Thursday, December 18, 2008

PETS (1973): From Playhouse to Grindhouse

Maybe you've seen the trailer -- pretty blonde starlet Candice Rialson doing a go-go striptease to "Soul Kitchen" by the Doors, while an announcer informs us that "There is an animal in every woman! A rare and dangerous species!" That's kid's stuff compared to the one-sheet poster: a photo of Ms. Rialson and co-star Teri Guzman chained and leashed like animals in a zoo. "PETS -- Fondle them! PETS -- Play with them! Love them! But watch out! PETS -- They bite!"

Richard Reich's no-budget oddity PETS reared its ugly head on the exploitation circuit in 1973, sporting one of the most lurid and misogynistic advertising campaigns ever aimed at the drive-in crowd. Forget about WOMEN IN CAGES, THE WOMAN HUNT ("Women were made for men to HUNT!"), THE BIG BIRD CAGE, or any of the other R-rated cheapies cranked out during the same period; those were prison movies for the most part -- BRUTE FORCE in drag -- so at least the filmmakers had a legitimate reason to work the image of caged/chained women into the publicity materials. Besides, the posters and trailers for those movies usually showed the women fighting their way out of bondage -- like the one-sheet for BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, with the titular heroines using the chains that enslave them to strangle and whip one of their male captors to a bloody pulp. Sadly, even that Roger Corman-styled veneer of pseudo-feminism is missing from the PETS poster. There's no sign that Candy and Teri are going to put up any kind of struggle at all.

But let's be fair for a moment. Exploitation films have always been about selling the sizzle, not the steak, so we couldn't possibly blame the guy in publicity for concentrating solely on the S&M aspects of the story. What other choice did he have? "PETS! Straight from an unsuccessful off-Broadway run! PETS! The play that ran 30 weeks in London's West End! PETS! Coming soon to a drive-in near you!"

PETS, three one-act plays written by Richard Reich, was first performed onstage in May of 1969, at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. The first playlet, "Baby with a Knife," co-starred two thespians who are probably familiar to most Temple of Schlock readers: Marlene Clark, a regular on Sanford and Son, who also turned up in B-films and cult favorites like PUTNEY SWOPE, GANJA AND HESS, ENTER THE DRAGON, and SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, and Alan Weeks, who would later go on to supporting gigs in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, SHAFT, TRUCK TURNER, and BLACK BELT JONES.

The story opens at midnight, with fortyish lesbian painter Geraldine (Frances Helm) trying to discourage her sexy young live-in "model" Hilda (Clark) from going shopping the next day. Geraldine -- the jealous, man-hating type of lesbian -- realizes that Hilda still has a strong desire for dick, so she rarely allows the teenage beauty to leave the house. Hilda, sick and tired of playing mannequin for this dreary dyke, would gladly trade the good life in Geraldine's swanky beach house for a good ol' fashioned roll in the hay with a man again. Luckily for her, opportunity breaks a window and sneaks into the house in the form of Victor (Weeks), a hapless, knife-wielding burglar she immediately takes a liking to. After a night of good lovin', Hilda's ready to take off with Victor -- but only if Geraldine refuses to let her "keep" him around the house for a while. Needless to say, Geraldine isn't crazy about either scenario, and takes drastic action to avoid losing her treasured "pet" to this potentially dangerous man and his "knife."

In "The Silver-Grey Toy Poodle," two pretty hitchhikers -- twentysomething Pat (Carol E. Marnay) and her teenage companion Shelley (Laura Wallace) -- kidnap the middle-aged Dan Daubrey (William Grannell) on his way home from the beach with his toy poodle Bibi and rob him at gunpoint by the side of the road. Pat, a sadistic lesbian, ties up Dan and sticks him with pins until he tells her where the cash and his wife's jewelry are kept. With Bibi in tow, she then heads over to Dan's house to clean it out, leaving Shelley to guard him with the gun until she returns. Shelley squirts Dan in the face with the gun -- it's just a water pistol -- and tells him that she ran away from home because her big brother forced her to sing slave songs while he whipped her. Pat returns with the cash and the jewelry, but tells Dan that she tossed Bibi into the ocean because she wouldn't stop barking. Shelley and Pat argue; Shelley is upset because Pat killed Bibi, and Pat is furious with Shelley for telling Dan that the gun is fake. Eventually, Pat tricks Shelley out of her share of the loot and leaves her behind to deal with Dan.

The theme of sexual domination is driven home with a sledgehammer in "Pets," the third and final playlet, which can either be viewed as the icing on the cake or the straw that broke the camel's back. After a disastrous dinner date, the liberated young Janet (Frances Helm) reluctantly goes home with the insanely chauvinistic Ron (William Grannell), who's dying to show her his collection of animals. "All my pets are she's," he gushes as he introduces her to Kerian the dog, Lila the cat, Ladylove the parakeet -- and Bonnie, the beautiful teenage girl he's kept caged in the basement for two years. Uh-oh! Before Janet can get to the door, Ron pulls out a bullwhip and starts trying to "tame" the newest addition to his "zoo."

Unfortunately, subtlety gets flogged to a pulp long before Janet feels the sting of the zookeeper's whip, since Reich overdoes the pet-and-master/S&M imagery right from the start. In "Baby with a Knife," Geraldine refers to Hilda as "my pet" and at one point says to her, "the dog licks its master's hand." She also tells her that she had a horse she used to whip when she was a little girl. Tired of modeling in the sun for one of Geraldine's paintings, Hilda says, "I'm hot, slavedriver."

Hilda even tries to turn Victor into her pet, and Geraldine neuters him by taking away his knife (she finally gives it back to him -- only to shoot him dead a moment later). "You killed Victor," Hilda says to Geraldine, "You should be behind bars." In "The Silver-Grey Toy Poodle," Pat tells Shelley, "You look like a kitten," then compares Dan to Bibi, his pet poodle. Later, she suggests that the grey-haired Dan is actually his own wife's pet poodle (the silver-grey toy poodle of the title). The gun that turns out to be a water pistol represents Dan's impotence, and when Pat pulls a knife out of her pants, it proves that she's more of a man than Dan is. She even sticks Dan with pins -- the same thing her boyfriend used to do to her.

It's not surprising that few critics gave PETS a clean bill of health. Newsday's George Oppenheimer summed it up by writing, "Mr. Reich has given us three playlets which, to put it kindly, stagger the imagination," while Daphne Kraft of the Newark Evening News commented, "PETS, the three one-act satchels of emotion which got hurled on the stage of the Provincetown Playhouse last night, suffers from bad dialogue. The plays sizzle like wet firecrackers and make all of life look like exercises in hysteria." In the Manhattan Tribune, Clayton Riley wrote, "Nothing to recommend but a superb air-conditioning unit at the Provincetown. Doubtless it will outlive, by a good while, Richard Reich's slender trio." Worst of all were the opinions of a critic in Cue: "Richard Reich is a playwright who has discovered a fascinating new toy -- sadomasochism. So enthralled is he by the S&M mystique of discipline, power, sexual mastery and submission, torture and self-flagellation, that he has written no less than three one-acters in which people cage, whip, stab, and rape each other with gay abandon, all the while pontificating in language duller than an Abnormal Psych textbook."

Still, every play has its supporters, and PETS proved no exception. Daily News theatre critic James Davis wrote, "Playwright Richard Reich has a provocative idea in his PETS, the major offering in a 3-play bill of his authorship, and he makes the most of it," and William Hazlitt of the Hollywood Reporter felt that "Reich's dialogue is not the most adroit, but his sense of the theatrical is promising, his motivations are clear, and his characters are arresting." So Reich polished his script with rewrites, and more productions followed. One draft of the play, dated 1971, is typed in screenplay format, but retains the original stage directions. In this draft, Reich also changed the title of "Baby with a Knife" to "Lady with a Knife" and presented it as the second playlet instead of the first, reversing its order with "The Silver-Grey Poodle" -- a smart move thematically, and one that forms the structure of the film version. It should also be noted that Reich, a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, included the following message on the "Lady with a Knife" character page: "The parts of Hilda and Victor can be played by Negroes as in the New York production of the play."

Reich brought his PETS to the screen in 1973, with help from schlock producers Raphael Nussbaum (THE FEMALE BUNCH) and Mardi Rustam (EATEN ALIVE). Filmed as SUBMISSION, but released under its original moniker, the movie version is surprisingly faithful to the 1971 draft of the play (Reich and director Nussbaum share screenwriting credit, with additional dialogue provided by David Bowen). The stories are presented in the same order, but the screenplay unites them by turning Bonnie -- Ron's "pet" in the final segment, and the least developed character in the whole play -- into the film's central figure; she's simply inserted into the first two segments in place of the Shelley and Hilda characters. The film opens with a pre-credit sequence in which teen runaway Bonnie (Rialson) escapes from her abusive brother (Mike Cartel), who has come to Los Angeles to bring her back home. She then hooks up with Pat (Teri Guzman), and they do "The Silver-Grey Toy Poodle" pretty much by the book -- until Bonnie dances to some porno funk from THE BLACK ALLEYCATS, humps the lucky Dan (Brett Parker), and leaves him tied up and nude by the side of the road.

At a produce stand, lesbian painter Geraldine (Joan Blackman) saves Bonnie from a shoplifting rap and offers her a place to stay. What follows is pretty much "Baby/Lady with a Knife," but with two important differences: Victor's name has been changed to Ron the Burglar (Matt Green) -- presumably because Victor isn't much of a victor by the end of the story -- and Ron, the crazy zookeeper from the final playlet, is introduced here as an equally unhinged art collector named Vincent Stackman (Ed Bishop), who becomes obsessed with Geraldine's nude paintings of Bonnie. After Geraldine kills Ron the Burglar, Bonnie flees to Vincent's mansion. Months later, at a gallery exhibition of her work, the lonely Geraldine is approached by Vincent, who lures her to his home with the promise of seeing her beloved Bonnie again. Except for the twist ending, the rest of the movie sticks to the original "Pets" playlet almost word for word.

None of the playlets on their own are very interesting, but PETS as a whole is a strangely satisfying work -- especially the movie version, which pulls the three stories together beautifully, while omitting some of the play's more obvious (and embarrassing) thematic elements. Reich certainly had an agenda here, and even though his writing is often sloppy and sensationalistic, PETS is a remarkably coherent piece of storytelling for something that was probably just dismissed as drive-in dreck. I'm sure the movie didn't win over any more critics in 1973 than the original stage production did in 1969, when Harry Gilroy of the New York Times wrote, "It seemed at the opening of Richard Reich's PETS last night as if those books in the windows of 42nd Street had come to life and moved onto the stage of the Provincetown Playhouse exactly and perfectly detestable." I wouldn't be surprised if those words passed through Reich's mind four years later as he strolled down the Deuce and saw his name on a poster -- that goddamn PETS poster -- hanging out front the Lyric or the Selwyn or the Harris theatres.

[This is a revision of an article that originally appeared in Cashiers du Cinemart #10, p. 24-25, in 1999]


Anonymous said...

Ed Bishop? Not Tony award winning Ed Bishop, from DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER? Not "Colonel Straker" from UFO? Not Captain Blue, surely?

Anonymous said...

Yes, exactly THAT Ed Bishop, of course without a silverblond whig!