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Sin Cities and Sex Swamps

Two obscure exploitation sex thrillers restored by Nicholas Winding Refn offer baffling glimpses of some alien world of counter-cinema.
David Cairns
MUBI is exclusively premiering online the new restorations of Hot Thrills and Warm Chills (1967) and The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965) as part of the series ByNWR.
I think it was Quentin Tarantino who said that the grindhouse enthusiast not only has to drink a lot of milk to get to the cream, they have to drink a lot of curdled milk. And I generally figured I would leave that to someone else because it didn't sound too appetizing. So I have to be grateful to Nicholas Winding Refn, a sturdier trashonaut than I, who has performed curatorial duties, rediscovering and restoring two prime examples of cultist cream, thick, clotted and soured and probably very bad for your figure. I shouldn't, I really shouldn't. But I'm going to.
Hot Thrills and Warm Chills (1967) accompanies its nonsensical title with some really exciting Latin rhythms, credited to "Dario de Mexico" (who has no other IMDb credits). Other crew members include fellows rejoicing in the names of Herman Edelweis and Herman Queer. Just think, a movie nobody would even admit to being unit manager on—not under their right name, anyway.
Director Dale Berry, also an actor, has an unusual visual style, placing his camera in the mini-bar in scene one and keeping it there, even when one "actor" stands squarely in front of everyone else. Three showgirls are discussing their sex lives, which is about all that seems set to happen in this movie apart from the aging process, which you may start to become aware of. Berry's editor, Charlie Goldhammer, does drop in a couple of close-ups eventually, but his most interesting contribution is fragmenting the timeline in order to incorporate a specialty dance showcasing lead Rita Alexander's ability to balance a champagne glass on her right tit, and drink from it. The fact that Goldhammer has no other credits of any kind means that either he's another shamefaced pseudonym, or nobody else wanted him.
Rita is played by Russ Meyer's Lorna Maitland, a back-combed goddess in Lurex, eyebrows arching crazily up her brow like a McDonald's sign, who delivers all her lines into space (all the actors seem to occupy their own pocket universes, despite Berry's tendency to observe group discussions from a single, distant perspective). I'm not going to count her dance as a scene, though, as it has no narrative connection. For all I know, it's a dream sequence.
Scene two: a mattress. A couple of people we haven't met and never will meet make out, to more explosive Mexican trumpetry. It's relatively tame and surprisingly tender: no rough stuff here. It's mildly sexy, and highly nostalgic, a time capsule of an age when even smut was clean.
Then it's over, and we're in a two-shot as the showgirls exchange sub-Mae-Westisms. The dialogue is far more suggestive than the picture track: in the age of softcore, erections were strictly outside the frame, but could be referenced in sniggery double-entendres.
The next sequence is framed as another reminiscence, but again, the girl doing the remembering isn't present, so we start to suspect that Berry has simply shot a bunch of isolated bed shows and strung them together with an aimless, realistically desultory conversation. Here, the snappy music is punctuated by asynchronous gasps and mewls, lending a nightmarish quality to some fairly standard silicone mashing. It's not just the maracas that are shaking.
Finally, a plot does arrive, as Maitland outlines a scheme to steal "the crown of King Sex" from a swellegant party during Mardi Gras. The film then seems to forget this storyline in a series of further sex and striptease sequences which go beyond gratuitousness into sheer abstraction, before anticipating Reservoir Dogs by jumping straight into the heist's aftermath, omitting the crime itself.
We have to give Dale Berry credit for inventing a new way of making a film: apparently shooting some random nudie footage and then concocting interstitial conversations to connect them, splicing on a shoot-out, and calling the result a movie. It's not a technique likely to ever work, but at least it's a fresh approach. If it weren't for the excellent music, I'm not sure I could agree that Hot Thrills and Warm Chills is a film. Perhaps a "collection of footage," or "an array of movements and conversations." But whatever it is, it's unusual, and the implausible but impressively grim denouement certainly adds to the indefinable sense that you've just seen something.
The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds
The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965) is a different creature altogether, even if a spliced-in make-out scene before the opening titles suggests more wantonly shuffled exploitation elements. In fact, the ensuing film has, more or less, a narrative through-line, complete with twists. So its interest doesn't lie in fragmentation and chaos alone, but in a genuinely atmospheric genre mash-up combining crime, horror and sex, and juxtaposing expressive experimental filmmaking with hilarious amateur-hour incompetence.
The movie was considered lost until recently, so its reappearance is a cause for genuine celebration: seen at last, this cult oddity reveals startlingly good bits, perhaps resulting from its auteur's experience at something called the Experimental Camera Workshop in Florida. These good bits can stand beside the best bits of Carnival of Souls, a comparable no-budget semi-professional daymare. The bad bits, however, are light-years worse than any of the bad bits in Carnival of Souls, which makes them pretty bad, but as in that better-known item, even the terrible stuff is endearing and sort of... works?
Bad acting is rarely very interesting, but actor-writer-director-producer Bert Williams has a unique style of eye-rolling hesitation, designed to convince us he's really thinking up his dialogue on the spot, but in reality looking like he's got his lines written across the ceiling in massive letters. One suspects Williams must have seen Rod Steiger and thought, "Paunchy, sweaty guys can be movie stars? Great!" The way he telegraphs his attempts at looking spontaneous suggests a man channelling Steiger via faulty wiring with poor insulation in a flooded basement.
The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds
His other actors are worse, though, much worse (Williams bowed out with a role in The Usual Suspects, so he was evidently capable of conviction when directed by others). First prize in a crowded field must go to the guy with the Amish beard glued up under his face and what look like corn flakes under his eyes, who seems set on making his make-up seem convincing compared to his performance. He is a bit like the "Gotta light?" woodsman from Twin Peaks, I guess, and he's an alarming presence just because you can't imagine what kind of mind would put someone looking like that in front of a camera.
But the music by Peggy Williams (some relation?) is a gorgeous sleepy-time mix of guitar and bongos and vocals that seem to be recorded at the bottom of a well, lulling us into a strange mood, half somnolent, half restless, even during outrageous scenery-chewing and surreal dialogue ("You mean killing people isn't bothering them?") which should be hilarious but is somehow just perturbing.
Best of all is the naked masked blade-wielding girl, who explodes into the film with real shock impact, accompanied by oppressive, drawn-out screams. She doesn't move, she just teleports from one pose to another by jump cut, a terrifying bare-ass invader from some other kind of film language, killing all in her path. Her presence alone, brief though it is, elevates the film to a kind of insane genius, the floaty, drab ineptitude of her surroundings only serving to make her appearances the more alarming. Her slender, milky, lethal form really incarnates the metaphor of the cream to be found in the stinky, curdled surroundings of exploitation cinema.


Dale BerryBert Williams
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