The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The sixth entry into this disreputable canon is the sensational, ultra-Canadian, father-fucking murder fantasy, Julie Darling…
Alternate Title: Daughter of Death; Bad Blood
If the country’s often government-funded genre output of the '70s and '80s is any indication, Canada is a country of perpetual fall. The leaves are always floating in a flowing autumn breeze. Brown lakes lap the shores, frothily frigid. Children wear puffy jackets and knit scarves whilst barhopping twenty-somethings layer denim jackets atop flannel. It’d be dreary if it weren’t so cozy; that is until your driver-glove donning delivery boy tries to rape you after dropping off a case of Diet Pepsi. Producers like Ivan Reitman (whose House By the Lake is especially uncomfortable in this regard) staged ugly sexual violence under these red and orange maple canopies, portraying a good portion of the Canuck male population as being nothing more than foaming-at-the-mouth deviants, ready to violate any woman who doesn’t immediately give in to their basest human desires.
Maurice Smith, the co-writer and producer of Julie Darling, often traded in another variety of Canadian carnality. Master of the teen cheapie, Smith helped bring Screw Balls to the screen a mere year after fellow countryman Bob Clark cracked $100 million at the US box office with Porky’s. Canada quickly became a hotbed for period sex pictures after Clark’s peeping masterpiece, and Smith produced not only the first Screw Balls, but also the inferior sequel, the summer camp flesh fest, Oddballs, and the Police Academy knockoff, Recruits. But before he was capitalizing on juvenile hormones in order line his own pockets, Smith was churning out icky soft and hardcore like Love, Swedish Style and Delinquent School Girls; the latter of which features a trio of mental patients sexually assailing their way through an all-girls private school.
With Julie Darling, Smith unifies the two ends of the perv spectrum and packages them inside of a Lifetime movie (had Sam Peckinpah ever been alive and hired to drunkenly craft ninety minutes for the melodrama machine). Teaming up with director Paul Nicholas (who would go on to helm the nasty WIP picture, Chained Heat, the very same year), Smith disarms the audience with a judiciously paced potboiler. Julie Darling revolves around the titular sixteen-year-old (Isabelle Mejias), who at first is fascinated with her pet snake before desiring nothing more than to curl up in bed with her nebbish papa (Anthony Franciosa). This is one of the most peculiar coming of age pictures ever made, as it showcases a main character who not only embraces her taboo crush, but also her capacity for cruelty in service of knocking off anyone she perceives as standing in the way of who she wants. Julie is the ultimate psychotic daddy’s girl; wielding a hunting rifle and committing blackmail to ensure her witless father will be hers and hers alone.
Isabelle Mejias is a cherubic, Barrymore-esque nightmare as the incestuously pining princess. The young actress’ eyes are so big and round, making her seem innocent at all times; even as she watches her mother (Cindy Girling, in perhaps the most thankless role of all time) get violated and murdered by Weston (Paul Hubbard), the family’s delivery boy. However, where most movies would play this moment as a scarring ordeal, Smith and Nicholas instead utilize it as a pivotal turning point in young Julie’s evolving sociopathic essence. Without saying a word, Mejias is able to convey how Julie’s warped mind processes the violent crime. This was the woman who took away her prize boa constrictor, after all, so she got what she deserved. And without mommy around, she doesn’t need a snake, because she’ll have her daddy’s. Mejias’ performance is so still, odd, and strangely perfect, effortlessly conveying Julie’s decision to embrace the darkest parts of her undeveloped soul.
There’s some subtly intriguing design work going on when it comes to Julie as a character. Major emphasis is put on making Mejias look like delicate jailbait. The childish pajamas she wears never let you forget just how young she’s supposed to be. So when Smith and Nicholas insert the full-on wet dream Julie experiences while watching her father make love to his mistress, Susan (Sybil Danning), it’s that much more off-putting. This isn’t some twenty-something trying to act sixteen. This is a little girl experiencing carnal thoughts for the first time, involving folks she should never be fantasizing about. Yet however disturbing the sex in Julie Darling is, it achieves its unique level of ickiness through sly visual adeptness. Framing this suburban debauchery is cinematographer Miklós Lente (Happy Birthday to Me), who paints every interior with warm browns, accenting the fact that this is a safe haven turned sanctuary for perversion.
No matter how great Mejias is, the casting of Sybil Danning as Julie’s new stepmom might be the movie’s true masterstroke. The cult film sexpot is a perfect counterpoint to Mejias’ blossoming appetites, as she’s ravishingly beautiful and totally in control of her screen presence. The truth is found in Danning’s eyes – just as gigantic as Mejias’, only filled with experience instead of discovery. Danning injects a steadfast knowingness into every moment of Susan’s screen time. She senses that the little girl belonging to the man she loves is possibly a monster, and straddles a fine line between trying to accept Julie out of obligation while simultaneously protecting her own tiny son. Much like Mejias’, it’s a performance filled with tiny, silent gestures that all add up to one difficult, complex character. It’s amazing.
The final reel of Julie Darling descends into complete pulp thriller territory, as our new favorite murderess devises her most devious scheme to date in order to rid herself, once and for all, of any outside female presence. It’s the quite literal climax the movie’s been building toward the whole time; peppering in a series of small shocks to whet the audience’s appetite for depravity along the way. While Julie Darling is certainly a scandalous motion picture, it never feels like it’s straining to achieve its shudders. Smith and Nicholas keep you in a true state of suspense, desperately wanting to know just how awful their little fiend is going to become. This organic element is what sets the Canadian ode to familial sleaze apart from many other lurid, low budget thrillers of its ilk. Not a single note rings false, but you still feel incredibly dirty once the end credits roll.
*For an oral history of the Drafthouse’s beginnings, I’ll refer you to Zack McGhee’s wonderful “My Favorite Movie” Podcast, where he interviews old school DH programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, as well as current Wednesday night ringmaster, Laird Jimenez. They’re GREAT listens, full of knowledge, wit and insight.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Shanty Tramp