo. Also, for a movie about killer hippies the body count is appallingly low, there's surprisingly little gore and even less fact, there's no nudity to speak of, and only the crucifixion scene really carries any wallop. And while Spelling might be a fine villain, he obviously doesn't have much of an ear for dialog, judging from the script.

That said, The Night God Screamed is an entertaining if undistinguished entry in the hippiesploitation subgenre, and you could find a much worse way to spend an hour and a half. It's worth at least a soft 2 Thumbs rating, especially if you're a killer-hippie completist or a fan of Charles Manson impersonators. I'm certainly not sorry to have watched it, and while that's not a glowing recommendation, it's the best you're going to get today. ;)

"Say, Ze...are you SURE you never had a son?"

1 comment:

The Duke of DVD said...

Ahh, hippie infestations. Only gypsy invasions are worse, due to the removal difficulty, though one does get to harvest a lot of gypsy tears, which I don't have to tell you all are quite priceless.

Once again a stupendous review, dear Vicar. This movie has also flown under the Duke's radar, which is saying something given my love of hippie movies and my love of Jesus Christ in various poses. I will definitely be adding this one to yon media library.

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