No doubt hoping to ride the anticipated Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse wave (which never materialized), BCI has released Welcome to the Grindhouse Double Feature: Pick-Up and The Teacher, a nostalgic trip back to 1970s exploitation fare, complete with coming attraction bumpers and trailers. Welcome to the Grindhouse is certainly a misnomer, though; these relatively tame exploiters found acceptance at local drive-ins, not urban grindhouses, where hard-core audiences expected X-rated skin and gore. You won't find anything like that in The Teacher and Pick-Up, which barely earn their R ratings. But for anyone who remembers those great times at you local backwoods drive-in (I was fortunate to have creepy older brothers who took me to these kinds of flicks), Welcome to the Grindhouse Double Feature: Pick-Up and The Teacher will be a welcome addition to your DVD collection. Due to the nature of these films, spoilers will show up in my reviews, so skip to the very bottom if you don't want to know what really happens at your local drive-in.
In sun-soaked Southern California, freakishly gorgeous 28-year-old high school teacher Diane Marshall (Angel Tompkins) has a stalker: former VA hospital patient Ralph Gordon (Anthony James), who pursues Diane in a black and white hearse (nothing like being inconspicuous, huh?). The older brother of Lou Gordon (Rudy Herrera, Jr.), one of Diane's students, Ralph's actions are known to Diane, who doesn't seem all that perturbed by Ralph's fevered obsession. Lou, taking along best friend Sean Roberts (Jay North), goes to his brother's hangout - a deserted marina warehouse opposite Diane's boat dock - where Lou has discovered Ralph's stash of binoculars and weapons, hidden in a red coffin (again; subtlety is obviously not Ralph's strong suit). Evidently, Ralph told Lou that he had slept with Diane, and now Lou wants to see for himself what his brother supposedly already knows about Diane.
Watching Diane sunbathing topless out on her boat, the boys are startled by Ralph's sudden appearance with a large bayonet. Lou falls backward over the staircase railing, splattering all over the pavement, while psycho Ralph immediately blames terrified Sean for Lou's death. Fleeing from Ralph, Sean returns home, only to find Ralph at his window, threatening him if he spills the beans to the cops, which doesn't really mean anything, because he said he was going to kill him anyway (why Ralph doesn't kill Sean at this point, or at any of the other numerous times he has Diane and/or Sean alone, is anybody's guess).
Meanwhile, nervous Sean, now totally stressed out, is literally pushed by his mother, Alice Roberts (Marlene Schmidt), into being alone with sexy Diane. Alice thinks they're both "lonely," especially Diane, who must be "frustrated" since her husband is absent most of the time, traveling around on his motorcycle. Diane, acting on a three-year old attraction for Sean, finally manages to seduce him (dim-wit Sean's infuriating reluctance to get the hint after several passes from the practically begging Diane will have you putting your head through a wall, trust me), whereupon the lovers now engage in almost constant sex: on her boat, at his house, at her house. Unfortunately, creepy Ralph is almost always watching, and eventually, he gets up enough nerve to actually make good on his threats. He kidnaps Sean to his warehouse lair, hoping to draw out Diane for a final act of passion and violence.
A horny 12-year-old boy's dream picture, 1974's The Teacher doesn't really have a whole lot more to offer, in the way of suspense, than an average Mannix or Hawaii Five-O episode from the same year. The stalking element of the film (elements that releasing company Crown International would recycle six years later for their Morgan Fairchild epic, The Seduction) is at best, incompetently handled. Much of Gordon's storyline makes no sense whatsoever, including zero background on who, exactly, Gordon is, or what his problem is with Diane. Frequently, Gordon has Sean all to himself, and then he does nothing about it. He's a very unmotivated stalker/killer, to be sure. The editing in The Teacher is atrocious, with inserts of characters dropped in, and then ignored for the rest of the scene (during the big seduction scene, Ralph is seen at the window, but then...we never see him again). There's the start of a good sequence where Ralph keeps popping up in various windows of Sean's van, but it leads nowhere - as do most scenes in veteran exploitation director Howard Avedis' cheap-jack production. And really, the Ralph character is pretty much a waste of supreme movie weirdo Anthony James' talents.
However, as a T&A fest, The Teacher is quite enjoyable, mainly because we get to see staggering, lynx-eyed (and seriously erotic) Angel Tompkins in various stages of undress, frequently set off beautifully in her tied-at-the-neck halter top bikinis (by Catalina™, of course). A lot of big things were predicted for Tompkins when she made a splash in Elliott Gould's 1970 I Love My Wife (she won the Golden Globe that year for her role). She received a lot of media attention, and other roles looked liked they might propel her into the big time (I loved her as the super-cool Clarabelle in Michael Ritchie's delirious Prime Cut), but too much trash (Little Cigars, The Farmer, The Bees) kept her stranded in supporting roles on TV.
Here, charging around the neighborhood on her cute bicycle in her baby-doll print sundresses (I'm starting to feel faint) or confidently stripping off her clothes to reveal another stunning bikini which we know is coming off, too (I'm definitely light-headed now), Tompkins more than fulfills every young man's fantasy about sleeping with his gorgeous teacher. The seduction scenes are clumsily staged, but Tompkins is so magnetic on the screen (I love it when she growls, "Goddammit! I want to touch you!" at dufus Jay North), it doesn't really matter that director Avedis' set-ups fail to take advantage of how pretty and erotic she really is. The capper has to be when, inviting Sean over for sex at her house, she strips down to her ever-present bikini, grabs a couple of cans of Coors, and jumps right into the pool. When that idiot Jay North starts splashing water around, Tompkins, with the preternaturally lithe grace reserved for angels and otherworldly sprites, saves the beer from getting water-logged. That's when I knew I was hopelessly in love.
Groovy hippie chicks Carol (Jill Senter) and Maureen (Gini Eastwood) crouch in the blowing feathery weeds as they spy groovy hippie dude Chuck (Alan Long) taking a leak against a large bus-turned-mobile home. Carol decides Chuck is groovy, so she asks for a ride (as hippie chicks did back in 1975), but spooky Maureen thinks it's a bad idea - from an astrological standpoint. Still, she goes along anyway, and the trio are off, riding through the back swamps of Florida. Chuck is delivering the mobile home to Tallahassee for an obnoxious RV dealer, Lou (Tom Quinn), who keeps calling on the mobile home's phone, imploring Chuck to speed it up and earn his $20 bonus.
As Carol and Chuck connect over a joint, Carol turns on some good 'ol boys who pass the bus, flashing them as she grooves on pot. Soon, the weather turns ugly, and a detour leads the bus deeper and deeper into the deadly swamp, until the bus gets stuck but good. Instead of being sensibly terrified as most people would be, Carol and Chuck decide, as hippies will do, that this is the perfect time to run through the woods naked. Exploring their hippie Eden, Chuck and Carol get naked, swing on swings naked (um....where did that come from out in the middle of nowhere), play with baby raccoons (clothed, because they bite), dance around naked, and run through the forest naked.
Meanwhile, spooky Maureen stays on the bus, and starts to run Tarot cards, foreseeing dark visions (there's an inexplicable shot - among many in the movie - of Maureen in a dark, forbidding hotel room, with someone making love on the bed) while she deals with flashbacks from her past. In particular, a memory of a priest forcing himself on her in church when she was young haunts her, as do present-day hallucinations including a black "Princess of Apollo," who hands her a scepter, informing her that she is the princess' successor, a three-legged marble bench where she strips and offers herself to Pazzuzu (yep, the same devil in The Exorcist), as well as an evil clown (who looks like Yucko) who terrifies Maureen when he takes off his mask, and finally a U.S. Senatorial candidate who speaks in a stereotypical gay lisp, asking her whether or not she intends to vote in the coming election (unfortunately, Maureen is from out of state).
After Maureen decides to take a burning stick and gouge a huge hole in her hand, she bonds with caring Chuck, who decides now's the time to put his hippie free-lovin' move on her. As Chuck and Maureen get it on out at their mini-classical forum (while the clown, Senator and Princess watch real close by), Carol leaves the bus to dance by the fire. Unfortunately, she is set upon by the rowdies that were in the pick-up at the beginning of the film (did you forget about them?), and they rape and kill her. As Chuck and Maureen wake up (the classic forum and bench are now gone), they see Carol's hand sticking out of the swamp water. The scene cuts to original opening of the film, with Carol and Maureen in the feathery weeds, watching Chuck. Only this time, Maureen is anxious for a ride.
I have to admit that I didn't think much of Pick-Up, up until the final moments where the rowdies attack Carol. So much of the film is obviously designed as a "head trip," with distorted camera angles, lengthy "freak out" sequences, and weirdo lighting and music, that watching it straight was becoming fairly dull. The opening scenes, first in the ethereal weeds sequence, with spooky Maureen peering out at Chuck, contrasted with the first scenes on the bus, with the increasingly dark, scary lighting and framing, gave the film a noticeably creepy feeling, and I was primed for a good, Southern backwoods thriller in the vein of 2,000 Maniacs or Deliverance. When the bus is detoured, first-time director/cinematographer Bernie Hirschenson does an admirable job of creating an increasingly menacing mise-en-scene.
However, all of that atmosphere disappears into standard exploitation nudity, hippie dramatics, and bargain-basement, cracker-barrel Freudian flashbacks that are laughable (Carol's flashback, where she wears pigtails, is unintentionally fall-down funny). And after about an hour, I wondered: what the hell are all of these goofy hallucinations that Maureen is having, including the clown with the balloons, and the lame political satire of the Senatorial candidate. Fortunately, Hirschenson knew how to end the film, with the genuinely surprising attack on Carol by the rednecks. Coming totally out of the blue (I had forgotten all about the rednecks about an hour in) after being set up with the hippie Eden sequences, the violent (but only suggested), genuinely scary shots of Carol being attacked come as a big jolting shock, and just for a minute, you think Hirschenson has pulled out a brilliant diversionary ending for his film. Unfortunately, he blows it by going back to the cliched Twilight Zone reversal ending, and we're left unsettled, to be sure, but also unsatisfied.
Final Thoughts on the Grindhouse Double Feature:
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.