There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The sixty-seventh entry into this unbroken backlog is the unsettling Southern Gothic hicksploitation shocker, Poor Pretty Eddie...
Liz Wetherly – Tony Award Winner Leslie Uggams (Hallelujah, Baby!) – is a pop singer you might just see “on the TV”. Or, at least, that's how many of the characters in Poor Pretty Eddie ('75) (a/k/a Black Vengeance and Redneck County Rape) would put it. After finishing a performance of the National Anthem at a football game, Liz promptly gets on the road, looking for a little rest and relaxation away from the spotlight. Unfortunately, she gets her “off the beaten path” wish after her car breaks down on a dirt road, leaving her to seek out rescue on foot.
Stumbling across Bertha’s Oasis – a hole in the wall shit box of a motel and bar – the singer meets Keno (Ted Cassidy, a/k/a Lurch from The Addams Family), a hideous looking hick chopping the heads off chickens. Keno tells Liz he knows a man who can help with her vehicular troubles, and takes her to Eddie (Michael Chastain), a lecherous Elvis impersonator who runs the rest stop with Bertha (Shelley Winters), his older, overweight, ex-burlesque star girlfriend. It's been a while since Eddie's seen a pretty thing like Liz, and suddenly this backwoods King isn't sure he's ever going to let her leave.
Poor Pretty Eddie establishes its oppressively skeevy atmosphere from the get go, playing like a strange, racially-charged cousin to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ('74). This film isn’t about terrifying you in a traditional sense; rather, it wants to get under your skin and make you squirm at all the wholly uncomfortable situations Liz gets dragged into. This is "cringe" horror of the highest order, guaranteed to leave you feeling like you need to shower off your body as soon as the credits roll. From the way co-directors Richard Robinson and David Worth – the latter of whom was only credited on the "soft" Heartbreak Motel cut of the picture – leer at the diva's figure, to the slow motion violence that caps the climax (cranked down to a frame rate that would make Sam Peckinpah blush), everything about Poor Pretty Eddie is meant to rub your face in its wanton cruelty, never letting up until that final cut to black.
Believe it or not, Poor Pretty Eddie was planned as a crossover project for one of its primary producers, Atlanta porno king and alleged gangster Michael Thevis. At the height of his reign, Thevis was reportedly responsible for nearly half the smut in the United States, and owned over 400 sex shops and X-rated theaters, a kingdom he conquered by whacking several of his competitors. Knowing he needed a legitimate revenue stream through which he could clean his ill-gotten gains, Thevis began investing his money into movies. Seeing how he already owned Cinematics – a manufacturer of peepshow booths – as well as music distribution firm General Recording Corporation (GRC), this branch of showbiz only seemed logical.
Turns out, making mainstream movies is a bit harder than churning out fodder for trench coat castles. The XXX lifer first invested in the US distribution of Chinese chop-socky schlock, Blood of the Dragon ('73). After that, he produced the Western comedy The Last Stop ('73), which was never actually released (due to never being completed). Rumor has it, Thevis also funneled money into Oliver Stone's initial trip behind the camera – the nightmarish Seizure! ('74) – before setting his sights on Poor Pretty Eddie.
While Thevis had been toiling away to no avail, director Robinson and cinematographer Worth – a production duo that had previously made a name for themselves helming softcore diversions such as Adultery for Fun and Profit ('71) – had completed production on the Western farce To Hell You Preach ('72). Knowing Thevis from the sex scene (and seeing an opportunity in his "straight” ambitions) they approached the producer with a script they owned, which was penned by TV regular B.W. Sandefur (The Virginian). Thus, Poor Pretty Eddie was born, and Chastain (who co-starred in To Hell You Preach) came along for the bumpy ride.
Chastain is hypnotic as Eddie, who also has big dreams in life, and doesn’t want to stay shackled to Bertha’s washed up heart forever. He wants to be a singer himself, and knows Liz from the idiot box, becoming fixated on her as a way out of his boondocks life, away from the fetishistic relationship he shares with Bertha. Eddie introduces Liz to the rest of his buckwheat clan via a subdued version of the infamous "dinner scene" from Chain Shaw. Slim Pickens plays the local troll of a sheriff, who is always inexplicably followed around by a mentally handicapped man with a slingshot. During the meal, Eddie performs for Liz, and everyone but the current star is blown away by his croon. Yet this low-rent Elvis is going to prove his manhood to her, one way or the other.
In what’s easily one of the most grotesque sequences in exploitation history, Eddie rapes Liz while wearing his favorite teal rhinestone shirt. To add insult to the audience’s injury, Robinson and Worth intercut a super slo-mo sequence of Keno breeding hounds (complete with full-on dog penetration) into the brutal sexual assault. If that’s not enough to make you run for the theater exits, the filmmakers zoom in on shots of backwoods inbreds, who treat the dogs fucking as the most entertaining thing they’ve seen in months. Upon finishing with Liz, Eddie places a tender kiss on his victim’s lips, like a newly blessed husband would gift his wife on their honeymoon. Trying to parse any sort of subtext here is damn near a fool's errand, as the discordant barrage of stomach-churning images causes sheer revulsion, eclipsing any semblance of artistic intent beyond pure punishment.
You'd think one all-timer cringe set piece would be enough, but the racially-charged moments of unrepentant discomfort continue. Another scene has Liz going to the local Justice of the Peace – who is nothing more than a yokel in a grease-stained PBR shirt – so that retribution can be served up against Eddie. The Justice proceeds to put her on a chair in the middle of the VFW hall (apparently, this is where the law does its business in this county) and makes her take her shirt off to reveal the bite marks on her breasts, so that these toothless, guffawing rednecks can enjoy the show. It's a moment of spiritual violation arguably more intense than the physical rape, as this diva is served up hot for a gaggle of drooling perverts who probably despise her black skin.
This is what exploitation is all about. It pushes your buttons and challenges what you deem “acceptable” or "appropriate" in art. As a work of provocative sensationalism, Poor Pretty Eddie is aces. But then Robinson flashes his filmmaking chops and takes the finale to the next level, crafting a climax that's a hellish tableau of mayhem, a blood bath filmed at 100 frames-per-second that seems to last an eternity. Glorious in its sheer excess, the interior of Bertha's Oasis is destroyed by a Thriller ('73) style slow motion shoot out. The gun blasts cause our ears to ring as splinters of furniture fly through the air, the shells from Keno's double-barrel becoming cannon shots. It's a sensational finish that's fit for the biggest screen possible.
It’s hard to believe that Robinson never made another film after this one (though Worth would go on to act as DP on the Van Damme classic, Bloodsport ['88]). For all its “exploitive” elements, Poor Pretty Eddie is also a damn good picture that's been mostly forgotten outside of trash cinema completists. The movie received a solid theatrical release, playing drive-ins around the country, and then "urban" markets under the Black Vengeance title. In '79, Chastain and Worth bought all prints of the movie back and recut it completely – including softening the violence and sex – for release under the Heartbreak Hotel moniker. But neutering it sounds like the worst idea ever, as the film's power is derived from its ability to wound and scar. Poor Pretty Eddie isn't afraid to be recklessly mean, an attribute sorely missing in the modern cinematic landscape.
Poor Pretty Eddie is available now on Blu-ray, courtesy of Cultra.