Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Coffy (1973)

Poster for Coffy (1973)Coffy (1973) by #JackHill

w/ #PamGrier #BookerBradshaw #RobertDoQui #AllanArbus #SidHaig

“She had a body men would die for – and a lot of them did!”

“Coffy’ll cream ya!”

Music by #RoyAyers

#Action #Blaxploitation #Crime
#NotQuiteClassicCinema

#FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn

What can one say about Coffy (1973) that hasn’t been said before? It’s the movie that launched Pam Grier to stardom. It inspired other filmmakers. It’s been ripped off and spoofed. Depending on your point of view, it could either be the greatest Pam Grier movie (and possibly the greatest female-led Blacksploitation movie ever made), or it could be the worst. 

Yes, surprisingly enough, the movie is a bit divisive. I have friends who hated, hated, hated it. I also have friends who love it more than life itself. How can this be?

Coffy was, in fact, the first of the Big Four Pam Grier Blacksploitation Pictures that I ever saw. I talked about this a bit in my discussion of Sheba Baby (1975). Just to refresh your memory, the Big Four are:

Coffy, Foxy Brown (1974), Friday Foster (1975) and Sheba, Baby (1975). All four of the movies were named after the character that Grier played in the movie, and all four were available to rent in matching VHS boxes. I don’t think I realized that Coffy was the first one in the series. Somehow it just found its way into my hand on that day and I took it home. 

As I said back then, I enjoyed Coffy, so I started renting (and buying) all of the other films (including other movies Pam Grier was in, like The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1972) etc).

In some ways, Coffy is the grittiest of all the Pam Grier movies. It feels ultra low budget, and it feels edgy and sleazy. Depending on your point of view, this is either a good thing, or a bad thing. I tend to lean more toward the “good thing” side of the argument. Coffy is raw, and it is nasty. The opening sequence of the film lays it all out for the viewer. We get some graphic sleaze, and then we get a really graphic shotgun blast to the head. And if you didn’t know what kind of movie you were watching before that moment, you surely do now. 

This is a hard R revenge movie. No PG tastefulness here. And I guess this could be why some people find it distasteful. Others may simply be thrown by the very low budget feel of it.

Foxy Brown was apparently conceived of as a sequel to Coffy. They changed their minds at the last minute and made her a different character. But if you watch closely, you can tell she’s basically the same woman. There’s even a hospital scene. Coffy, as you may recall, is a nurse. Foxy Brown isn’t, but you can still almost see her being one. But I digress…

Jack Hill has claimed that the budget of Foxy Brown was the same as the budget for Coffy. I find this hard to believe, as Foxy Brown looks so much slicker. Just watch the credit sequence of each movie and ask your self which one looks more expensive. 

The point is, Coffy really feels rawer than all of the other movies. It feels like a quick and dirty production. And I like ’em that way. Just tell me a good story. Don’t waste my time making it look pretty.

But speaking of looking pretty… as someone on twitter remarked to me, Pam Grier looks amazing in this movie. She really does. It’s easy to see why she became a movie star and a cultural icon. Of course, it’s more than her looks. It’s her no nonsense, in your face, badass attitude. You really believe that she is physically, and mentally, able to do the things that she does to get revenge. She easily earns her place in the vigilante action hero hall of fame.

The only thing that I don’t understand is how Pam Grier didn’t make more than four of these movies. Sure, she made a lot of other movies – and some of those are among her best. But whey weren’t there five sequels to Foxy Brown or Coffy? Or a least a few more, similar movies? I think we could have used them. 

But, ultimately, I guess we have to simply be grateful for the movies we have. And Coffy is the one that got the ball rolling. And for that reason alone, it is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched it over the years, but I am confident when I say that I will certainly be watching it again, on some future #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Vendetta (1986)

Vendetta (1986) is, at heart, a Women in Prison film (or WIP). As I mentioned a while back, this is a genre that I have a particular interest in – and connection to – as I once wrote an important essay about it when I was a film student, and subsequently wrote an entire musical play poking fun at it (which was called  Bad Girls Jailhouse and was first produced in 1994). That play started me on a long path of writing, producing and directing crazy musicals, which was my main focus for over ten years – but that’s another story.

VHS box for Vendetta (1986)Vendetta is not one of the better known Women in Prison films. It came out a little late in the cycle. Caged (1950) is widely considered to be the first official entry into the genre, although there are earlier films that could (and should) be included, such as the wonderful pre code movie Ladies They Talk About (1933). But Caged really started things rolling, and was soon followed by other WIPs such as So Young, So Bad (1950), Women’s Prison (1955) and Reform School Girl (1957). The exploitation possibilities of the genre became clear to producers, and by the late 1960s there were a slew of R-rated WIPs released, such as 99 Women (1969), School for Unclaimed Girls (1969) and Love Camp 7 (1969) (which was also a sleazy Nazi movie, which oddly enough became a sub-genre of its own – but that’s another story). 

Needless to say, there were a lot of WIPs made in the 1970s, including Roger Corman produced masterpieces like The Big Doll House (1971), and Jonathan Demme‘s directorial debut Caged Heat (1974). There were so many great WIPs made in the ’70s that I could spend all day trying to talk about my favourites – but I’ll resist. The plentiful output continued into the 1980s, and included some of the very best efforts, such as The Concrete Jungle (1982), Reform School Girls (1986), and my personal favourite, Chained Heat (1983). 

Cinematheque programmeI first saw Chained Heat when I was 12 or 13, having rented it on Beta with a friend of mine. We loved it of course, and watched it two or three times before returning the tape to the store. I would later describe it as a seminal film-watching experience for me when I hosted a screening of the movie at Cinematheque in Winnipeg back in 2009. Notice that the programme guide mistakenly used a photo from Chained Heat 2 (1993), the vastly inferior sequel. The idea of these screenings was that playwrights (such as me) would host a film that was somehow important or influential in their development, or playwrighting career. Choosing Chained Heat was a no-brainer for me, as it directly influenced the first musical that I ever wrote. Thank you and R.I.P. to Dave Barber, who ran Cinematheque for almost 40 years and just died this past week (far too soon). I had known him since the early 1990s, and would often stop and talk film with him whenever we ran into each other. I will miss him forever.

As the ’80s wore on, the Women in Prison genre seemed to dry up a little, although there were still a respectable number of titles released. Most of them were direct to video
Ad for Reform School Girls, which came out the same year as Vendetta (1986)releases, and not as high quality in terms of production value. 1986 was a pretty good year, however. Reform School GirlsThe Naked Cage (by the director of Chained Heat), and Vendetta were all released that year. Reform School Girls was by far the highest profile film of those three. I remember it playing in the theatres, and I managed to catch it on pay TV a little later. I also bought the soundtrack L.P. which featured Wendy O. Williams (who also starred in the movie) and Etta James (who did not). I found out about Vendetta by reading Video Trash & Treasures by L.A. Morse. He gave it a decent review, and I was eventually able to track down a copy on VHS. 

What I liked best about Vendetta, was that it was a bit of a variation on the usual Women in Prison formula. WIPs are usually about an innocent woman going to jail (often because of a man). This happens in Vendetta, but the innocent woman dies in prison near the beginning of the movie. The remainder of the film focuses on the dead woman’s sister, who happens to be a tough, high kicking Hollywood stuntwoman named Laurie (played by Karen Chase). Laurie gets herself sent to the same prison where her sister died ON PURPOSE in an effort to find out who killed her sister, and to get revenge. And if there’s anything I like almost as much as a Women in Prison yarn, it’s a good revenge story. In fact, it could almost be called a vigilante story, as the police, prison officials, and other powers-that-be, seem unable to solve Laurie’s sister’s murder – or even to acknowledge it as a murder – so it’s up to Laurie to take the law into her own hands. And I do like vigilante stories.

I’ve watched Vendetta (1986) several times over the years, and was very pleased to recently pick up a Blu-ray edition from the good folks at Shout Factory. The film just seems to get better with age, and certainly this is the best it’s ever looked and sounded. It may not be the most famous WIP, it may not be the most loved WIP, it may not even be the best WIP – but it is definitely a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic, and one one my personal favourites. I would be happy to watch it on any (and every) #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Demoniacs (1974)

The consensus among my friends and acquaintances seems to be that The Demoniacs (1974), or Les Demoniaques (1974), is not Jean Rollin’s best film. I have to agree with that. I would much rather watch The Grapes of Death (1978), The Living Dead Girl (1982) or Requiem for a Vampire (1972), which I just saw for the first time a few months ago. Still, The Demoniacs is notable for a few things.

It was apparently Rollin’s first film with a larger budget. It was a France-Belgium co-production, and was shot on the Island of Chausey in Normandy. It has been called Rollin’s most “atypical film” and I can see why. Instead of the crumbling castles and graveyards of previous films like Requiem for a Vampire and The Iron Rose (1973), The Demoniacs spends a lot of time on the beach, and inside the remains of a wrecked ship. Rollin talked about his desire to make a movie that related to the swashbuckling adventure films of his youth, and with The Demoniacs he has created a story about pirates, or “wreckers”, who lure ships to their destruction on the rocks and then pillage them. The wreckers also gleefully murder any survivors, and in the case of the two sisters at the centre of The Demoniacs, they rape them and leave them for dead. Being a horror film, of sorts. the sisters survive and make a deal with the devil to get their revenge on the wreckers.

You could say that The Demoniacs is more of an unusual rape revenge film than a horror story. There are some weird, surrealistic and perhaps supernatural touches (it wouldn’t be a Jean Rollin film without them, would it?), but it isn’t about vampires or living dead girls – or is it? I must admit that I’m not 100% clear on all of the details. And as with a lot of Rollin films, it’s hard to decide exactly what kind of film it is. In a lot of ways, Jean Rollin is his own genre. Nobody makes movies quite like he does, and I believe that his films are not for everyone. I like to call his style art-house exploitation. Explicit and sleazy, but somehow classy and artistic at the same time. Rollin’s are not the only films to which I might apply this label, but I consider them to be perfect examples. They contain a lot of nudity and sex, and the word “porn” sometimes gets bandied about, but films like The Demoniacs are not porn. To be fair, Rollin did direct some actual hard core porn movies, but The Demoniacs is not one of them. A viewer who goes in expecting it to be porn will discover that it is decidedly soft core. There are a couple of deleted sex scenes on the Kino-Lorber Blu-ray, and if there had been any doubt, these scenes make it clear just how “soft” things really were…

Joëlle Coeur as Tina, one of the wreckers in The Demoniacs (1974)

I think most people would agree that the true highlight of The Demoniacs (1974) is the performance of Joëlle Coeur. She does not play one of two shipwrecked sisters, but rather one of the pirates, or wreckers, and she seems to take particular pleasure in molesting and murdering other characters. She also spends a lot of time naked. Coeur had an all too brief career as an actress, appearing in about twenty movies between 1972 and 1976, including I Am Frigid… Why? (1972), Schoolgirl Hitchhikers (1973) and Seven Women for Satan (1976). Exploitation film fans lost a potential superstar when Joëlle Coeur hung up her… um…  hat.

Poster art for I Am Frigid... Why? (1972)Poster art for Seven Women for Satan (1976)

Jean Rollin’s films are not for everyone, and The Demoniacs (1974) is a Jean Rollin film that isn’t for every Jean Rollin fan. I will probably never watch it as often as some of his other films, but I believe that it contains enough of his signature touch, as well as other #NotQuiteClassicCinema goodness, to make for a very pleasant #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn