Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pets (1974)

Directed by Raphael Nussbaum
Starring Candice Rialson, Teri Guzman, Joan Blackman, Ed Bishop
Rated R

With a notorious ad campaign suggesting a misogynist and/or S&M-themed romp through familiar sexploitation territory, Raphael Nussbaum’s Pets is in fact a more complicated -- and ultimately more intriguing -- mid-seventies grindhouse entry. Adapted from a sequence of three one-act plays by Richard Reich first performed in Greenwich Village five years before, Nussbaum’s film integrates the three similarly-themed tales into a single narrative, offering its audience an opportunity to contemplate and perhaps even challenge traditional notions regarding the relative power of the sexes.

What at first appears a fairly typical compilation of scenes alternating between sex and violence eventually turns into kinda-sorta-statement criticizing man’s treatment of woman as somehow less than human -- that is, as like the “pets” of the title. Hard to get too carried away with talk of Nussbaum’s artsy-fartsy pretensions here, though, as the many hallmarks of low budget, amateurish filmmaking -- crude editing and lighting, literally out-of-focus shots, small lapses in narrative logic, etc. -- should ultimately keep us from getting too high-falutin’ about “messages” and whatnot.

Drive-in diva Candice Rialson stars as the wayward teen Bonnie. One of the grindhouse-era’s more memorable figures -- in both senses of the word -- Rialson was said to have provided the inspiration for Bridget Fonda’s Melanie in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 throwback Jackie Brown.

As it happened, 1974 would be a breakout year for the sleepy-eyed, adorable blonde, a year in which she’d follow Pets with starring turns in a trio of sexploitation titles (Candy Stripe Nurses, Summer School Teachers, and Mama’s Dirty Girls). Soon after she’d land bit roles on TV series and in a few mainstream features like The Eiger Sanction and Logan’s Run. She’d end up back in the B’s, however -- most notably in the notorious, talking-vagina opus Chatterbox! (1977) -- before retiring from the silver screen for good as the decade came to a close.

After a suggestive opening montage showing a bird, a tiger, then Rialson each in cages, we jump into a familiar-seeming ’70s drive-in opening with Bonnie and her abusive brother driving about the L.A. streets. Their talk suggests he’s tracked her down after she’d run away. And -- like a hard-to-tame animal -- she seems anxious to escape back into the wild once again.

Bonnie complains she’s hungry, and they stop at a burger joint, a visit that ultimately results in Bonnie’s brother offending a carful of toughs to the point they decide to teach the “jive-ass honky” a lesson.

As they beat her brother, Bonnie escapes, and the opening credits roll over the sappy title song (“Searching”) in which Bonnie is introduced to us further (“in this wicked world some folks call me evil girl / they’ve got it wrong and they don’t know”).

Bonnie spends the night on the beach, then the next day meets up with Pat (Teri Guzman), yet another wild child on the loose. The pair catch a ride with the affluent-appearing Dan Daubrey (Brett Parker) who has been out for a jog on the beach, the group sharing the space in the vehicle with Dan’s dog, Bibi.

By this point we’ve already seen other canines milling about, and indeed such visual reaffirmations of the film’s title and themes will continue throughout. As they drive, Pat surprises both Dan and Bonnie by pulling a gun and ordering Dan off the highway onto a dirt path.

They tie Dan up with the belt of his robe and shoestrings, take his wallet, then Pat gets him to give up his home address, the location of some cash that can be found there, and his keys. As Bonnie ties up Dan, Pat compares him to Bibi, saying his wife has two dogs, “the four-legged one -- that’s the one she loves and kisses -- and this schmuck.”

Pat leaves in Dan’s car (with Bibi) to go loot his home -- his wife is out getting her hair done, he’s explained -- while Bonnie watches him, gun drawn.

The pair talk, their conversation revealing Bonnie’s dissatisfaction with her young life. We cut away to follow Pat as she visits Dan’s home and robs him of cash and more, the Daubreys’ gardener oddly unconcerned thanks in part to Pat distracting him.

As Pat drives back, Bonnie and Dan continue to talk. She does a seductive dance, then reveals to him the gun is just a water pistol. We see Pat cruelly toss Bibi off a cliff after the dog bites her. She then returns and she and Bonnie leave, but then only Bonnie returns, apparently to check whether or not Dan kept his promise to lie there for a half-hour.

Soon Bonnie figures out Pat has left her, taking the car and all of the loot she hauled. Bonnie and her captive talk a little more, then she gets the idea to have a little fun.

“What do you want, lapdog?” she says to Dan. “You’re sweating, you’re hot.”

Dan tells her to untie his hands and he’ll show her what he wants, but Bonnie has another idea. “No, I’ll show you,” she says with a snarl. “Helpless. The way I’ve always been.”

The pair then make sweet, sweaty seventies love on the grass, after which Bonnie grabs her panties and shoes and skips away -- in enchanting slow motion -- to continue her adventures.

We move with Bonnie into the middle third of the film, leaving everyone else we’ve met thus far behind for good. Caught stealing an apple from a fruit stand, Bonnie’s luckily helped out of a potential jam by an artist, Geraldine Mills, who takes an interest in the beautiful runaway as a possible subject for her paintings.

The pair swiftly bond and Bonnie agrees to Gerry's proposal to work for her, posing as a model for various works while living in Gerry's spacious Malibu home.

Eventually the pair start a sexual relationship. Gerry becomes somewhat controlling of Bonnie, insisting on long hours of posing and not tolerating Bonnie’s leaving the home unattended. Bonnie sometimes calls Gerry "slave driver," and clearly becomes increasingly restless as time passes. However, at other times, Bonnie affectionately refers to Gerry as “Mommy,” a further reference to their unequal relationship.

An exhibition of Gerry’s work at a local art gallery proves successful, with the gallery’s owner, Vincent Stackman, in particular taking an interest in Gerry’s work. And in Bonnie, too.

Ed Bishop, a character actor with a lengthy and varied resume from TV and film, plays Vincent, whose unending creepiness immediately begins to challenge the ladies’ space on the screen for our attention.

Victor wants to buy Gerry’s painting, they agree to terms, and he leaves. “He’s a very wealthy young man,” explains a gallery patron to Bonnie. “But a very strange fish!”

Cut to fish frying in a pan. Gerry is making lunch for her and Bonnie, and Victor happens by unannounced, ostensibly to get his painting. He catches Gerry and Bonnie acting as a couple in the kitchen, which embarrasses Gerry. An uncomfortable meeting follows in which Gerry makes plain his interest in Bonnie.

At one point he and Bonnie discuss painting, including nudes, and Vincent lectures her about how “the great artists of the past, they never completely painted their models in the nude... [because] they believed that by revealing everything a woman lost her mystery.”

Vincent finally leaves, and his visit and interest in Bonnie has appears to stir up some conflict between the women. Bonnie is becoming more agitated and difficult to control, even earning a slap from the dominating Gerry for her insouciance. She complains to Gerry about desiring a man, and asks her why she doesn’t like men.

“I like men,” explains Gerry. “Just as I like dogs until they try to bite me.”

They make up, but are soon interrupted by an intruder breaking into Gerry’s home. Gerry pulls a gun on the man, named Ron.

Ron explains he’s hungry and was just looking for food. He’s willing to work for it, and Bonnie pleads on his behalf. “The windows really need washing,” she weirdly argues, going on about how they need “a man in this house” to fix the sink and do other chores. “We haven’t needed a man,” insists Gerry, who gives Bonnie the gun while she calls the police.

Bonnie ushers Ron into her bedroom, then tells Gerry he’s gotten away. Soon they all retire for the night, and we realize it is as though Bonnie has captured for herself a hound dog with which to play.

The next morning Gerry discovers the pair and how Bonnie has betrayed her. She swiftly decides to put down Bonnie’s “pet.”

“You killed him!” cries Bonnie in horror. “No, Bonnie -- you killed him,” she clarifies.

Soon Bonnie is on the run again, hastily leaving the house by foot. She runs along the beach where dogs seemingly roam free so as to remind us again of Bonnie’s animal-like character.

She ends up back at Vincent’s gallery and while it isn’t clear at first we soon discover she’s hiding there. Gerry comes to the gallery looking for Bonnie, but Vincent covers.

We move into the third and final act. Vincent buys clothes and jewelry for Bonnie, including a bracelet unsubtly inscribed “Vincent's Pet.”

Vincent takes Bonnie to his secluded “house on a hill” where she first meets Lila, Vincent’s cat. He then takes her to his basement to see “where Lila and her friends” live. We hear animal noises, look for a moment upon Bonnie’s alarmed expression, then leave the scene.

Soon Vincent invites Gerry to his house, too, luring her with the bait of his knowledge of Bonnie’s whereabouts. Lots of awkward discussion follows between the pair. Gerry thinks he's trying to seduce her, but Vincent insists “I don’t seduce women… I make them my pets!”

He further outlines to her his warped view of the sexes. “You see, I sometimes see in my mind’s eye a zoo. Not with the usual animals, no. In my zoo there would be only women!” Gerry predictably reacts with disgust, but Vincent has it all worked out.

“They’d adore it! I assure you,” he insists. “Imagine it... they’d have no responsibilities, they'd be well taken care of, they'd be fed regularly, splashing about in the water, playing in the sun, being mated regularly….” He goes on, his vision seeming to make little literal sense but in a figurative way alluding to a not uncommon chauvinistic worldview.

Having had enough, Gerry tries to leave but he keeps her with a promise to show her Bonnie -- whom, he explains, he has “tamed.” Gerry assumes he’s slept with her, but his answer is unclear (“Would you blame me if I have?”). He explains it was Bonnie’s idea that he bring Gerry there, and soon he produces the young beauty.

The three share a drink. “She should be behind bars,” says Bonnie of Gerry, referring to the latter’s shooting of Ron the intruder.

More suggestive talk follows, then Bonnie leaves the two. Vincent then resumes his mad-philosopher-type talk to Gerry, declaring he’s going to “possess” her.

“You can’t possess me!” Gerry objects. “I’m a woman, not an animal.” “Women treat men like animals, don’t they?” he responds before launching into an anti-women’s lib rant about women trying to “take over the world… giving us orders.”

“I’ll show you what you’re made for!” he says. “Possession by a man!” At last he takes her downstairs to see Lila and her friends, too -- a collection of animals ranging from rodents to a tiger, all female, and all in cages... including Bonnie!

Gerry is horrified, but when she says how she wants to rescue Bonnie from her captivity Vincent has a ready response.

“To make her your pet, again?” he asks pointedly.

Will Vincent succeed in taming Gerry, too, to add to his bizarre collection? The finale provides some resolution -- and a surprise twist -- if not a coherent conclusion to the argument about sexual politics the story has introduced.

There are several reasons to satisfy one’s curiosity and give Pets a look. Despite the film’s many technical flaws, the performances by Bishop, Blackman, and Rialson are all above grindhouse standards, with Rialson’s unique ability to switch back and forth between vulnerable and vengeful suiting her well in this particular role.

And while there might ultimately be as much affirming of male dominance going on here as there is questioning of it, Pets does nonetheless recognize that there’s at least an issue to be debated when it comes to the ongoing battle of the sexes. Not to mention offer a few suggestions of how humans might in fact be more like animals than we care to admit.

- Triple S

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