Tag Archive: Michelle Clifford

ginger_posterThis month (March) is the 43rd anniversary of the premier of the first of Cheri Caffaro‘s three Ginger movies.  (The others being The Abductors (1972) and Girls Are For Loving (1973). Caffaro’s Ginger is known as one of the more amoral and cynical sexploitation heroines of that decade, according to author Randall Clark’s At a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The History, Culture, and Politics of the American Exploitation Film, which is why we still love these films. Being shot in Jersey and the subpar interior set design up the sleaze factor in this flick, making it an annual watch for me.

Ginger was the brainchild of director Don Schain, who started as director of the softcore flick The Love Object, starring future pornstar Kim Pope. His idea for Ginger, according to Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford in The Sleazoid Express, was “taking a female character and putting her in a role that was traditionally reserved for a man.”  In this case, that character was a cross between a female James Bond and a contract killer. Ginger is also known for having one the first male full frontal nude scenes, and for having gay pornstar Casey Donovan in a supporting role. 


Caffaro, the “legendary cult movie star” has left the building

Cheri Caffaro had a too brief career in which the Ginger films appeared to be her high water mark.  On her own–apparently abandoned–website she calls herself a “legendary cult movie star” which seems several orders of magnitude more than what she was. She and Schain ended up married for ten years, divorcing at some point in the early 1980s. That the film was promoted in the manner of porno chic–big bold ads with lots of innuendo–was cause for a bit of nervousness for Caffaro, but that was apparently wiped away when it did so well.  Ginger was a top-50 film for 1971.

Today, Caffaro’s pretty much disappeared back into private life away from show business.  Schain is still active as a producer for Disney Channel saccharine sweet TV movies–he brought us all three High School Musical dreck.  I think I speak for everyone when I say that I prefer the older stuff.

spaghettibannerI’m very happy to help fellow cinema aficionado Nitrate Diva in this year’s Italian Film Culture Blogathon, but it is a bit intimidating to take on a subject that so many have already taken on.  For instance, we should note at the outset Cannibal Holocaust started the “found footage” genre–with later examples being Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project.  Many, many cinema bloggers have taken up the film, and to try and find something new to say about Cannibal Holocaust seems a tall order indeed.

The consensus is that this film is one of–if not the most–violent and exploitive films ever produced.  It is rumored that there is a much longer version out there, but this 96-minute version is more than sufficient.  Despite the title on the video, this version is dubbed into English, and there are no Spanish subtitles:

This epic revolves around the viewing of found footage from an ill-fated journalistic expedition to South America to find cannibalistic tribes.  Ratings-hungry studio execs are looking to a local anthropologist who recovered the film to make a documentary of the ill-fated expedition.  The anthropologist, played by hardcore porn veteran Robert Kerman (NSFW), urges the execs to cool their heels until he shows them all of the found footage.  Once they see the intrepid journalists engaged in all manner of depravity towards the flora, fauna, and inhabitants of the jungle–including a couple acts that could be legitimately prosecuted as war crimes if our explorers were military folks instead of journalists–and then get their just reward in the final scene, the head honcho exec orders the footage burned, and Kerman wonders who the real “savages ” are–the white explorers laying waste to all they encounter, or the brown “primitives.”  This last bit is the key to the whole film, and offers a sort of weak rationale for why this films is so violent.

Robert Kerman in Cannibal Holocaust

Robert Kerman in Cannibal Holocaust

The film is most notorious for the scenes of the journalists killing animals–these were real, not staged; in all 6 animals were killed on film.  In the most infamous scene a large turtle is caught, beheaded, totally dissected and finally eaten by the actors.  Also, a pig is shot, and a coatimundi (often mistaken for a monkey) is also killed on camera and consumed.  The actors were not aware animals were going to be killed on set, and the incident with the coatimundi nearly caused a mass walkout by the cast–until they remembered they were miles and miles from anywhere.  The lead journalist–Alan Yates, played by Carl Gabriel Yorke–refused to speak publicly about his role in this film for 25 years.

This sort of activity filled the set with tension, as you might guess: Kerman refused to have anything to do with killing the pig, and privately according to Clifford and Landis, Kerman said later of director Ruggero Deodato “The guy is a real sadist.”  Kerman prayed that God would punish Deodato and the movie would flop. Clifford and Landis concluded: “It says something when a director can drive an actor who’s been desensitized by years in the sex industry to prayers of destruction.”  For Deodato’s part, he often says that he grew up in the countryside and has a different relationship with animals than cityfolk.  But it’s hard to imagine that someone with simply a different relationship to the animal kingdom would go as far as he did–to the point where much of the cast was wretching in the jungle off camera.  Says Deodato:

[People] don’t make the connection between the food on the table that mummy has cooked from the supermarket, and the fact the animal has actually been killed. When you go to a Third World country people kill animals. I saw pigs and rabbits being killed growing up on a country farm when I was young. My son has not seen this because times have changed, he hasn’t had the experiences I have, for him it all comes pre-packed.

This seems a pretty weak argument for what we see in the film, and strikes me as unconvincing.  Deodato makes the point that his film is about casual acceptance of violence–if he were serious about that, I would expect to hear more about that, rather than this bit on having a different relationship to the animal kingdom when I was a kid…

Director Ruggero Deodato on set of CH.

Director Ruggero Deodato on set of CH.

The film, to the degree it has a moral center, revolves around the question of “who is the real ‘savage’?”  Deodato often takes to the convention circuit and gives us his rationale.  Mainly, this film was a response to the casual acceptance of horrific levels of violence in contemporary society.  In a 2011 interview he mentions the actual Holocaust as one example, and in another conducted by his son in 1998–(part one; part two) he explains: he was appalled at media coverage of Red Brigade political violence and terrorism in Italy in the 1970s.  Specifically, how the media of the day was stepping all over one another–and victims of the violence–to get the most salacious stories of suffering on the air.  That’s interesting, and this rationale brings to mind works like Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, but I’m not sure how it explains what others saw as pure sadism on set.

But this comparison may overthink CH‘s rationale.  The disparity between an artistic meditation on apathy towards violence and a movie that was designed as a receptacle simply to put successive acts of extreme violence on film seems too much to overcome–and suggests the debate we see every time Quentin Tarantino releases a film: is it art or is it trash?  With CH there is also the matter of it being an alleged snuff film–that the violence in the final scene was so realistic as the cannibals set upon the journalists that a court was going to charge Deodato with murder.  To drum up publicity, he made the cast not appear in other films or the press, which helped give the illusion that he had indeed created a snuff film. This sort of thing does not strike me as something someone trying to make an artistic examination of the role of excessive violence in our society–it sounds like publicity stunts or perhaps performance art.  It all seems a bit much to start comparing CH  with works like Apocalypse Now, and I doubt any amount of  retroactive rationales or rehab will bring Deodato and Cannibal Holocaust into the realm of art, but it will remain a solid hit with the cult exploitation film community, as well as those who can’t look away, for some time.

Bhaskar as "Horace Bones"

Bhaskar as “Horace Bones”

The first thing you need to know about Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury (1930-2003)–satanist hippie cult leader in “I Drink Your Blood” was that he was a master hoofer. His specialty were the dances of his native India, and he had his own dance company, taught these dances at the university level, and was a celebrated choreographer–these talents were Bhaskar’s career: IDYB was a bit of a fun one-off, and something he probably didn’t see as playing any part in his legacy, even though it was his best known role on film.

One can read the high points of Bhaskar’s career on his IMDB page, but as is often the case with actors in exploitation cinema, this does not do nearly enough justice to his career.  It’s too bad that most references to Bhaskar–either online or in print–mention the great performance he turned in for IDYB and then simply regurgitate IMDB without probing any deeper.  To get beyond a simple listing of his film appearances, I tracked down someone who can help us get to know Bhaskar a little better–my contact worked with Bhaskar in the 1970s.  The association also gave her some insight into the parts of his life that are gaps for the usual sources of info and showed some areas where these sources appear incomplete.

Baskhar and Candace in a 1976 publicity shot

Baskhar and Candace in a 1976 publicity shot

My contact for the project of getting to know Bhaskar a bit better is Candace Hibbard Lillie, now living in Oklahoma.  37 years ago, about 6 years after IDYB was released, Candace was Bhaskar’s dance partner in his dance company–Bhaskar: Dances of India–and came to know him and his story pretty well.  I noticed her website dedicated to the dance company as I started researching this post, and I started e-mailing her with questions, which she was all too happy (I think) to answer.

Sri Bhaskar Burmin Roy Chowdhury Jr., was born into an elite family in Madras, India that was deeply involved in the arts.  His father was a painter, and his mother–an actual princess says Candace–encouraged Bhaskar to sing and dance.  He also had a short-lived boxing career, but a match with someone called “Tiger Terry” cost him his front teeth and that particular career path.

In the mid-1950s Bhaskar emigrated to the US, became a citizen, and was involved in several touring dance companies before starting his own.  Candace tells me that in 1956 he had a small uncredited part in a TV musical version of Marco Polo that starred the legendary Broadway actor Alfred Drake in the leading role.  Bhaskar was a comparative religion major in college, and married an American woman, who died very shortly afterwards of heart failure.

Within his dance companies, Bhaskar taught dancers, and he also occasionally taught in colleges, and held classes at the former Jerry Leroy Studio.  Bhasker suspected that Jack “the father of theatrical jazz dance” Cole (1911-1974) stole some of his moves that he taught at Jerry LeRoy’s place, which shut its doors in 2008 after 73 years as a dance studio.  Here is perhaps where is real legacy is seen: dancers he trained on a pro bono basis, often in their homes.  Leading directly to careers made.  Bhaskar was a hard teacher, but as many said of him at his funeral in 2004:

This man was impossible, he drove me crazy, he drank way too much, he worked me harder than anyone ever had before. Giving freely of himself, he taught me at no charge, put me on the stage, and I owe him more than I can ever say.

Bhaskar dancing as Brahma in "The Creation of Woman"

Bhaskar dancing as Brahma in “The Creation of Woman”

Bhaskar got his start in film in 1960 by choreographing and starring in “The Creation of Woman”–Indian creation myths, with some Christian elements as well–set to dance.  Bhaskar was already on top of his game and one gets the sense that securing him for the film was something of a coup for film producer Ismail Merchant.  The film, a 14-minute short, was nominated for best short at both Cannes and at the Oscars in 1961, but didn’t score either award.

The film is also notable for being the backdrop–during its run at Cannes–for the introduction of Merchant and American film director James Ivory, (who went on to helm A Room With a View, Howard’s Endand The Remains of the Dayamong many others) who, together established Merchant Ivory Productions, which developed more than 50 films, often set in India and/or period pieces like the above films for the next 40 years, earning 6 Oscars in the process.

DVD cover for "Pratidwandi," known internationally as "The Adversary"

DVD cover for “Pratidwandi,” known internationally as “The Adversary”

Back to Bhaskar, the decade after The Creation of Woman  was spent back at his dance company, but he returned to film in 1970 with a trio of films, The Epitaph, The Adversary, and of course, I Drink Your Blood.  The Epitaph is an Indian film which I cannot readily find much information, except that it too was nominated for best short film at Cannes 1970.

The Adversary, on the other hand was directed by the great Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) and this film was the first of his “Calcutta Trilogy,” looking at social and spiritual malaise in urban India after colonialism and the partitioning of India and Pakistan.  Ray was a major influence on the Merchant Ivory films, and Ray’s early (1967) screenplay The Alien was copied and revised so many times in the Hollywood machine that it arguably became the basis of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.  (An argument Spielberg denies.)

Mark LaRoche's head!

Mark LaRoche’s head!

So, with a promising film career and already well established dance career, what would possess Bhaskar to seek out a role in a movie like I Drink Your Blood?  Candace seems to think Bhaskar ran into David Durston socially and/or Bhaskar needed the money.  Either way, Bhaskar did not consider IDYB to be any part of his artistic legacy.  Mainly, this was a fun break for him.

Turning to Bhaskar’s private life, in 1960, a few years after his wife passed away, Bhaskar became involved with Mark LaRoche, who had a bit role in I Drink Your Blood–mainly as a model for the severed head tossed around in the finale–and was so for the rest of his life.  Candace says Bhaskar and Mark were “married” in 1960–I’m not sure what that means most of a decade before Stonewall, but I take the point that they had a loving, committed relationship that stood the test of time, even if Mark’s head literally rolled in one movie.  As an aside–in a post full of asides–we may note other homosexual couples in the broader story here: I Drink Your Blood director David Durston was in a longterm relationship with John DiBello (also known as “Jack Damon,” who must be the “John Damon” playing “Roger Davis” in the film?)  Landis and Clifford in Sleazoid Express talk about a “gay sensibility” Durston brought to the imagery of IDYB.  Ismail Merchant and James Ivory of Merchant Ivory were also a longterm gay couple.

Bhaskar had three more film roles: in 1971 he teamed up again with Durston in Blue Sextet, in 1972 he was the male lead in the Bollywood film, Trisandhya.  More specific information on these two films is hard to come by, it seems.  In 1978 Bhaskar had a bit part in Ghar, another Bollywood film, this one about a couple dealing with emotional issues in the aftermath of the wife’s rape.

Tragedy struck Bhaskar on October 25, 1977 when he was rehearsing for a dance performance at Purdue University and took a 35-foot fall and was paralyzed from the waist down for the remaining 26 years of his life.  He lived for a while at New York City’s Rusk  Institute, and then went back to his apartment in The Big Apple’s Upper West Side.  He did one performance from his wheelchair, but for a man who never let others even see him brush his teeth, he found the idea of performing from the chair humiliating, and would not permit himself to become anyone’s object of pity.  After his accident, he won his lawsuit against Purdue, he took to painting, wrote (but did not publish) a children’s book.  He died in 2003 at the age of 74.

Bhaskar in his later years.

Bhaskar in his later years.

Next up in this series, the life of Jadin Wong.  But before that, some comments on Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox for Nitrate Diva’s blogathon on Italian cinema.

Durston on the set of IDYB, 1969.

Durston on the set of IDYB, 1969.  Source.

We all know Durston, who passed away a couple years back at the age of 88, as the director of I Drink Your Blood.  But what else did he do?  In this post, I want to share a bit of what I found from rooting around to give a fair shake to Durston’s film career.  I’m not sure I’m any closer to feeling like I understand the man, but giving a little more on his body of work he left us is hopefully a step in the right direction.  Limiting to feature films–as opposed to his radio and TV credits (a comprehensive list of these contributions here)–in the thirty years ending in 1994, Durston acted, wrote, directed, produced or edited not quite a dozen films, from exploitation fare as in IDYB, by far his most famous film, to gay hardcore porn.  Not the most prolific career, but an interesting one, to be sure.

Some say of Durston, reflecting on films such as Stigma (1972), Blue Sextet (1970), and Felicia (1964), let alone Manhole (1978) and Boy-Napped (1975), that he, in the words of Classic TV History Blog “seems to have been one of those figures who hovered on the fringes of the movie industry for decades, carving out a marginal career with an energy that surpassed his talent.”  While Stephen Thrower, author of Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (FAB Press, 2007) remembers Durston in a much more positive light.  Both could well be true.

According to Randall Rutledge‘s problematic book, From Movie City to Music City USA: My Journey through Showbiz and how it Works [sic] (Magic Valley Publishers, 2008), Durston started as journalism major in Missouri, but ended up a contract player in George Cukor’s Winged Victory in 1944.  Durston’s IMDB entry, which contains a lot less work and awards than Rutledge claims he accomplished–Durston did not earn seven Emmys, for example–says he was also in the cast of Winged Victory’s Broadway production.  He worked as a writer and producer on a couple of radio and television shows in the 1950s (Navy Log, Your Hit Parade), presumably learning various jobs behind the camera.

il_570xN.140569380Durston took the helm of several films in the 1960s.  First up was Felicia in 1964, but since it was not released in the US, not much info about it is readily available.  It did have a novelization (see bookcover, right) by the very prolific Michael Avallone (writing as Mark Dane), and probably the first film role by a young–he’d have been about 24 at the time–Raul Julia.  The lead was played by Louise Allbritton.

ab_251430_0_TheLoveStatueLSD was the topic of his next film, The Love Statue, in 1965. This was an early exploitation movie about the drug, and Durston actually dropped acid (under the watch of a physician) to get a better feel for his subject matter.  The name of the film was changed from The Love Drug to The Love Statue when newspapers of the day would not run ads with the former name.  In 1967 Durston directed the English dubbed version of the pathbreaking 1964 Turkish film Susuz yaz (also known as “Dry Summer,” or sometimes as “Reflections”).  However, Durston did not have anything to do with the original making of this one.

This brings us to I Drink Your Blood in 1970, which I won’t dwell on much here since I talked about it at length last time.  This film was inspired by a couple things on Durston’s mind: an article about a rabies outbreak abroad, the then-recent Manson murders, and tales from a friend who’d just emerged from a cult. These fun little vignettes come together in IDYB.  For more information on IDYB’s history, especially on the existence of several different cuts and its cult status, see Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana (McFarland, 2008).

The next year, Durston put out The Blue Sextet, a vampire movie starring two actors from I Drink Your Blood–Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury and John Damon.  The latter was also a producer for The Blue Sextet. Blue Sextet

In 1972, Durston’s other moderately famous film, Stigma  came out, which launched the short career of Phillip Michael Thomas, as a physician suffering horrible racist slurs while treating a super duper virulent STD in a small town:

Another I Drink Your Blood actor makes an appearance in this one: Rhonda Fultz (the pregnant and inexplicably bewigged “Molly” in IDYB)

From here, Durston’s career as a filmmaker goes into its swan song. Durston had “always had a hand in the specialized and insular netherworld of gay hardcore porn,” according to Landis and Clifford’s indispensable book, Sleazoid Express (2002).  Durston wrote and directed these last couple films under the name “Spencer Logan” and/or “David Ransom.”  In 1975 he made Boy-napped! a hardcore gay porn film starring the late Jamie Gillis-who, as it happened, passed away just a few months before Durston in 2010.  In 1978 another gay hardcore film Manhole was made, also with Gillis.  Landis and Clifford say this last film was called Manhold, not Manhole, as IMDB has it, and that it was not released because one of the cast members got a role in Escape from Alcatraz, and the association with gay hardcore would have been bad for this unspecified person’s career, as well as for Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster.  At any rate, I don’t have much elaboration on Durston’s apparent long relationship in this  “insular netherworld” of the cinema world.  Durston seems to have left cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, returning only in 1994 as the editor of Hard Drive, an independently produced softcore flick.

There’s not enough information here to get a sense of Durston as an individual, nor much about his legacy.  So to jump to the conclusion that Durston “seems to have been one of those figures who hovered on the fringes of the movie industry for decades, carving out a marginal career with an energy that surpassed his talent” seems too harsh, especially since most accounts of him dwell on his cult hit I Drink Your Blood, and them list out his other work without saying anything more about Durston or his work.  Hopefully, I’ll find more info to fill in some of the gaps here.

Next time,  I’ll see what I can find about IDYB’s main tour de force, Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury, who passed away in 2003.

Long Live “I Drink Your Blood”

PDVD_275This is one of my all-time favorite exploitation movies.  It really has it all–a good sampling of exploitation tropes, quirky casting decisions, and lots of graphic footage.  If the exploitation bug has bitten you only recently, this is a good film to start with.  It was also one of the first films to be rated X for violence, not sex.

The crux of the film is that the van of nihilistic satanist hippies–how likely is that?–breaks down in a small town, our merry bunch make pests out of themselves.  A young kid in the only moment of greatness in his life decides to lace their food with rabies-infected dog blood as revenge for the beatdown–and acid–the hippies gave Grandpa.  The hippies eat the bad food, which has an odd interaction with the copious amounts of acid they’ve already taken onboard, and they emerge as mindless, zombie-like monsters who, despite their mindlessness, have the uncanny ability–bordering on on a superpower–of finding the nearest blade and going after the others of their group or townsfolk.  The only thing to do is to put them down like the mad dogs they are.

This film comes and goes on YouTube.  It was there a couple years back, then removed.  It was posted again in late April 2013, but was removed less than a month afterwards. It has recently (26 April 2013) been again reposted in its entirety.  But it has been reliably available at Daily Motion. The version below appears to be nearer the 86-minute director’s cut, as opposed to the 77-minute version that’s also out there:

The second half of the movie, the hippies as mindless zombies half, is “a blatant a blatant bid to ride Night of the Living Dead’s cult coattails,” in the words of Joe Kane. Being derivative does not make this flick any less enjoyable, thankfully.  But not everyone seems to have thought so. When this film appeared as a double feature with Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, Craven’s son was teased in school.

Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford say of this film, I Drink Your Blood is the pinnacle of the blood horror movie.  It’s fast, unrelentingly violent, and sexually explicit, dishing out a new shock every few minutes.”  All true, but what I like about this film is that it is a kind of exploitation “sampler.”  Consider all these tropes: the then- (and in some places, still-) current stereotypes of country bumpkins (“hixploitation“), as our small town residents are not at all prepared for the trouble our satanist hippies bring with them.  Then, there are our hippies themselves,  as the film relentless describes them as being a dangerous subculture.  It’s also obviously exploits the recent Charles Manson murders, as pointed out by both Landis and Clifford and Kim Newman.  Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury, playing the hippies’ leader “Horace Bones” plays up the unpredictable nihilism that reminds us very much of a more comprehensible version of Charles Manson.

Jadin Wong getting a blood facial

Jadin Wong getting a blood facial

We also see exploitation of Asians in the presence and behavior of the character of Sue-Lin, a silent, malevolent Asian woman.  Her presence and demise by self-immolation is unnecessary to move the story forward; her death exploits images that were then not too distant memories of the war in Southeast Asia of silent Buddhist monks making the same decision.  The most peculiar casting decision is Jadin Wong as the aforementioned Sue-Lin.  Wong, who would have turned 100 years old this year (she passed away in 2010 at age 96) was already a mainstream star, having gotten her start in show business at a young age, and entertained troops in Europe during World War II.  Wong was a pioneer of Asian-American women in entertainment, but only made ten movies as an actress.  Her real mark was as an agent for younger Asian-American actors and actresses for nearly a half century.  In 2004 the US House of Representatives and President George W. Bush recognized Wong for her 70+ years in show business and her cultural contributions.  All this does not add up to Wong taking a role in a low budget exploitation flick.

By this point, I’m way over-thinking this movie, so it’s probably best I end here.  This is an excellent exploitation flick that has a bit of everything in it, and is worth 83 minutes of your precious time.

This post was modified: removed dead YouTube link and added a line about IDYB coming and going on YouTube. (28 May 2013).