Pros: I laughed. A lot.
Cons: To say this movie isn’t for all tastes may be the understatement of the century.
Note: Thundercrack! is an X-rated film. My review of the film may contain objectionable content. Please don’t read if you are easily offended.
Resembling a combination of the typical John Waters film and an overly melodramatic theatrical production, with generous doses of – literally – “anything goes” pornography and generic “haunted house” story thrown in for good measure, director Curt McDowell’s 1975 film Thundercrack! may simply be the most wacky, disturbed, deranged, and outright hilarious film that I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Filmed in scratchy, crackly black and white, the story begins during a heavy, nighttime rainstorm somewhere in backwoods, USA. Due to the dangerous weather conditions, a group of strangers find themselves holed up at a ramshackle estate known as “Prairie Blossom” – much to the delight of the (very) lonely “Mrs. Gert Hammond,” the drunken, disheveled widow living at the property. It soon becomes apparent that these aren’t your typical country folks: most of Mrs. Hammond’s guests appear to have only one thing on their mind – hooking up with any and everyone else in the building.
1975 – year of the ‘stash.
As the film progresses, each of the four men and three women get a chance to tell their (increasingly strange) life stories. Mrs. Hammond (when she isn’t spying on the various sexual exploits from behind a portrait of George Washington while masturbating with a cucumber) explains how she lost her husband due to a locust attack years earlier and claims that her son (the one with a room full of sex toys) “doesn’t exist” anymore. Her guests are perhaps even more cuckoo: a man named Chandler is on a quest to go to a girdle factory in Waco, Texas in order to burn it down in retaliation for the death of his wife, who was killed when one of the plant’s girdles caught fire and burned her alive at a cocktail party. Then there’s Willene, the virginal wife of a country music star, and Bond, the handsome drifter who both Chandler and Willene have eyes for. Toydy (a male) and Roo (a female) become obsessed with trying to discover what Mrs. Hammond is keeping behind one of the locked doors in her house, while circus worker Bing has fallen in love with Medusa, one of the female apes he works with…
This still provides some indication of what to expect in the film.
To say this film is a little “different” is being nice: Thundercrack! is plain whacked out, actually making a picture like John Waters’ infamous Pink Flamingos look pretty tame by comparison even if no one in Thundercrack! actually devours dog excrement onscreen. When Mrs. Hammond is seen vomiting into a toilet within minutes of the start of the film in an attempt to sober herself up for her guests (to say nothing of a scene involving Toydy, a blowup doll, and a dildo), it’s clear that this film operates under its own set of rules and isn’t going to play nice for anyone.
The most obviously alarming thing about Thundercrack! for many people would be the nearly constant graphic sexual content of any and all varieties. This film reminded me of John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus, which featured numerous, very explicit hetero and homosexual couplings, only Curt McDowell’s film is undoubtedly even more of a sexual free-for-all – Thundercrack! was, after all, made in the years prior to the AIDS epidemic (evidenced by the prevalence of body hair visible in the film). Nearly every character in the film hooks up with every other character and (if the full, explicit nudity and “money shots” don’t do it) CULTURE SHOCK! the matter-of-fact presentation of gay sex would be alarming to many (most?) people. Director McDowell (who died of AIDS in 1987) had previously made a number of gay-oriented short films, and both he and Thundercrack!’s co-star George Kuchar were regarded as underground film makers whose work laid the foundations of the so-called “transgressive film” movement that turned up in New York City in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. These films were notorious for the manner in which their content pushed all sorts of envelopes, and it’s not at all hard to see why a film like Thundercrack! would be seen as a sort of starting point for movement – this film, in the eyes of many, would be the very definition of a “transgressive film.”
THUNDERCRACK! and goofy-looking ape.
Despite the pornographic content though, Thundercrack! is about as far from being sexually stimulating as one could imagine: this film is an overload of unattractive people (at least in context) who do disgusting things. The entire film is (purposely) filthy and repulsive – but for the viewer who can revel in the film’s utter tastelessness and deal with the extreme content, it’s a jaw-dropping viewing experience. Written by McDowell, George Kuchar, and Mark Ellinger (who also composed the warbly, ragtime piano music featured on the soundtrack), the film cranks the melodrama level to 57 and seems to skewer popular and celebrity culture at every turn. Each of the characters here has some relation to this or that famous person and doesn’t hesitate to expose some sordid details about the lives of these (fictional – or are they?) rich and famous people. The general scenario for this film almost resembles an old-time drama, and the evolving story seems an attempt on the part of the writers to “one up” the outrageous situations that had come previously. Dialogue in this film is so cheesy, goofy, melodramatic, and idiosyncratic that I found myself laughing hysterically for much of the film’s run time – and I haven’t laughed this hard in a long, long time. It’s one quotable, off-the-wall line of dialogue after another, typically delivered by the actors in a manner that suggest their very lives hang in the balance of each and every line that they recite. In the end, it’s impossible not to snicker or plain crack up at the (literally) balls-out absurdity of this film.
Acting in the film is as loopy and frenzied as everything else here: Marion Eaton’s character perhaps most resembles one of the “proudly filthy” characters from a John Waters film, a sort of matriarch of the depraved who attempts to put on a guise of civility amongst the squalor of her decaying mansion. Melinda McDowell (GULP! sister of the director) and Moria Benson play the two floozies apparently afflicted with overpowering oral fixations, while Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, George Kuchar, and Rick Johnson play the burly men who have, shall we say, some interesting tastes. Personally, I thought the cast was spot-on great for this film. Mind you, there aren’t any fantastic acting performances here, but the enthusiastic cast and their ridiculously strained line recitations ensures the film is very lively and immensely enjoyable. It also struck me as rather remarkable that actors (or are they actually degenerates?) would agree to appear in a film of this nature in the first place. Apparently, things really were very different in the mid-1970s.
Flashbacks and stories-within-the-story feature prominently.
Thundercrack! has rarely been seen in the nearly four decades since its release, and the versions of this film that are floating around are copies of copies of copies – most taken from a semi-official Dutch DVD release. The print I watched was full of picture imperfections, lapses in image clarity, and sound drop offs, yet this seemed appropriate given the nature of the film – and may have actually improved the viewing experience. Curt McDowell’s direction in the film is nothing special, having more in common with the Ed Wood style of film making than anything else. Again though, the trash film aesthetic applied to this picture serves the material well – it would be really hard to swallow this film if everything wasn’t layered with cheese. Editing in the film ensured the story moved right along, though I’ve got to say that the picture (running 120 minutes in the version I saw) seemed overlong – hard to believe an even longer version of the film (running a downright ridiculous 150 minutes) exists. The length seems more or less a moot point though – by the manic end of this film, I was simply left staring stupefied at the screen.
Similarly to a film like Richard Elfman’s wonderfully delirious Forbidden Zone, Curt McDowell’s legendary (in some circles at least) Thundercrack! contains many more ideas than any dozen Hollywood films put together. Threatening to burst at the seems with unbridled, unrestrained creativity, the film’s many different story elements combine to make this one of the singular films I could ever hope to see. Having spent most of my life searching out the “weirdest of the weird” films out there, I would have to declare this one of the (and perhaps THE) most strange and utterly unique films I’ve ever taken a look at. Like films such as Singapore Sling and Nekromantik, Thundercrack! is an indescribable flick that only a select bunch of viewers would truly appreciate – or frankly, want to see at all – but one that’s the very definition of a must-see for the true cult film aficionado. My highest recommendation:
Any version of this film around anymore is bootleg/trash video quality. The Dutch DVD (NON-USA FORMAT) seems to be about the only official release, but there are (even more) grey-market copies in existence. A version from Synapse Films has been in the works for years and one can only hope this DVD eventually materializes.
10/10 : Minimal blood or violence; enough weirdness to fill a year’s worth of Hollywood films.
10/10 : Constant sexual innuendo and dialogue; some strong profanity. Most every line in this film is comedy gold.
10/10 : Full male and female nudity; explicit hetero and homosexual sex acts – worth noting that this film is more homo oriented than hetero. As graphic as this film is though, I doubt many people would be turned on by it.
10/10 : This is one of the most outrageous films I’ve ever seen, and a cult film of the first order.
So many hilarious lines of dialogue…
Frustrated lover reveals all: “No, it wouldn’t be for you – you’d rather I tell you at midnight behind the trash cans at a Greyhound bus depot.”
Melodrama gone bad: “She looked like a bag of potatoes that was oozing with margarine…”
The Film in a nutshell: “I’m young and I’m restless and I’m not to be trusted. There’s a lot of energy in this body and it hops around from bed to bed like a flea.
“Have you ever seen the kids poking at the animals with their crutches?”: