Thank You, John Hayes

Jacob praises the trash auteur.

This month at BMD, we’ve written a bunch about the films that mean the world to us. Phil caused everyone to cry by relaying memories of his dad and James Bond. Britt walked us through the movies that made her. Scott talked up Eyes Wide Shut, and how defending that picture became a somewhat strenuous critical wrestling match for a solid portion of his life. Evan fawned over Pulp Fiction. Andrew recalled growing up with First Contact. The homie Sam Zimmerman showcased how Halloween III taught him to be confident in his taste. Meredith praised Heathers“anti-cool” mantra. A big through-line in these pieces is how formative certain motion pictures can be. We latch onto films that change and stay with us through the entirety of our lives, each revisit acting as both a tiny personal time capsule, as well as an opportunity to re-evaluate what they mean to us now, years removed from those initial viewings.

Looking back over my own articles, I realized that I avoided this thematic application entirely. It wasn’t a cognizant decision, mind you; I don’t fancy myself a writer talented enough to look at the awesome roster I just listed and go “fuck that tide, I’m gonna swim against it.” Perks of Being a Wallflower was the closest to a “developmental” pick for me, but more because it was strongly reminiscent of my own adolescence. I didn’t start seriously watching Chuck Norris movies (well, as seriously as one can watch those things) until a few years ago. Miami Vice is a work I consider seminal, though that’s more because I see it as a contextual pinnacle of achievement for one of my favorite artists. Yet that movie wasn’t even released until I was twenty-four years old. So why the hell did I pick those pictures to write about?

The only real explanation I can offer is that I’ve always been more of a “rabbit hole” viewer than a fiend for re-visitation. Sure, I could explain why Jaws or Videodrome are some of the greatest films ever made (and how I first encountered both), but you all know that (via the barrels of electronic and tangible ink that have already been spilled over them). As I get older, my favorite aspect of movie watching is discovering my next favorite weirdness well, diving headfirst, and then relentlessly evangelizing. Because regardless of whether you’re looking to the past (which is something I do quite often) or perusing the present, there is no shortage of outlandish pockets you can open up to discover the next oddity that drives you absolutely wild. If I’m being completely honest, this is what I’m most thankful for as a film fan: the simple fact that I’ll never be all caught up. Until I die, there will be a massive text for me to devour, ready to spread the Good Word regarding the next Celluloid God I stumble across.

Which brings me to John Hayes. It’s somewhat difficult to dig up a whole lot of material regarding the trash auteur’s personal backstory, as little has been published about his grotesquely fascinating body of work. Born in New York on March 1, 1930, Hayes started off as a producer and director in the '50s, earning himself a Best Live Action Short Academy Award nomination for The Kiss in 1959. Though he didn’t win, Hayes used the nod to springboard into feature filmmaking with The Grass Eater in 1961 – an odd, difficult to find melodrama in which a salacious lothario (Paul Leder) pursues another man’s wife (Rue McClanahan, of eventual Golden Girls fame) just to prove what a bunk institution marriage really is. For the early '60s, this was shocking, sexy stuff; predicting the rest of the writer/producer/director’s wild career in rather grand fashion.

During the '60s and '70s, Hayes went on a tear, producing everything from WWII potboilers (like Shell Shock in 1964), weirdo rednecksploitation (The Farmer’s Other Daughter in 1965), lurid, hippie horror (1970’s Dream No Evil), and skeevy crime stories (1973’s Bust Out). Often creeping up just over feature length (75 – 80 minutes is often all Hayes needed to relay ribald reveries), his movies were drive-in and dive fare, made for a crowd of deviants just looking for their entertainment to hit certain scandalous beats. But Hayes had something of a savant’s eye for smut – often stopping his personal pictures dead in their tracks for a strip sequence or bout of hot lesbian love. He had the sensibility of a sexploitation huckster, as no matter what subgenre he was working in, Hayes would find a way to work in a ton of T&A. This lends his filmography a rather hostilely perverted feel – suitable only for hardcore heads. There’s no room here for ironic Room or Manos onlookers, dipping a virgin toe into choppy, exploitive waters. This is pure trash sincerity, and on that shit pile John Hayes is the crowned king.

Unfortunately, Hayes died of cancer in 2000, but left behind an inventory of insanity that is ripe for rediscovery. While it’s fun to celebrate the one or two-off cinematic oddballs like Craig Denney, Duke Mitchell, YK Kim or John Rad, Hayes was somehow able to keep raising funds in order to send these sleazy transmissions out into the world. The result is a collection of true outsider art, unified by a unique, warped worldview. So come partake in the activity I’m most thankful for as a film fan – the ability to discover newfangled wormholes into an alternate, cum-stained dimension. But be warned – this is a point of no return in terms of basic human decency. For John Hayes was a true visionary – beaming off pieces of his sex-obsessed brain via 35 and 16mm for all to witness and renounce.

The Hang Up [1969] (w. John Hayes)

Possibly the best all-around picture Hayes ever made, this Bad Lieutenant precursor may be the easiest entry point when approaching the multi-hyphenate’s brand of disreputable cinema. Relentless in its depiction of Sgt. Robert Walsh (Tony Vorno) – the racist, homophobic center of this inhuman universe, The Hang Up opens with a bust inside of a “performance-based” LGBT lounge (the patrons of which our Glenn Ford-looking hero is sworn to destroy), and only gets more demonstrably uncomfortable as it chugs along. Yet it isn’t until this nasty cop decides he’s going to settle down with a teenage prostitute (Sharon Matt) that we get a clear indication of the corrupt moral core Hayes is probing with a shit-smeared stick. This is a movie about toxic vice, and the way our addictions (idealistic, hedonistic and otherwise) undo us in the long run. Oppressively nihilistic, and undeniably hellish in its backward views on…well, pretty much everything, The Hang Up is a runaway juggernaut, ready to maim and murder any who disagree with its spit in your face take on those who wear a badge and a gun. Alternately anti-authoritarian and empathetic, The Hang Up is a genre paradox, never giving you a straight answer as it dodges your numerous interrogations.

The Cut-Throats [1969] (w. John Hayes)

If you ever watched Inglourious Basterds and thought “what this movie could really use is a scene where Eli Roth drinks wine out of a prostitute’s butt crack”, then The Cut-Throats is unquestionably going to be your jam. One part “men on a mission” action cheapie; one part Nazisploitation sex romp; one part bleak, nihilistic treatise on absolute corruption – John Hayes’ WWII picture seems like it was shot using some old tenement buildings in the Valley (the windows of which he covered with giant swastika flags). Playing out like The Dirty Half-Dozen, we follow a handful of soldiers as they descend upon a Nazi “stronghold” (said pair of apartments), in order to snatch plans detailing an upcoming blitzkrieg. After killing the shit out of “every German son of a bitch” in sight, these lumpy GIs discover a secret brothel, its inhabitants ready and willing to strip naked and please the men (in some cases, as a trap to punish the marauding pigs). Definitely the ickiest non-hardcore title on this list, The Cut-Throats might be best saved for after you’ve decided whether or not Hayes’ X-rated genre sensibilities are for you. But if you do decide to sit down with this 75-minute trip into fetishistic hell, be prepared to watch one of these Third Reich ladies of the night squat down on a Commander’s feet and begin performing an act that would make Tarantino groan in delight. This is primo unpleasantness, complete with a brutal, kill ‘em all ending that leaves you wondering just what the hell any of it means.

Sweet Trash [1970] (w. John Hayes)

If Arthur Miller didn’t marry Marilyn Monroe, developed a debilitating coke addiction, and hung out at Denny’s with derelicts until all hours of the morning during the mid-to-late '60s, then Sweet Trash may have been the type of lurid tale he would’ve written after Death of a Salesman and his other masterworks. A filmic carpet stain in the Thunderbird Motel, Sweet Trash follows numerous debt collector/hitmen types who take orders from a super computer regarding whose time has come to pay the piper. Their next target: an alcoholic longshoreman (Duncan McLeod) who, after racking up $6000 in debt at a card game, goes on a drunken, surreal adventure through both his scummy environment and private memories (led by a Puerto Rican neighbor-woman who becomes a mystical guide). Hayes seems to be working through some issues with this one, never once letting his foot off the gas as he speeds down a diseased alleyway, stopping only to take in the occasional stripper (whose acts are loosely “choreographed” into Greek Chorus showcases) and digressions involving an effeminate crime boss. It’s somewhat hard to decipher whether or not these artistic decisions were the result of economic compromise or carefully planned personal expression, but none of that really matters. Sweet Trash is a crime picture unlike any you’ve ever witnessed – from the Argento pink motel carpet, to the constant sweat stains underneath our blue-collar protagonist’s pits. The devil is in these palpable details, and may be laughing in our collective face as we try to make heads or tails of the deep thoughts Hayes is endeavoring to communicate.

Grave of the Vampire [1972] (w. David Chase)

Written by future Sopranos creator David Chase (who acted as a production coordinator on The Cut-Throats), and starring regular exploitation lug William Smith (Darker Than Amber), Grave of the Vampire is possibly the only Nosferatu tale in which the titular creature of the night doesn’t create another of its kind by biting a human on the neck, but rather by injecting it with sperm. Fans of similar trash like Count Yorga, Vampire will find a bunch to love here, as Hayes transforms the mythical beast into a runaway rapist, his seed living on to grow into another fanged bloodsucker. Suitably grim, yet not as explicit as the other pictures on this list (I guess this is the John Hayes movie you could watch with your grandma?), Chase’s adaptation of his own novel leaves out a whole lot of exposition, thus leading to a kind of nightmare trance. Nevertheless, the sexual content in this low rent Dracula goofiness is enough to give any sensible person the heebie-jeebies, all while Smith blusters about, kicking in doors and raging against the oppressive forces of the night. Yet another example that Hayes was a true trash auteur – never shying away from any sleaze entry point.

Baby Rosemary [1976] (w. Ruth Price & Virgil Rome)

Following a near decade long stint of mixing sexploitation into any and all story constructs he could, it was only natural that Hayes would eventually begin directing hardcore fuck films. Yet like a lot of '70s pornography, Hayes wasn’t simply interested in penetration, oral sex and everything in-between. Porn again becomes a vessel, through which Hayes could explore his usual themes of repression and societal denial. From the opening title card –warning the audience that the government is essentially trying to ban sexy movies instead of fighting crime on the street – Baby Rosemary is a XXX assault on prudish decency passed down through generations. Directing under a nom de skin (“Howard Perkins”, which is a variation of the “Harold Perkins” he’d been using since ’69), Hayes’ titular sexless single in the city embarks upon an erotic journey, through which she learns that everyone (from her pent up boyfriend, to the owners of the funeral parlor where her dead father sleeps for eternity) indulges in some good ol’ fashioned deviancy every now and again. Its all very lumpy, hairy and surreal – complete with a revelation that Rosemary’s boyfriend is a regular of a specialty prostitute who has a closet full of Rosemary outfits he fucks her in. Nasty and mean, it’s the bottom of this particular fleapit; a veritable “dead end” picture that signals you’ve gone as far as you can with this specific smut peddler’s filmography. Though it’s one of several adult films Hayes made during the '70s (including writing Champagne for Breakfast for fellow sleaze auteur Chris Warfield), only the truly devoted are going to sit down with something this icky and perverted; a secret handshake you’ve earned through filmic exploration.

All of these titles (save for Grave of the Vampire) are available now through Vinegar Syndrome releasing.