Sunday, April 08, 2007

Fuchsia's Pretty Poison

Want to see a REAL, vintage artsy grindhouse movie?

My obscure DVD of the month is PRETTY POISON, which was released the year I was born—1968, if you insist—and promptly sank into the annals of obscure cult-moviedom. Along the way, it somehow managed to influence David Lynch.

I call this movie “What Would Happen if Dwight K. Schrute Hooked up with a Drum Majorette and Went on a Killing Spree.”

There’s a decent review of the movie here that says it “still seems rooted in the 1950s.” I have to disagree, but perhaps that’s because I was raised on Lynch, who was recycling 1950s pulp cliches in the 1980s.

Really, though, I found Pretty Poison strangely modern. The hero has just been released from a mental institution, or possibly a prison, but in 2007 terms, he’s not insane, he’s just a geek. This is immediately apparent when Dennis Pitt, played by Anthony Perkins (yes, Norman Bates from PSYCHO) starts kidding with his parole officer about extraterrestrials. The parole officer solemnly tells him that kind of talk could get him locked up again: “The real world is no place for fantasy.”

Well, that’s where the squares are wrong. The next shot is blonde sex kitten Tuesday Weld leading a team of drum majorettes, like an outtake from Hugh Hefner’s wet dreams. Because the real world’s all about fantasy. Nowadays, we know this—how many millions of dollars are spent every year developing video games?

The guy who wrote Pretty Poison knew it, too. Dennis is, by any ordinary reckoning, a loser—he has an embarrassing past, he works in a factory in his small Massachusetts mill town, he lives in a trailer, and he chomps “energy biscuits.” Oh, and he has a pencil neck. Yet Dennis somehow manages to seduce the aforementioned gorgeous Miss Weld, a bored honor student.

How? He tells her he’s a CIA agent on a mission to thwart a plot to
pollute the entire Eastern seaboard. He arranges secret meetings with her in dark movie theaters, gives her cryptic signals and lopes off, leaving her wanting more.

Dennis has somehow leapt over the barrier of embarrassment that bedevils so many geeks trying to approach an object of their lust. He knows how to play hard to get, putting Sue Ann in the position of trying to keep up with his mutating conspiracy theories. He’s a geek with the courage of his convictions. And his fondness for fantasy is infectious. Too bad (for him) that the cute girl is the actual psycho here.

Close your eyes when Dennis is spouting about the CIA, and you’ll hear Dwight from THE OFFICE—another geek who embraces geekhood. (That’s why Dwight is happier than Michael, who fights his dweebness as if eighth-grade popularity were at stake.) Some critics say Dwight is the only caricature on this show of ultra-realistic characters, because of his willingness to believe in Jim’s ridiculous subterfuges—a gaydar machine you can buy online, for instance, or a CIA recruitment drive aimed at Dwight.

True, you’d have to be about nine to fall for those pranks (though today’s nine-year-olds are probably more cynical than that). And Dwight isn’t that dumb—he was salesman of the year, for God’s sake!

But there is something real about Dwight K. Schrute. You gotta remember, the guy is like Fox Mulder—he wants to believe. And wanting to believe makes it that much easier to suspend disbelief—especially when you’re a big fan of anime, LOST and fanfiction.

I could be wrong, but my theory is, there are a lot of Dwights out there and they are thriving. More than ever before. Back in the old days, before computers ‘n’ stuff, it was the Todd Packers and the Jims who thrived in life. The alpha males killed, raped and pillaged, and the sweet, funny guys got the girl the nice way and made lots of babies. But the guys who liked to fantasize about belonging to the CIA (or the Freemasons, or whatever) had few outlets for their obsessions, other than going to war and getting slaughtered. (I know, Dwight, you’re in flawless health and trained for combat. My bad.) They didn’t have Lore Cons and Comic Cons back then.

So, to end this long digression, if you morph Dwight K. Schrute and Kyle MacLachlan in BLUE VELVET, you have Anthony Perkins in this movie. I defy you to watch it and not think that Lynch ripped off Pretty Poison—or at least riffed on it—when he wrote the scenes where Kyle
seduces Laura Dern by playing detective. (“Are you a detective or a pervert?”)

The lovers in Blue Velvet are actually a lot nicer than Dennis and Sue Ann, because Lynch added a villain and a “dark” femme fatale to carry the burden of small-town evil in his movie. Put the evil inside Laura Dern—except it’s a jaded, Larry-Clark-teen-pervo kind of evil—and you’ve got this movie.

(Tuesday Weld has that annoying “ingenue accent” actresses in the 1960s still had, presumably because to be an actress in those days you had to take elocution class. [Try that, Paris Hilton!] Real teens in those days didn’t talk that way—if you want proof, rent a doc like GIMME SHELTER. Other than that and the hairpieces, she’s OK in this flick.)

Pauline Kael had some unpopular movies she went to bat for, and Pretty Poison was one of them. Maybe that helped it become a minor cult film and end up on DVD. Some anonymous patron at Waterfront Video was kind enough to request it, and I thank that person.

A nifty Pauline Kael connection: Pretty Poison was shot partially in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, where Kael spent her final days. The theater Dennis and Sue Ann go to is the Mahaiwe, one of the oldest theaters in the country, which today has become a dull “performing arts center.”

Well, it so happens that Eva Deadbeat went to college in Great Barrington, and one of her friends met Pauline Kael in the Mahaiwe once. They were showing HOOK, and the college kid and the septuagenarian movie critic bonded in their disdain for that Spielberg/Robin Williams flick. Yes, even after she stopped reviewing, PK was still watching bad movies.

And good ones like this. Did I mention that (very gay) Anthony Perkins was weirdly hot?

NEXT MONTH: Do the words “Bollywood” and “thriller” go together? As Dwight Schrute would (and did) say, "I am on pins and staples!"


steve said...

Nice review. I'm not familiar with this movie, but I'll have to put it in my Netflix queue.

I suffered through Grindhouse on Friday.

Junk Thief said...

Thanks for promoting this great flick! To reference the great band, it shows us The True Tuesday Weld. It must have really feaked them out to see the proto-Lynch film a good dozen or more years before he hit his stride.

Tuesday is one 1960s actress that really needs to be given her due, and this one shows what she was capable of. Now if we could just get "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and "Play It As It Lays" on DVD.

Nervous Pete said...

Hmm, pre-Lynch Lynchy goodness, eh? Think I'll have to check this one out. A top article, and there's nothing like bonding with one's elder peers in the savaging of a bad movie. (I keep trying to forget that Spielberg ever did 'Hook' until people like you remind me. Grr.)

Thank you Fuchsia, but please stay away from that upstart kitchen-boy, he's no good for you with his beady eyes and rebellious ways.

Fuchsia Groan said...

Nice review, Steve... that was my first reaction to the Grindhouse trailers. Life is too short to reproduce bad B movies, but of course not too short to watch them... speaking of which, why on earth did you give up your VHS tape of DEATH RACE 2000? Now that's a decent grindhouse movie. FOX is even trying to remake it (wimpily, I assume) with DRIVE.

Junk Thief, so "Play It As It Lays" isn't on DVD? Too bad. I read that book and wasn't crazy about it, but it seems like it would make a great movie, and TW is the ideal actress for that role. I also dimly remember her being in something called "Baby, The Rain Must Fall" in the early '80s. Didn't see it, but who could forget that title? (Um, I'm guessing it's a classic song I should know, but I don't feel like googling it right now.)

Thanks, nervous pete, but I can't heed your advice... kitchen boy action is where it's at when you're locked in an immense tradition-bound fortress with no contact with the outside world. Even if he does have piebald eyes (er, or something like that).

Chris said...

Some nice Dwight analysis there.

I can't explain it well but I feel like the Internet acts as an amplifier for certain odd birds (including folks who want to believe), allowing them to form their own little sub cultures in some cases. Not that there is anything wrong with that.