Friday, October 19, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: N is for The Night God Screamed (1971)

We open on a man dressed like a monk, his face obscured by a hood, walking through the woods, a large cruciform staff in his left hand. At some point, we realize this man is slowly circling a small pool of water where some kind of baptismal ceremony is taking place. Leading this ceremony is Billy Joe Harlan (Sugich). Sort of a cross between Charles Manson and Jeffrey Hunter’s take on your Lord and Savior, Harlan is preaching to his gathered flock, well over a two-dozen members, and prosthelytizes on how he brought all these sinners to God through smoking dope. And now “The Man” wants to bust them for simply communing with Him, saying “they” don’t dig our kinda faith. And how “they” put us down because we “ain’t like one of them uptight establishment churches” with the phony money-making ministers, who lie and steal from their congregations.

And once Harlan gets his Jesus Freak followers into a healthy lather, he finally gets to the real point, saying there’s a spy in their midst, who is trying to rat them out to the cops. He then points an accusatory finger at one of the girls, claiming this hippy chick doesn’t want to be baptized -- ergo, she doesn’t want to follow him and is thereby declared to be the Judas he seeks. When protesting goes nowhere, this girl tries to run but is quickly caught and drug back to the water, where Harlan calls for the Atoner, who turns out to be the monk we met earlier, who silently joins him in the pool, seizes the girl, and forcibly baptizes her. And he keeps on baptizing the poor girl until she drowns.

Next we cut to a woman carrying several bags of groceries as she hurries down a street in some rundown neighborhood. When she reaches her destination, one of the toothless skidrow bums rushes her, steals one of the bags and scampers off. But the woman gives no sign of pursuit, more of a resigned resentment, as she enters what turns out to be a soup kitchen run by her reverend husband, Willis Pierce (Nicol). And while she agrees he is doing the Lord’s work by offering food and scripture to those in need, Fanny Pierce (Crain) is growing tired of the routine, saying she’s drowning. But Willis encourages her to keep the faith, saying things will get better once they get their church established. In fact, they’ve got another revival meeting set for tonight in a better part of town, which will surely raise a good chunk of change toward funding their dream. It had better, notes Fanny, reminding her husband their bank account is currently empty.

Now, the reason it’s empty is because Willis blew all of their savings on a large wooden cross that will be the centerpiece of their new church. But while hauling it to the revival meeting in the back of their truck, where Willis hopes it will inspire the attendees to give till it hurts, they *heh* cross paths with Harlan and a couple of his brood, who follow them to a gas station. And while Tennessee (Petitt) menaces Fanny, an intrigued Harlan first compliments Willis on his mighty fine cross, and then, well, tries it on for size as he pretends to crucify himself on it. When asked what his intentions with the crucifix are, Willis invites Harlan and his people to join them at the revival and be saved from eternal damnation. Already affronted by this presumption, Harlan is even more offended when Willis says, yes, they will be taking an offering during the service. And when Willis adds he hopes to see them all there later, Harlan answers maybe you will. As they leave, Willis assures Fanny those men were harmless and probably part of some nutty cult the kids are always talking about. When they’re gone, Harlan tells his flock to round up the Atoner because they’ll be going on a crusade later.

For now, Willis and Fanny are greeted by Deacon Paul (Sikking) at the meeting hall, who helps haul the cross inside and rounds up a hammer and nails to secure it. Later, after Willis finishes his sermon, he signals Paul to pass around the collection plate. And as he moves down the aisle he reaches the last pew occupied by Harlan and two of his stooges, Tennessee and Izzy (Smedley), who won’t be contributing. With the benediction the crowd clears out, and Paul hands over a bag filled with the night’s take. And while Willis remains behind to lock up, Fanny heads outside with Paul to go over the music for tomorrow’s service. Inside, Willis realizes he’s not alone when he comes face to face with the Atoner, who is blocking the exit and is soon joined by Harlan and the others. Their intentions clear, Willis begs them not to steal the money, warning God will punish them. But these words are blasphemy to Harlan and only incite him to violent retribution as he accuses Willis of being a false prophet, eyeballs the cross, and a righteously terrible idea of divine punishment enters his mind.

Meantime, in the parking lot, Fanny is venting to Paul, who echoes Willis, saying all their sacrifices will be worth it. Eventually. But Fanny has about had it with the company line, saying she’s endured 25 years of sacrifice with nothing to show for it -- no children, no money, no nothing. Paul, obviously uncomfortable with this conversation, makes quick with the goodbye and hops in his car, leaving Fanny to go and see what’s keeping Willis. When she enters the building, Fanny hears Willis crying out in pain and spies Harlan and his men nailing her husband to the cross. Fanny runs back outside for help but Paul is gone. Back inside, she tries to find change for the pay phone to call the cops but Willis’ sudden scream as the first nail is driven in causes the woman to drop her purse, scattering the coins all over the floor as her husband screams for her. And by the time she retrieves a dime it’s already too late and she must hide as Harlan and his goons vacate the building. Once they’re gone, a terrified Fanny returns to the auditorium, where she sees her husband’s bloodied corpse hanging from the now upright cross, screams, and falls to her knees.

Several months later, the trial of Harlan, Izzy, and Tennessee for the murder of Willis Pierce has reached closing arguments. And while they couldn’t identify the man in the robes, the star witness, Fanny Pierce, identified the other three men and their actions make them just as guilty of first degree murder. Fanny, haunted by her inaction the night of the murder and the echo of her husband’s pain and suffering, watches from the gallery as the jury reaches a guilty verdict on all counts, and then Judge Coogan (Bradley) gives all three men the death penalty during sentencing for their heinous and vicious crime. With that, Harlan explodes from his chair at the defense table, curses Coogan and laughs, saying his death will only make him a martyr to his flock, who’ve been unruly spectators during the whole trial. He then turns to Fanny and warns, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord!" He then turns to his disciples as the bailiffs try to get him under control, shouting the whole system is guilty and to take an eye for an eye! And as Fanny leaves the courtroom, she must run a gauntlet of Harlan’s followers, who make it perfectly clear her days are numbered...

There’s always been an air of mystery surrounding exploitation guru, Jerry Gross. For while we know a lot about his films and their delightfully salacious promotional campaigns we know very little about the man himself. What we do know is Gross started in the film industry as a writer and director, whose opening salvo of Vice Girls Ltd. (1964), Girl on a Chain Gang (1966), and Teenage Mother (1967) were sexploitation films hidden under a very thin sheen of social commentary. His fourth and final feature, Female Animal (1970), was Gross at his best as he tried to pass it off as a foreign sex film, taking the credit of Juan Carlo Grinella. And that is where Gross really excelled: in promotion and packaging -- “Sensationalized come-ons, titillating taglines, wildly suggestive posters and titles scored Gross hit after hit on the grindhouse / drive-in circuit throughout the 1970s,” according to the Grindhouse Cinema Database.

With Teenage Mother for example, taking a page from old school roadshow kings like Kroger Babb and Dwain Esper, Gross added a reel featuring a live birth to punch things up even further, and the ad campaign touting all of this was one for the ages. The film was a huge hit and made enough money for Gross to form Cinemation Industries with his partner, Nick Demetroules, which would focus mainly on distribution, dubbing over foreign product, and revival double-bills for the drive-ins. Imports like Joe Sarno’s Inga (1968) and Rolf Thiele’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales for Adults (1969) had Cinemation powering into the 1970s as Gross played up their X-ratings. He also dusted off an old Del Tenney movie, Voodoo Bloodbath (1965), and repackaged it as I Eat Your Skin (1971) as a bottom bill for I Drink Your Blood (1971). Again, the ad campaigns for these were a thing of beauty.

"I guarantee that all these are selling titles,” said Gross. “The public just cannot resist a film if the title drags them in. Stars don't matter. Titles do!" But it wasn’t always sexploitation pictures or horror films, as Cinemation also ushered in the era of blaxploitation with Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), got the anti-war classic, Johnny Got his Gun (1961), into theaters, and introduced the world to Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat (1971). But sex was Cinemation’s main seller and the company maxed out with the release of The Cheerleaders (1973), which was a huge hit and triggered a bit of over-expansion that fueled the company’s quick slide into bankruptcy by 1975 as Freddie Francis’ Son of Dracula (1974) and Matt Cimber’s The Black Six (1974) crashed and burned at the box office. Gross got out of the business for awhile, while Demetroules formed NMD Productions, which concentrated mostly on sexploitation films like Teenage Tramp (1973).

Thus, Cinemation was dead, but, as the legend goes, after working as a clerk at a 7-11 for a spell, Gross soon got back into the distribution business in the late 1970s with The Jerry Gross Organization, which got on its feet with the re-release of Miss Nude America (1976) and a couple of Emmanuele cash-ins in 1980. He also took Meir Zarchi’s highly controversial rape and revenge flick, Day of the Woman (1978), and sent it back out as I Spit on Your Grave (1980). Gross also cooked up the tagline, "We Are Going to Eat You!," for Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1980), and got Siskel and Ebert’s panties in knot with the release of Ulli Lommel’s The Boogeyman (1980). But after the release of Blood Beach (1981), which fared poorly at the box-office, Gross once more went bankrupt. He regrouped one last time in 1983 with Ambassador Pictures but that quickly folded as well. After that? Well, Gross kinda fell off the face of the earth, and that’s too bad because the guy deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Sam Sherman, David Friedman, and Harry Novak as exploitation film legends.

OK. Now that the history lesson is out of the way, let’s circle back to The Night God Screamed (1971), a film by Lee Madden and Gil Lasky; no strangers to the exploitation racket, who were trying to cash-in on the notoriety of Charles Manson, the Tate-Labianca murders, and the Helter Skelter trial. Here, Gross worked his magic once again with a wild promotional campaign for the film, which was topped off with the delightful tagline, "SCREAM -- so they’ll know where to find your body." And believe you me, the film needed all the help it could get. Because aside from the subject matter, and a fairly effective opening sequence, the film is a bit of a snoozer and too sanitized for its own good given the subject matter at hand before it all culminates in a five car twist pile-up during the climax, where the first twist was seen coming a mile away but the last twist kinda had me cheering.

See, after the trial, the widowed Fanny is hired on by Judge Coogan as a housekeeper. Fanny is still hearing voices -- both her husband begging for help, and Harlan’s spiteful epitaphs, making the woman slightly unhinged and more than a little paranoid as she sees one of Harlan’s followers lurking around every corner whether someone’s there or not. And so it comes to pass that Coogan and his wife, Betty (Conley), are heading out for a long weekend, leaving their four teen-aged children under the supervision of Fanny. Now, all four of these children, Nancy (Hancock), Sharon, (Cleary), Jimmy (Morgan), and especially Peter (Spelling), the eldest, resent the fact they’ve been saddled with a fuddy babysitter -- especially since one of Fanny’s conditions for agreeing to this is the children must stay in all weekend so she doesn’t have to worry about where they’re going or what they’re doing, torpedoing a lot of plans, and making them resent her even more.

And with this stage set, the parents are barely gone before Fanny starts receiving a series of crank calls, where no one speaks on the other end. But this quickly escalates when the caller starts quoting Harlan, saying, "Those who judge shall be judged and the sentence is death -- tonight,” before the line goes dead. Then, the kids spot someone in the backyard and Fanny heads outside to chase them off -- only this intruder turns out to be nothing more than a glorified scarecrow. Fanny relays this to the kids, but fails to mention the note pinned to it that simply read “vengeance.” Still, Fanny orders the kids to secure the house, lock all the doors and windows, and turn every light on. The surly Peter realizes this must have something to do with the Harlan trial, and accuses Fanny of putting them all in danger, agitating her even further.

Soon enough, the power is cut, and someone is constantly trying to break in, calling for Fanny to come out. With no other options, a plan is set into motion to send Jimmy to alert a neighbor several miles away on foot. And so, while everyone else draws the attention of the assailants to one side of the house, Jimmy will sneak out the opposite. And while the plan seems to be succeeding at first, Jimmy does not make it and Fanny watches in horror as the Atoner grabs the boy and stabs him to death. This same hooded figure then breaks into the palatial house, and then the rest of the children start to disappear. And as a desperate Fanny searches for them, she finds blood evidence in several rooms, drawn there by the screams of the Coogan’s daughters. Her search continues, picking up a butcher knife in the kitchen along the way, until she finds Peter’s body hanging in a closet, causing the hysterical woman to lock herself in a bedroom as the voices of doom in her head overwhelm her.

Then, Nancy calls to her, saying if she doesn’t come out they will kill her, and Fanny snaps out of it, removes the impromptu barricade from the door, but finds the girl oddly alone in the hall. Together, they head downstairs, where they find Sharon, dead, in the living room. With that, Nancy screams and disappears into the dark. Meantime, the Atoner has appeared at the top of the stairs but instead of freezing up, cowering, or running and hiding, Fanny finally rallies her courage and goes on the attack with the butcher knife. But after a brief but valiant struggle, the woman is thrown backwards, tumbles down the stairs and into the foyer, where Fanny lies deathly still.

Here, the Atoner pulls back the hood and reveals *gasp* it was really Peter all along. But that’s not the big twist. Nope. Turns out this had nothing to do with Harlan at all. Seems all of the Coogan siblings had conspired to scare Fanny off to free up their weekend and staged all of the evening’s scare tactics and faked their own deaths as all four, alive and well, gather around Fanny, who is neither. And as what they’ve done sinks in, Peter starts working on his self-defense claim and Jimmy concurs, saying she attacked him with a knife, before he’s sent off to get the power and phones back in working order. 

But before you can say, eh, they’re the white kids of an affluent judge, of course they’re gonna get away with it, as the Coogans work to get their stories straight for the cops, we get to the friggin’ awesome final twist as the phone rings. Peter answers, figuring it’s their parents, but instead hears a warning: "The sentence is death on Judge Coogan's children, and their execution is tonight." With that, we cut to outside the Coogan mansion, which suddenly plunges into darkness again, and then the children start screaming as Harlan’s acolytes set to work as we fade to black.

So, yeah, if the Brady Bunch kids going all psycho and gaslighting Alice by pretending a cult of Jesus freaks are out to kill her while Mike and Carol are off on vacation, here’s your movie. And we can thank the two-punch combo of Madden and Lasky for that. Like a lot of filmmakers, Lee Madden got started making industrial shorts and TV commercials for his New York based company, Lee Madden Associates. He made the leap to features with a couple of outlaw biker flicks for American International Pictures; Hells Angels ‘69 (1969), which featured the actual Oakland chapter of the Angels led by Sonny Barger, and Angels Unchained (1970). Gil Lasky was a former bit-player and extra, who turned to producing and screenwriting, giving us the rightfully tagged sickest G movie ever made with Blood and Lace (1970), Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974), and The Manhandlers (1974), which he also collaborated with Madden on.

As for The Night God Screamed, well, they kinda blew it as something this bonkers should’ve had a little more energy to it. A little more sizzle. It does manage a few creepy moments -- the initial drowning, Willis’ death, and Fanny’s mental turmoil, but the action during the siege at the Coogan house is too repetitive. I had sniffed out something wasn’t quite right early during the climax and at first figured Peter was really the Atoner all along, so kudos to Lasky’s script for outguessing me on that one. And while I do love the final punchline, sadly, it’s a case of too little, too late.

And spare a few thoughts for poor Jeanne Crain, the former Fox starlet, who once graced the screens in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), The Fan (1949), and A Letter to Three Wives (1949), one of my personal favorites. The Night God Screamed was her first feature in nearly a decade. And I don’t know if the kid gloves were due to working with a former ingenue like her, and she’s actually pretty great here, but it felt like some of those later water-downed thrillers of Ginger Rogers and Esther Williams. Honestly, I’d say the whole thing felt like a Made for TV Movie but Made for TV Movies from that era had a lot more teeth than this flick had, making this one a major disappointment even Jerry Gross couldn't save.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 14 reviews down with 12 to go! Up Next: Criswell predicts a lot of boobs and boobies are in your future, Boils and Ghouls, because the future is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives.

The Night God Screamed (1971) Lasky/Carlin Productions :: Cinemation Industries / P: Ed Carlin, Gil Lasky / D: Lee Madden / W: Gil Lasky / C: Stevan Larner / E: Mark Dennis / M: Don Vincent / S: Jeanne Crain, Alex Nicol, Dan Spelling, Michael Sugich, Barbara Hancock, Dawn Cleary, Gary Morgan, Stewart Bradley, Corinne Conley, James Sikking

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