Shattered Politics #42: Blue Sunshine (dir by Jeff Lieberman)

(I wrote an earlier version of this review for HorrorCritic.Com.)


Occasionally, on twitter, I would take part in the Drive-In Mob live tweet session.  Every Thursday night, a group of exploitation, grindhouse, and horror film fans gog together and watched the same film and, via twitter, provided their own running commentary track.  It was always terrific fun and a good opportunity to discover some films that you might have otherwise missed.  It was through the Drive-In Mob that I first discovered a low-budget cult classic from 1978, Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine (directed by the underrated horror director Jeff Lieberman) opens in the late 1970s.  Across California, people are suddenly going bald and turning psychotic.  At a party, singer Frannie Scott (played by Richard Crystal) has a nervous breakdown when another reveler playfully pulls off his wig and reveals Frannie to be hairless.  Frannie responds by tossing half of the guests into the fireplace and then running out into the night.  He’s pursued by his best friend Jerry Zipkin (played by future director Zalman King) but when Frannie is accidentally killed while running away, Jerry finds himself accused of being a murderer.  Even as the police pursue him, Jerry starts his own investigation.  He quickly discovers that there’s an epidemic of bald people suddenly murdering those closest to them.  The one thing that these people have in common: they all attended Stanford University in the late 1960s and they all used a powerful form of LSD known as “blue sunshine.”  Now, ten years later, they’re all having the worst flashback imaginable.

And, perhaps most dangerously, the campus drug dealer, spoiled rich kid Edward Fleming (Mark Goddard), is on the verge of being elected to the U.S. Congress.  Not only it is possible that Edward may have taken the acid himself but Edward and his campaign manager have their own reasons to try to make sure that Jerry never reveals the truth behind Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine is probably one of the best of the old grindhouse films, a film that embraces the conventions of both the horror and the political thriller genres while, at the same time, neatly subverting our expectations.  Director Jeff Lieberman emphasizes atmosphere over easy shocks and the film’s cast does a pretty good job of making us wonder who is normal and who has dropped the blue sunshine.  Wisely, Lieberman doesn’t resort to giving us any easy villains in this film.  Much like the best horror films, the monsters in Blue Sunshine are as much victims as victimizers.  I especially sympathized by one poor woman who was driven to rip off her wig by the sound of two particularly obnoxious children chanting, “We want Dr. Pepper!” over and over again.  Seriously, that’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

Blue Sunshine is one of those wonderfully odd little cult films that makes me thankful that I own a DVD player.  First released in 1978, Blue Sunshine mixes psychological horror with political conspiracy and the end result is an unusually intelligent B-movie that remains relevant even when seen today.  Blue Sunshine was originally released on DVD by Synapse Entertainment and it has since been re-released by the New Video Group.  I own the Synapse edition, which features a very entertaining director’s commentary with Jeff Lieberman as well as a bonus CD of the film’s haunting and atmospheric score.

Shattered Politics #41: Billy Jack Goes To Washington (dir by Tom Laughlin)


The Happy Hooker wasn’t the only person to go to Washington in 1977!  Billy Jack may have started out killing bikers and then moved on to killing Bernard Posner and then finally ended up killing yet another Mr. Posner but, in 1977, Billy Jack was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Now, it may seem strange to think of someone like Billy Jack being appointed to the U.S. Senate.  Over the course of the previous three films in the franchise, Billy had been shot in the back, shot in the leg, arrested for murder, convicted of manslaughter, and then shot by the National Guard.  In Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack, Billy goes as far as to state that he does not feel the laws of the United States apply to him.

And then, when you consider that the three previous films all featured old, rich, white guys plotting to kill Billy, you would be justified in wondering how he would ever find himself appointed to serve in the senate.

But it happened!

And we’ve got a movie to prove it.

Directed by and starring Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack Goes To Washington is actually a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  (To the film’s credit, it’s honest enough to actually give credit to Mr. Smith‘s screenwriters in the opening credits.)  What’s remarkable is just how faithful a remake Billy Jack Goes To Washington actually is.  All the scenes made famous by Jimmy Stewart — the scene where the newest member of the Senate attempts to introduce his first bill, the scene where he’s shocked to discover that Sen. Paine (played here by E.G. Marshall) takes orders from Boss Bailey (Sam Wanamaker), the scene where cynical Saunders (Lucie Arnaz) tells the senator that he should leave Washington, and, of course, that famous filibuster — are all faithfully recreated here.  The only difference, of course, is that it’s no longer idealistic Jimmy Stewart proving himself to be incredibly naive about politics.  Instead, it’s a former Green Beret, half-Indian, judo master named Billy Jack.

Tom Laughlin was a good actor, which is something that’s often overlooked by reviewers writing about the Billy Jack films.  As flawed as The Trial of Billy Jack may have been, Tom Laughlin was a compelling enough presence that the film itself remains a compulsively watchable 3-hour mess.  Laughlin had a very authoritative presence.  You looked at him and you knew that he knew what he was doing.  He was someone who you automatically wanted on your side, a natural born leader who knew how to get things done.  However, in Billy Jack Goes To Washington, Laughlin attempts to play Billy Jack as the type of naive neophyte who would be shocked to discover that politicians are corrupt.  But surely, after spending three films being harassed by every authority figure in America, Billy would have already realized that.  There’s nothing about Laughlin’s screen presence that suggests he could ever be that innocent.

And that’s the main problem with Billy Jack Goes To Washington.  For the film to have any chance of working, you have to forget everything that you’ve learned about Billy Jack over the previous three films.  However, if you haven’t seen any of the other Billy Jack films, then you probably wouldn’t be watching Billy Jack Goes To Washington in the first place.

Of course, since this is a Billy Jack film, there are a few scenes that were nowhere to be found in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  For instance, Saunders’s husband is murdered when he threatens to reveal the truth about Bailey’s operation.  Later, Billy, Jean (Delores Taylor), and Carol (Teresa Laughlin) are confronted by a gang of Bailey’s assassins and, for the only time in the entire movie, Billy goes through that whole routine where he takes off his boots while slowly speaking and then kicks everyone’s ass.  (Jean and Carol get to join in the ass-kicking as well and good for them!)

And, of course, there’s the scene where Billy, Jean, and the kids from the Freedom School (who are apparently now known as Billy’s Raiders) have a meeting with two liberal social activists.  It’s an interesting scene because it was clearly unscripted and it has a naturalistic feel to it that’s lacking from the rest of the film.  However, that does not mean that it’s a particularly good scene.  If I learned anything from Billy Jack Goes To Washington, it’s that self-righteous activists in 1977 were just as boring as self-righteous activists in 2015.

And yet, as I’ve said about all of the other Billy Jack films, I can’t bring myself to be too hard on Billy Jack Goes To Washington.  Again, it all comes down to sincerity.  It’s clear that Laughlin and Taylor felt they were making a difference with their films and that sincerity comes through in a way that makes Billy Jack Goes To Washington a likable, if rather inept, film.

Billy Jack Goes To Washington ran for a week in one theater in 1977 and was reportedly such a box office disaster that it couldn’t get a wider release.  (In a commentary track that he recorded for the film’s DVD release, Laughlin suggests the film was the victim of shadowy government forces.)*  While Laughlin and Taylor would later try to make The Return of Billy Jack, that film was left uncompleted at the time of Laughlin’s death.  So, the last time that filmgoers would see Billy Jack, he would still be U.S. Sen. Billy Jack.

And really, that’s the perfect ending for the saga of Billy Jack.  Starting out as a loner who protected a small California town from a biker gang to eventually becoming the protector of the Freedom School to finally embracing both non-violence and his love for Jean, Billy Jack earned himself a happy ending.

Having now watched and reviewed all four of the Billy Jack films, all I can do is say thank you to Delores Taylor and the spirit of Tom Laughlin.  It was great ride.



* To be honest, the commentaries that Laughlin and Taylor recorded for the Billy Jack films are actually very informative and interesting.  Laughlin actually had a far better sense of humor than you might guess from some of the movies he directed.

Shattered Politics #40: The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington (dir by William A. Levey)


“God bless you, Ms. Hollander!  You have saved us from recession!”

— Dialogue from The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington (1977)

Le sigh.

The things that I do for this site!

If I wasn’t currently in the process of watching and reviewing 94 films about politicians and politics, I can guarantee that I would never have watched The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington.  However, while I was looking for films to review for this series, I went over to Netflix and did a search on “Washington.”

Guess which film came up first?

If you guessed The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington, you would be correct!  And you know what?  I watched this movie with an open mind.  As anyone who has read this site knows, I have never been shy about my love of old exploitation films.  The fact of the matter is that some of the most imaginative films ever made were low-budget grindhouse movies.  Nothing angers me more than elitist film bloggers who dismiss a film just because it originally played in grindhouse cinema.

But, honestly, The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington is just bad.  It’s boring.  The acting is terrible.  The jokes fall flat.  The attempts at political satire are about as clever as what you’d find on any site trying to read like the Onion without actually being the Onion.

In the Happy Hooker Goes To Washington, Joey Heatherton plays Xaviera Hollander, a former madam who is now a businesswoman, magazine publisher, and sex advise columnist.  She is apparently the world’s leading authority on sex.  We know this because, when she first appears, she’s surrounded by reporters.  “When sex is news, you’re news!” one of them tells her.

Xaviera has been called to testify in front of the Senate Committee To Investigate Sexual Excess In America.  And goddamn, this movie is stupid.  But anyway, Xaviera goes to Washington to stand up for sexual freedom.  Accompanying her is an attorney named Ward Thompson (George Hamilton) and, quicker than you can say “Fifth place on Dancing With The Stars,” Ward is explaining to Xaviera why her testimony is so important.

“We’re heading right into the teeth of a new puritanism,” he tells her.  “Under the new puritanism, there won’t be any happy hookers!”

Anyway, Xaviera testifies in front of the committee and we get a few flashbacks to some of Xaviera’s past accomplishments.  And then she gets recruited by a dwarf (Billy Barty) and is sent to seduce an Middle Eastern ruler and … well, it just keep going and going.  This is one of the longest 84-minute films ever released.

Anyway, this movie sucks.  (And so does Xaviera!  That’s the level of humor that you can expect when you watch The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington.)  It’s still lurking around Netflix.  Avoid it at all costs.

Shattered Politics #39: Taxi Driver (dir by Martin Scorsese)


We’ve never had a President named Charles.  We’ve had several Presidents named John and a quite a few named James.  We’ve even had three named George.  But we’ve never had a Charles.  We’ve come close.  Charles Evans Hughes nearly beat evil old Woodrow Wilson in 1916.  Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was nominated two times in a row by the Federalists but lost to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively.  We’ve had three Vice Presidents names Charles — Fairbanks, Dawes, and Curtis — but never a President.

And, if we ever do elect a President named Charles, he’s probably go by either Charlie or Chuck.  The United States has always liked to think of itself as being a country that has no official royal family and, as a name, Charles probably sounds far to aristocratic for most voters.

That’s why I’m sure that, once U.S. Sen. Charles Palatine won the Democratic presidential nomination back in 1976, he probably insisted that people start calling him Chuck.  Of course, Sen. Palatine probably had no idea how lucky he was to win that nomination.  If not for a few secret service agents, Sen. Palatine could very well have fallen victim to a psychotic taxi driver named Travis Bickle.

Sen. Palatine’s presidential campaign is a major subplot of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece of paranoia, Taxi Driver.  As played by an actor named Leonard Harris, Sen. Palatine appears to be the epitome of a politician.  He may smile at the right moment but his eyes are always shifty.  Even his campaign slogan (“We Are The people!”) is vapid in an all too plausible way.  (How different is “We Are the People” from “We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For?”)  For the most part, Palatine remains a remote figure, giving speeches and appearing in television commercials.  The only time that we get to know Palatine as a person is when he gets in a taxi being driven by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).

Travis recognizes him immediately and tells him that he tells everyone who gets in the cab that “they gotta vote for you.”  Palatine smirks a little as he asks Travis what he thinks the most important issue of the election is.  Travis goes on a bit about how someone needs to destroy all of the scum and filthy lowlifes who seem to populate Travis’s section of New York.  As Travis rambles, Palatine’s smile disappears and it becomes obvious that he’s realized that he is essentially being driven by a psycho.  Oh shit, Palatine is probably thinking, this guy is telling people that they gotta vote for me?  However, Palatine quickly regains his composure and assures Travis that the wisest people that he’s ever met have been taxi drivers.

Of course, what Palatine doesn’t realize is that Travis only knows about the campaign because he happens to be obsessed with a Palatine campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd).  And Betsy even goes out with Travis a few times.  But then Travis, who spends the majority of the film showing how little skill he has when it comes to understanding and relating to other people, takes Betsy to an adult film.

With Betsy refusing to take his calls, Travis’s attention shifts to Iris (Jodie Foster), a teenage prostitute.  Obviously seeing himself as being a knight in shining armor, Travis tells Iris that she has to go back home to her parents.  As Travis talks, it becomes apparent that he’s simply repeating talking points that he’s heard on TV.  (If Taxi Driver was made today, Travis would be one of those people constantly sharing “inspirational” Facebook posts.)  Iris laughs at Travis and goes back to her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).

And, of course, Travis goes even crazier than before.

38 years after it was first released, Taxi Driver remains a disturbing and powerful film.  However, what makes it effective is that, in many ways, it’s perhaps the darkest comedy ever made.  Throughout the entire film, Travis essentially tells everyone that he meets that he’s disturbed and potentially dangerous and, throughout the entire film, everyone seems to be determined to ignore all of the signs.

Critics always talks about the scene where Travis points a gun at his mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?”  And that’s a great scene.  It deserves to be famous, just as De Niro deserves all of the praise that he’s gotten for his iconic performance in Taxi Driver.

However, for me, there are two other scenes that are just as brilliant.  The first is where Travis attempts to get some advice from an older cabbie named Wizard (Peter Boyle).  Travis says he’s been having a lot bad thoughts.  Wizard shrugs and says that everyone has those.  What makes this scene particularly memorable are the lengths that Wizard goes to in order to avoid acknowledging that Travis is obviously disturbed.

And then, there’s the scene where Travis buys a gun from Easy Andy (Steven Prince).  Andy is such a salesman and is so nonchalant about all of his weaponry that, for a few brief minutes, Steven Prince actually manages to steal the spotlight from Robert De Niro.

Whenever one thinks about Taxi Driver, one automatically pictures Robert De Niro.  That’s why it’s all the more interesting that De Niro was not the first choice for Travis.  When Taxi Driver was in pre-production and a pre-Jaws Steven Spielberg (of all people) was thinking about directing it, Jeff Bridges as briefly attached to the role.  And while it’s always tempting to think about what a Spielberg/Bridges version of Taxi Driver would look like, I think we’re all right to be happy that the actual film was directed by Scorsese and starred De Niro.  They truly made Taxi Driver into one of the most memorable films ever made.


Trailer: The Fantastic Four

Here’s the official trailer for Interstellar 2!

Oh wait…sorry…

This film is called The Fantastic Four.  Apparently, somebody realized just how bad the previous Fantastic Four films were and decided to just reboot the whole franchise.

Anyway, judging from this trailer, it looks like this film might be more like Man of Steel than Guardians of the Galaxy.