Cinema's Hidden Pearls -- Part II

One of nature's rarest items, a pearl is produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk. Just like the shell of a clam, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form, which has been deposited in concentric layers. Truly flawless pearls are infrequently produced in nature, and as a result, the pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable.

Hidden pearls exist in the world of movies, as well: films that, in spite of being brilliantly crafted and executed, never got the audience they deserved beyond a cult following.

Here are a few more of our favorite hidden pearls in the world of film:

1. Massacre at Central High (1976)

Dutch director, and former cameraman for the legendary Russ Meyer, Rene Daalder was hired by producers to direct an exploitation film set in a suburban high school with all the expected sex, nudity and violence that defines the genre. What they got instead was something totally unexpected: David (Derrel Maury) a sensitive, but extremely tough kid, transfers to Central High, where he reconnects with childhood pal Mark (Andrew Stevens) who is part of the school's ruling clique, led by the Hitler Youth-esque Craig (Steve Bond), who rule over the student body like a police state. When David stands up to their bullying of other, weaker students, the clique retaliates, crippling David, only to find themselves being picked off one-by-one, having finally messed with the right wrong person. Although it certainly contains the above-mentioned exploitation elements, Massacre is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the rise of Fascism in society, brilliantly executed by the filmmakers and its young, attractive cast (female lead Kimberly Beck was one of the great beauties of her day). Highly influential upon dozens of later "teen" films, most notably Heathers, the film has been embroiled in a rights battle between its producers for decades, keeping a proper DVD/Blu-ray release and restoration from happening. Named by Roger Ebert as one of the ten best films of 1976, Massacre at Central High is a unique work that is alternately unsettling, hilarious and very sexy.

2. Quadrophenia (1979)

Inspired by The Who's second, eponymous rock opera, after the classic Tommy, Quadrophenia is one of the greatest youth movies ever made, easily standing tall next to Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Over the Edge,and more. Phil Daniels plays Jimmy, a disaffected 19 year-old done with school but still not grown up, making as meager a living as a working class lad can in 1965 London. His only sense of belonging and identity comes from being a Mod, youths who related to post-modern popular culture in their dress (sharp suits and short haircuts), musical taste (The Who, modern jazz) and vehicles (Vespa scooters). Jimmy pops blues (amphetamines), gets into brawls with Rockers (leather-clad kids who ride motorcycles and have tastes still rooted in 1950s outlaw culture) and pursues the elusive, beautiful Steph (Leslie Ash). Jimmy's struggle to fit in and define himself is incredibly moving. When he reconnects with an old school pal (a young Ray Winstone) who turns out to be on the "wrong side," Jimmy's anguish is palpable, as is his final, stunning act of rebellion, played out on the White Cliffs of Dover. Watch for Sting in his film debut as Ace Face, leader of the Mods, who's charismatic image masks a sad reality.

3. Zardoz (1974)

In an interview with director John Boorman earlier this year, I told him what a huge fan I've always been of his sci-fi film Zardoz, that I've seen it eight times, and I still don't know what the hell it's about. He laughed and agreed that he wasn't quite sure, either. Sean Connery is Zed, a primitive warrior in a future world divided into two camps: the poor savages and the privileged immortals. The savages worship the god Zardoz, a flying stone head that disperses guns and wisdom ("The Penis is evil! The Penis shoots Seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the Gun shoots Death and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth, and kill! Zardoz has spoken.") Zed hitches a ride on the head and finds himself in the Vortex, home to the immortals, including the beautiful Consuela (the appropriately beautiful Charlotte Rampling), throwing the balance of the world off-center. Even watching this film stoned doesn't quite make it add up, but it's a stunning, wonderful ride nonetheless. New Blu-ray release makes it shine that much stronger.

4. Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point is the greatest existential chase/road picture ever made. The plot is so simultaneously simple and complex, it's worthy of Camus: Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a professional driver who is hired to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. Along the way, he breaks every law governing speed on the books, sparks a cross-country manhunt by every trigger-happy law enforcement agency known to man, and becomes a folk hero to the audience of DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who gives hourly updates on Kowalski's progress to the rebellious youth of the day. Vanishing Point is one of those films that runs an hour and forty minutes (and in the European cut, which we prefer, a bit longer) and has maybe ten pages of dialogue: in short, it's pure cinema. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, who was primarily a character actor, and knocked this 90 mph fastball out of the park.

5. Electra Glide In Blue (1973)

Another existentialist masterpiece masquerading as a murder mystery/policier, Electra stars Robert Blake as John Wintergreen, a pint-sized Arizona Highway Patrolman whose Napoleon Complex gives him a fire in the belly for bigger, better things: namely a detective's gold shield. When a hermit is found dead from a shotgun blast in his desert shack, Wintergreen sees the case, which has more to it than initially meets the eye, as his ticket to the big-time. The only directorial effort of James William Guercio, known primarily as being manager of the group Chicago (who make a memorable cameo as a band of murderous hippies), who wisely spent a big chunk of his budget hiring the great Conrad Hall to shoot his film, Electra is one of the greatest-looking films of that hallowed cinematic decade that was the '70s. Blake gives his finest (and most ironic, given how his life played out) performance, with his monologue toward the film's devastating climax ("Loneliness'll kill you deader than a .357 Magnum") one of the most heartbreaking speeches ever committed to film.

6. Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm, 1968)

The UK has a film ratings system that goes back to the early 20th century, 1912 to be exact. By the late 1960s, films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate pushed the need for such a system in the U.S. to its breaking point. A few films released in 1968 helped that final straw break. This was one of them. Telling the true story of the infamous Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price in his greatest, least hammy performance), England's infamous "witch hunter" who, with his assistant Stearne (Robert Russell) executed more than 300 people, mainly women, during their two to three years of 'witch hunting'. Considering that 500 people in total were executed for witchcraft in England between the late 15th and late 18th centuries, it means that Hopkins was responsible for two thirds of these executions during a period of three years. Ian Ogilvy is the dashing young soldier who vows revenge upon Hopkins after his attack on his beautiful fiancée (Hilary Dwyer, both beautiful and a fine actress). In addition to a literate screenplay, inspired by Edgar Alan Poe's The Conqueror Worm, the film's then-unprecedented graphic violence, sex and nudity (still strong by today's standards) was notable not only for its depiction, but for not being simultaneously exploitative. Director Michael Reeves, just 24 at the time of filming, gives the proceedings a matter-of-fact realism that makes it all the more disturbing. Sadly, Reeves would die of an accidental overdose a year after the film's release.

7. El Topo (aka The Mole, 1970)

The first season of Saturday Night Live had one of their greatest fake commercials, showing Dan Ayckroyd and Gilda Radner arguing over whether an aerosol can's contents contained a dessert topping or a floor wax. Chevy Chase then cheerfully enters, declaring "Shimmer is a floor wax AND a dessert topping!" Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo is much the same: It's a spaghetti western. It's a Christ allegory. It's a comedy. It's a tragedy. It's profane. It's reverent. It's graphically violent and sexual. It's peaceful and beautiful. And that's just the first twenty minutes! Largely regarded as the first "midnight movie," El Topo was lucky enough to be seen by John Lennon and Yoko Ono during a New York screening, who suggested to their then-manager, the notorious Allen Klein, that he distribute it through his newly-formed ABKCO Films, becoming an instant hit among the counterculture, yet never completely connecting with mainstream audiences, for obvious reasons.

8. Black Sunday (1977)

John Frankenheimer is the only director to rate one film on both lists. Based on Thomas (Silence of the Lambs) Harris' first, and only, non-Hannibal Lecter novel. When a Black September terrorist camp is raided by a Mossad team, led by Commander Kabakov (Robert Shaw), all its denizens are wiped out, save the comely Dahlia Ilad (Marthe Keller) whom Shaw catches au naturele in the shower. The rest of the movie has Kabakov and his lieutenant (the late Steven Keats) trying to correct this mistake. Not only was Dahlia the most dangerous terrorist there, she is planning on hijacking the Goodyear Blimp with an unhinged Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern, at his best) and blowing up the Super Bowl! Prescient, to say the least, and almost unrelenting in its level of tension and suspense, Black Sunday also gains its brilliance from an utterly objective screenplay by Ivan Moffat, Ernest Lehman and Kenneth Ross, showing the clear POV of the Israeli, Palestinian and Americans involved. Released to be Paramount's first blockbuster of 1977, the film got critical raves across the board, but tanked at the box office. Paramount released a terrific DVD about a decade ago, and now we wait anxiously for the Blu-ray this film, the best thriller of the '70s, richly deserves.

9. Targets (1968)

After paying his dues working with "King of the Bs" Roger Corman for several years, Peter Bogdanovich was given the opportunity to write and direct his first film, a low budget affair that would have to be shot quickly. Bogdanovich and his then-wife/collaborator Polly Platt (along with uncredited work from the great Sam Fuller) came up with this ingenious little thriller, loosely based on University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, about a deranged Vietnam vet sniper (Tim O'Kelly) and a veteran horror film star (Boris Karloff, in one of his final films) whose lives intersect at a drive-in theater in the film's climax. Bogdanovich himself co-stars. The film was released only a month after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, causing many theaters to refuse bookings and patrons to stay away. It's now regarded as an overlooked masterpiece, rightfully.

10. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Director Robert Aldrich, best known for The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard, had his finest hour with this brilliant, bizarre reinvention of Mickey Spillane's Fascist detective Mike Hammer. After reluctantly rescuing a damsel in distress (Cloris Leachman, her film debut) on a deserted highway, private eye Mike Hammer (the great Ralph Meeker) finds himself embroiled in a Byzantine plot of murder, graft, vice and an A-bomb! Arguably the single greatest influence on the filmmakers of the French New Wave, Aldrich broke new ground with his use of music, dialogue, sex and violence in a brutal noir that remains potent at age sixty. In 1955, however, it was too far out to connect with audiences, and was viewed as a box office failure. You'll never forget the final scene on the beach.