Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Night God Screamed (1971)

Aside from their clothes, music, and general level of hygiene, there's nothing particularly frightening about hippies. Or, at least, there wasn't until the Manson family did their creepy crawl and justified Establishment paranoia about the love generation. After that, donations to panhandling hippies rose 500% and dreams of an eternal love-in died hard. Not surprisingly, exploitation filmmakers rushed into the void as well. One such exploitation filmmaker, who is sadly overlooked today, was Lee Madden, who turned out this highly entertaining horror rarity about a hippie cult stalking an Establishment matron after killing her preacher husband.

The cult in question is lead by the Mansonesque Billy Joe Harlan, played by Michael Sugich, whose performance is a highlight here. The film begins with Harlan delivering a great sermon at a river about the evils that the Man is trying to bring down on these hippies. "I made them see that using dope was the way to turn on to you!... They don't like us practicing our thing!... They put us down because we ain't one of those establishment churches with one of those fake money-making preachers!" 'Aint it the truth? They never like you practicing your thing.

Unfortunately, there's possibly a traitor in the midst and the robed cult enforcer drags her out for some testifying. After declaring, "God is going to decide if this chick is a Judas!" Sugich "re-baptizes" her, or drowns her if you're some kind of establishment type.

There's great piano music over the opening credits as we watch Fanny Pierce (played by classic studio actress Jeanne Crain) walking through the dirty city streets and hear her thinking, "Everything is ugly and old." Yeah, well, come visit Hamilton sometime! Anyway, she's a preacher's wife in a skid row mission who is depressed about the low quality of bums in the church soup kitchen! Luckily, her hubby (Alex Nicol) has planned a rural revival to drum up the bucks and they're off.

You might guess what happens next: at a rural gas station, the money-grubbing preacher Pierce runs into the gang of hippies who don't like preaching for profit. One of the hippies, in fact, tries to pick up Fanny with the great line, "That man over there your husband?... It make any difference?" Apparently so (she's old-fashioned no doubt) and the preacher stupidly mentions his revival, which the pseudo-Manson family crashes afterwards and nails him to a cross! It's probably the goriest thing in the movie but pretty unforgettable.

In an interesting twist, the maniacal preacher is then tried, convicted, and soon goes to jail, effectively taking him out of the film. There's a nicely creepy scene in which the hippies surround Crain outside of the courthouse chanting "Die... die..." and the second half of the movie is about them stalking her in revenge for putting their cult leader in the hoosegow.

The movie takes a somewhat silly turn in the last act as the judge (Stewart Bradley) lets Crain shack up with his four teenage kids in his big mansion and babysit them while he goes off and does something or other, all the while knowing that cultists are stalking her! The teenagers, who look to be in their early thirties are pissed off about missing their social engagements and basically act like obnoxious shits until some strangers show up and start terrorizing them. There seems to be a real bias towards the older generation in the film: all of the young people are either murderous hippies or really horrible rich kids!

The terrorizing, though, is pretty effective, if not particularly gory. The film goes through most of the house-under-siege tropes fairly well and the cloaked stranger is genuinely creepy. There is a twist ending too that is both completely ridiculous and followed by a nice E.C. Comics twist that puts a cap on the whole business. Admittedly, this is all drive-in shocker stuff and not remotely a serious exploration of the Manson killings. And, perhaps the movie would be on DVD by now if it had much in the way of gore or any nudity to speak of.

Nevertheless, if you're looking for the pleasures of low budget 70s drive-in fare and effective scares, there's plenty to find here.

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