Dame Double Feature: Crazy Mama (1975) & The Lady In Red (1979)

I really never know what to expect when jumping into one of Shout Factory’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Features because, frankly, the man was fairly inconsistent when it comes to good and bad flicks. I do always know that the presentation will be prefect though because Shout absolutely kills it when it comes to putting these movies together. I especially like the “Grindhouse Experience” feature which shows one movie right after the other complete with trailers before each flick and even a clip reminding you how awesome popcorn is. My only complaint is that the menu is so CGIed, it would be cool if they could use actual photography for the menus, but that’s a small quibble. Both movies even have extra features like commentaries and interviews with the directors.

As it turned out I didn’t just like the first movie in the Double Feature, Crazy Mama, I kind of fell in love with it. I didn’t realize until just now that the movie was actually directed by Jonathan Demme of Silence Of The Lambs fame which makes a lot of sense because there’s a lot going on in this movie aside from the usual “women wreaking havoc” plot I’ve seen in movies like this on from the 70s. The film has a quirkiness and a heart to it that I wasn’t expecting and some really great performances by Cloris Leachman, Dick Miller, Donny Most and a lot of other folks whose names I don’t recognize (though Bill Paxton and Dennis Quaid make their film debuts in the flick in super-small roles).

Here’s the basic plot. Back in the day Sheba’s husband was killed when the banks tried to take their land. They had a daughter who would grow up to be Leachman’s Melba (Ann Sothern). After the murder they moved to California where Melba had a daughter of her own named Cheryl (Linda Purl) who just found out she’s knocked up by Shawn (Most). When the bank comes to repossess the beauty salon Sheba and Melba run, they grab Cheryl, a few things and make a break for it. They head to Vegas where they met the elderly Bertha who joins their little family. Shawn also catches up with the ladies, but Cheryl has already fallen for a greaser named Snake (played by Leachman’s son Bryan Englund). She’s not the only one though as Melba hooks up with Jim Bob. At some point the ladies get the idea to buy back their farmland, but they don’t have any money so they start running cons and holding up banks and other businesses.

There’s a lot of unconventionality on display in the film that really makes it soar for me. Not only do you have four generations of women working together to commit crimes, but they’re all pretty open when it comes to their sexuality. There’s even a bit where Snake and Bertha even talk about getting down (talk about unconventional). The most out-there aspect of the film socially speaking probably boils down to the Cheryl/Shawn/Snake relationship. Shawn starts off being pissed about Snake being in the picture, but Cheryl says she loves them both. He seems to eventually accept that and winds up sleeping in bed with the both of them. Let me tell you, seeing Ralph Malph wearing only his underwear in bed with a naked woman and a greaser is pretty damn surreal. You really start to believe that these people have formed an unconventional family unit that really cares for one another, especially after a few of their comrades fall and they shout them up to heaven. That’s where the heart lies in this movie. When folks start dying, I actually started feeling bad, not something I expected from a movie like this.

Another big mark in the plus column for this film is the realistic portrayal of the crime spree. This gang of theirs starts off small robbing a quickie marriage place in Vegas and slowly move their way up, but they are in no way criminal masterminds, especially after losing some of their gang and getting liquored up. The last bit it so sadly pointless, but that’s what would happen in this kind of situation. The very end also shows that even after all the survivors have been through, they maybe didn’t learn all the lessons they should have. It’s fantastic. I highly recommend Crazy Mama.

I didn’t like The Lady In Red nearly as much, though it’s not a bad flick, just kind of a slow and sometimes meandering one. The story is about Polly Franklin who lead a tough life which lead her to become first a seamstress in an American sweatshop (run by Dick Miller!), then a dancer, a prisoner and eventually a prostitute where she meets renowned mobster John Dillinger though she didn’t know it was him. Even though the movie clocks in under an hour and a half, it feels slow early on as Polly makes her way to becoming a prostitute. These moments are important because they show her character and build a supporting cast around her, but it still feels like a scene or two could have been cut out or down. There’s also a lengthy scene of Polly and Dillinger playing baseball and rowing a canoe that, while nice, wasn’t really necessary.

With all the different vignettes you wind up getting a lot of different kinds of movies all rolled into one. First off, it’s a period piece. Then you get the downtrodden worker segment in Miller’s sweatshop. The prostitute movie’s there too. There’s also a few prison scenes (Nurse Balbricker from Porky’s plays the awful warden who meets a very satisfying end after doing something shocking even for her) which includes a vast nude scene. There’s the monster stuff as Dilinger gets murdered and then the revenge plot afterwards because everyone’s gunning for Polly thinking she set Dillinger up (she didn’t).

The only thing I knew about John Dillinger going into this movie was that he was a mobster who was sold out by his girlfriend in front of a movie theater. I learned that from High Fidelity. So it was interesting to see this story told around that idea. I did a little reading on Wiki and it seems like the filmmakers followed the actual story at least somewhat well, which is interesting. I doubt you could show this film in an American history class, but it might get some folks interested in old timey mobsters (if Boardwalk Empire hasn’t done that enough already).

I wasn’t familiar with Pamela Sue Martin, but I thought she handled herself really well and really acted well in this thing that could have been silly. The rest of the cast is pretty damn solid too and even features Christopher Lloyd as a creepy mobster called Frognose (not a nice dude). I like seeing him being a not-too-over-the-top bad guy. That’s one of the beauties of watching these old Corman-produced movies, is that you get to see some pretty big deal stars in either the early or later days when they’re not as concerned with fitting into what people expect of them. I’m excited to keep checking these out, but I’ll always be a little leery as to whether the films will tickle my fancy or not.

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