Sunday, July 03, 2011

Angel, Angel, Down We Go (also released as Cult of the Damned) is a marvelously psychedelic film. It is also unabashedly campy and clearly made by people who were hoping they could get those crazy hippies into the movie theater doing some weird stuff. It comes complete with dissociative episodes expressed in painterly collages by Shirley Kaplan and flatly narrated by folk singer and songwriter Holly Near. Ms. Near plays the role of Tara Nicole Steele, an unhappy debutante (also known as "The Fat Girl") who takes up with cultish band of sky-diving rock stars. Jennifer Jones plays Tara Nicole's mother, Astrid, a status-obsessed harpy who is also constantly referred to as "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World". And Ms. Jones does look absolutely gorgeous at 50 years young wearing nothing beside a bed sheet, or evening gowns designed to look like she's wearing nothing but a bed sheet casually tied at her bosom. There are scenes of hilarious cruelty between Astrid and her billionaire Airline tycoon husband, who prefers the company of naked young men.

Oddly enough, the film pre-dates the story of the Manson Family, which broke soon after the 1969 release. Oh, and it's a musical. Jordan Christopher, who plays the cult's leader, improbably named Bogart Peter Stuyvesant, does all the singing as a Jim Morrison-type: shirtless and in leather pants. Mr. Christopher is really pulling out all the stops for this performance. Like he's not saving any energy to drive home afterwards. One of the tamer songs "The Fat Song", can be seen in high quality here. A faded version of the theatrical trailer, which really encapsulates everything you need can be seen here. But sadly for Mr. Christopher, his character is so over the top that he reminded me of Dick Shawn's turn as L.S.D. or Lorenzo St. Dubois in the 1968 film The Producers. If you haven't seen Mr. Shawn's hilarious hippie parody watch it here, and do a little compare and contrast.

Roddy McDowell has the role of a cult member that was probably a real let-down after Planet of the Apes. But he does it as if it were Lear.

The whole thing can be found under its alternate title here. Should you watch this movie? No, you should not. Well, maybe just a little. The first 15 to 20 minutes are great. The party scene in particular is gorgeous. Ms. Near's slow-motion descent down the staircase to the sitar-inflected titled song is a highlight. I'd say it's great up through "The Fat Song" and then the whole thing gets bogged down in over-blown dialogue. There is a terrible scene in the middle of the film when Bogart Peter Stuyvesant meets Tara's parents and he talks Lorenzo St. Dubois-style nonsense for what seems like five hours. It is unbearable. The dialogue feels like it was originally written for a play, where it would make sense to have lots of expository dialogue about sky-diving. You'd need to create the scene with words because you can't sky-dive in the theater. But with the extreme visuals of the film it becomes, at the very least, de trop, and at full throttle, like nails on a chalk board painful. Someone needed to cut at least 1/3 of the dialogue.

Ms. Near does a terrific job. I loved the scene when she was trapped upside down on the ceiling while everyone else was sitting down below (mostly because I feel that way a lot). Ms. Near gives such a good-natured performance, game for anything and with laughter in her eyes. And she looks beautiful, the brocade robes and towering wigs really suit her. The film posits her as "The Fat Girl" but she isn't particularly big. If she does have any extra on her, it looks great. In fact, the other women just look weirdly emaciated around her.

Ms. Jones has some marvelously catty lines and plenty of meaty situations to explore. Many have bemoaned the appearance of a gen-u-ine Hollywood star in this sort of rubbish. But perhaps Ms. Jones merely knew the Bette Davis truth of the matter: that plum roles for women over 40 are best found in B movies.

But don't watch the whole thing. Really, you'll just be hurting yourself. Instead, check out Les Blank's terrific God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, an un-narrated documentary of the 1967 Love-In in Los Angeles on Easter Sunday. A beautiful day in the park with a lot of sweet souls doing their own thing. Each mediating, playing music, dancing, or even totally tripping out. There is lots of style inspiration here and the gentle editing almost makes you feel like you are there. A wonderful hypnotic quality permeates this film, along with a kindness, both to the participants and to you as you watch.

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