The Austin Chronicle

Down We Go

Revisiting Renaissance man Robert Thom's prolific and hellish Hollywood visions

By Louis Black, August 10, 2007, Screens

The opening credits include the American International Pictures logo followed by "James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff Present." Any longtime film fan instantly knows what this means. AIP was the Saks Fifth Avenue, the Wal-Mart, and the discount dollar store of exploitation drive-in productions all at once. It released the best and the worst of these movies, nurtured Roger Corman, and had the longest tenure among similar independent studios.

Just before the film begins, while these titles are still running, we hear the sound of jungle music. The first shot is a close-up of a gold statue; then, the camera pulls back to reveal a grand hallway of traditionally great art, including paintings, furniture, and statuary. The first shot is synchronized with the soundtrack of Johnny Weissmuller's famous Tarzan call and the sound of drumming.

Finally, the camera lurches around to a stairway as a voiceover begins. A sweet but strangely toned voice lilts: "What is your first memory? My first memory is that my parents were perfect."

The camera heads up the stairs, past artwork to shelves of clothes neatly laid out, mostly sweaters except for a row of riding boots on the bottom. It continues across the room to display a case full of equestrian medals and statues and then along a wall of photographs of such notables as Eisenhower and LBJ. It tilts down to some bathrobes and bedclothes strewn on the floor leading into the bathroom. In the shower are a young man and an older one soaping themselves up.

The voice says, "It's not true that my father was a homosexual," as the drums keep going.

Now the film's title appears. Depending on which print you're watching, it's either Angel, Angel, Down We Go or Cult of the Damned. Soon, the camera will plunge into a more modern art: rich crayon lines wrapped around a photo collage.

Angel, Angel Down We Go (the title I prefer) is a masterpiece of fingernails-on-chalkboard cinema. Its layered contradictions are not only the ideal way to introduce the film but also its maker, Robert Thom, who wrote and directed. If it were all he had ever done, I'd honor his career. But there is much more.

The eerie voice belongs to a young lady, the notably unattractive daughter of fabulous parents ... except that Dad likes young men and Mom adores, well, Mom. A 20-year-old Holly Near plays the girl. Yes, that Holly Near, she of protest songs, political concerns, and women's music. Near managed her own record label and was an early and very open champion of lesbian and feminist music. Over the years, she has recorded songs with Cris Williamson, Mercedes Sosa, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Rhiannon, Brian Green, Inti-Illimani, and Ronnie Gilbert (of the Weavers).

Now as active and engaged as ever, Near talks of how she began performing at the age of 8 and at the age of 21 was appearing in Hair on Broadway. Biographies of her mention appearances on All in the Family, The Partridge Family, and The Mod Squad. In 1969, she entered the theatre-arts department at UCLA.

But Near never talks about how that same year she starred in Angel, Angel, Down We Go. None of the write-ups on her mention it, either. This not only comes as no surprise but also demonstrates common sense and good taste.

In the film, she is deliberately made up to appear as outrageous, ugly, and bizarre as possible; it is crucial to the character's trajectory. Even if this weren't the case, she would pale next to her mother, played by the beautiful Jennifer Jones (in one of her last roles). In every conceivable way, Near is framed and presented in the context of Jones, dooming her to looking even less attractive by contrast.

The story is about a poor little rich girl who, as a child, is left with a waiter to take her to the airport for an international flight because her parents are busy. Dad is often seen with a naked young man whose lower half is hidden behind a pool table. Dad adores her, but not really. Mom loves to use her because she looks even more magnificent standing next to her daughter.

The plot involves first the daughter hooking up with the lead singer of a band of too-hip crazies who are drug-loving anarchist spirits. The rest of the family follows. The charis- matic, almost demonic singer is played by Jordan Chris-topher, the poor man's Christopher George (who himself is the poor man's Jordan Christopher, but let's not pursue this). Fellow band members include Lou Rawls and a hyperkinetic Roddy McDowall.

There is sex, drugs, music, skydiving, dysfunction, disappointment, and ever more unsettling scenes as the film deliberately spirals out of control. As with any masterpiece of nails-on-the-chalkboard cinema, about halfway through you find yourself thinking the same questions over and over: "Who the hell is the audience for this film? In making it, whom did they think would enjoy seeing it?"

In cultural histories, there are people who pop up at different times in different places doing different things but always in a way that is influential and notable enough that they became legends. Oscar Wilde wrote plays, poetry, and novels as well as being a famed man-about-town. Robert Frank shot photos, was a cinematographer, and made his own films. Leonard Bernstein conducted, wrote plays, and composed music.

Sometimes, however, the sporadic appearances are not drawn together. Although the creator makes any number of important cultural contributions -- and though they might be noted separately -- no fame or legend is attached; no mythology grows. Rather, time and history leave the name behind. If one of the most significant contributions of this artist was in popular media innovating street culture, the odds are against recognition. If the aesthetic is pulp and outrage, often they are deliberately ignored.

Robert Thom pops up in a variety of places during the course of his unique career. He graduated from Yale, where he was regarded as a promising poet and playwright. He took over writing the play version of Compulsion after Meyer Levin, the book's author, had a falling out with a producer. Two of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to acknowledge the beat generation were written by Thom. He co-authored episodes of The Defenders and the television play The Legend of Lylah Clare, the latter directed by Robert Aldrich and adapted to the screen for one of his odder movies in 1968. The film followed the director's Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte by a few years and was made right after The Dirty Dozen and right before The Killing of Sister George, so the term "odder" is not being used lightly here.

The late Sixties through the mid-Seventies were a time when exploitation drive-in movies were America's true renegade cinema. In many ways, speaking in cinematic language, they were almost as one with mainstream films. In many other ways, however, they were unique unto themselves, combining politics and sex, creating or reinventing genres (biker movies, women-in-prison films), and yielding, both in front of and behind the camera, at least two generations of filmmakers who would mature into some of the medium's greatest talents.

Thom wrote the scripts for four of the most significant and best of these movies: 1968's Wild in the Streets (D: Barry Shear), 1970's Bloody Mama (D: Roger Corman), 1975's Death Race 2000 (D: Paul Bartel), and 1975's Crazy Mama (D: Jonathan Demme).

When I first wrote about Robert Thom for the Chronicle in October 1984, my lead went something like this: "Uptown Beatniks, Hollywood Bohemians, Classic French Literature, American Sub-cultures. Racine and Kerouac, art and Acid. Women, Children and Television, Mothers and Daughters -- Armed and Dangerous, Mothers and Sons -- Incest and Deranged. Music, Revolution, Rock 'n' Roll and Oppression, Outlaws, Politicians, Poets and Perverts. An Hieronymus Bosch vision as conceived by Freud, Detailed by Jung and Rendered in Day-glow, Neon, Blood and Sweat. With Car Crashes, Politics, Sex and Violence, and more Sex and more Violence."

At Yale, his dissertation was a verse play published in 1956. The next year, Thom's off-Broadway play, The Minotaur, starring Dean Stockwell and Janice Rule, opened at the Westport County Playhouse. Thom married Rule; they had a baby girl and soon divorced. (Rule would become a therapist and was later married to Ben Gazzara.)

In 1956, Levin had published a novel titled Compulsion based on the Leopold and Loeb case in Chicago, where those two well-off young men murdered a 14-year-old distant cousin of Loeb's more or less out of curiosity. In 1957, Levin began working on adapting his novel for the stage. Levin was fired after conflicts with the producers, and Thom was brought in, largely rewriting the play. It ran for about five months.

In 1959, 20th Century Fox released the film version, which did not credit Thom. (Hitchcock had already tackled the Leopold and Loeb case with Rope, released in 1948. Director Tom Kalin remade Compulsion as Swoon in 1992.) He still ended up in Hollywood. He received script credit on two significant releases in 1960. His script for The Subterraneans was the first film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel. The film starred Leslie Caron, George Peppard, Roddy McDowall, Jim Hutton, and Rule. The score was by André Previn, who also appears in the film along with Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Carmen McRae, Shelly Manne, and Art Farmer. That same year, All the Fine Young Cannibals was released. Leonard Maltin's TV Movies likes neither of these films, noting of the latter, "Cliches abound in this romantic soap opera that was actually inspired by the life of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (whose role is played here, somewhat improbably, by [Robert] Wagner)."

During the early Sixties, Thom mostly worked as a television writer, authoring scripts for The DuPont Show of the Week and Kraft Suspense Theatre. Thom wrote several scripts for The Defenders. In 1962-'63, he won an Emmy for co-writing the episode "The Madman" with the show's creator, Reginald Rose.

Esquire published a story of Thom's titled "The Day It All Happened" about a pop star becoming president. He was hired to transform the story into a film script. Wild in the Streets, released in 1968, earned some surprisingly good reviews. One in The New York Times, credited to Renata Adler and Vincent Canby, noted, "Wild in the Streets is a kind of instant classic, a revved up La Chinoise or Privilege for the drive-ins in summertime." The film starred Christopher Jones, Shelley Winters, Diane Varsi, Hal Holbrook, Richard Pryor, and Millie Perkins. Perkins' most famous role was also her first, that of Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank. Previously married to Stockwell, she would become Thom's second wife.

The next year, Thom wrote and directed Angel, Angel, Down We Go. After its failure, he went to work for Roger Corman, writing the script for Bloody Mama, which Corman directed. When Corman transitioned to producer, Thom ended up writing two scripts for him. Death Race 2000 is regarded as one of the great American exploitation films. Although not as well-known, Crazy Mama is an even better movie. Bartel and Demme told me that Thom's scripts were grotesque and fantastic but also completely unfilmable. Although rewritten, much of their greatness remains his.

As I said about Angel, if Thom had only written these four films, my interest in his work would not suffer. Horror films are often about the nuclear family, exposing that underneath a facade of normalcy there is something terribly wrong with it. The true horror in Thom's world -- when contrasted with the insane and usually bloodthirsty shadow family (The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) -- is that the nuclear family has no facade and there is no normalcy. In and of itself, it is as terrifyingly inhuman as any band of cannibals. Only instead of carving up bodies, the family destroys souls. (Only Crazy Mama transcends this, because in director Demme's hands, it becomes a compassionate, feminist black comedy.)

The line between entertainment, politics, and violence is gone. There are moments when the most common of popular culture offers observations (often through exaggeration) not readily available elsewhere. Thom is holding up a truly twisted fun-house mirror, but one that reflects reality.

Author's note: Robert Thom, who died in 1979, wrote only a couple more films. The Witch Who Came From the Sea, starring Millie Perkins and directed by Matt Cimber, is supposed to be the most interesting of these and among his best scripts. I haven't seen it.

This is the first of several articles on Thom that will appear sporadically and on no set schedule. The series will include, at the very least, one piece on Angel, Angel Down We Go and another on his four exploitation-film scripts.

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