Psychedelia and misanthropy are two foundations of my entertainment food pyramid and as such, you’ll have a difficult time convincing me that there’s a more pleasurable form of fiction than the kind that involves terrible people doing weird shit. Bearing this in mind, lieblings, understand that Robert Thom’s 1969 melodrama “Angel, Angel, Down We Go” provides quite the meal indeed. Colorful, cartoonishly vicious and overwhelmingly infused with the imagery, sounds and issues of its day, this is a film that deserves camp cult status.
Tara Nicole Steele (played by Holly Near, who would go on to a career as a feminist singer/songwriter) is the overweight and under-loved daughter of the richest couple in the world, and after fleeing her lavish debutante ball in despair, she absconds with a hedonistic rock singer. The performer, Bogart Peter Stuyvesant (slinky-creepy Jordan Christopher), is a sinister product of American pop culture: born in the backseat of a Ford after his mother went into labor during a Humphrey Bogart crime film. His relationship with Tara is immediately abusive, with the prelude to their coupling–which occurs moments after they meet–unfolding like this:
Bogart: [laughing] Wow your breath stinks–your breath stinks!
Tara: [cringing, on the verge of tears] Oh please!
Bogart: No no no no no–I dig it.
…and fade to fucking.
Bogart surrounds himself with a cadre of hippie stereotypes: a space-case blonde woman, a flamboyant gay man (Roddy McDowall!) and a politically-aware black man (Grammy Award Winner Lou Rawls). As one might expect, Tara’s new friends initially shock and dismay her wealthy-elite parents. Cunning Bogart is quick to capitalize on their weaknesses, though–Tara’s mother is a gold-digging nymphomaniac and her father carries on barely-hidden homosexual affairs. What designs does the rock-n-roll hippie cult have for the Steeles, and will the forces of capitalism or revolution triumph in the end?
Several hundred words into this review, allow me to confess that I started watching this movie under its “Cult of the Damned” moniker, thinking it was a mislabeled version of “Guyana: Cult of the Damned,” the slightly-fictionalized Jim Jones flick (this is, apparently, something that has happened to other blog-buddies). I am left to imagine that both films take an equally bleak view of humankind, but share little else in common. The “Cult of the Damned” renaming occurred upon the film’s re-release to capitalize on Post-Manson Panic, with ads emphasizing the “killer hippie” aspect and Bogart’s almost-supernatural, definitely ritualistic powers of persuasion. Once again, the film failed to make an impact, making it noteworthy that this movie flopped not once but twice. It’s understandable that this movie wasn’t box office gold, loathing as it does all people great and small, but what’s less explicable to me is why this isn’t a hallowed cult classic, double-billed with “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
“Angel, Angel, Down We Go” is the sole directorial credit of screenwriter Robert Thom, who scripted the glorious and infinitely re-watchable “Death Race 2000.” Somehow, “Angel, Angel” manages to be even more abstract and bizarre than “Death Race,” with non-sequitor dialogue and an almost Mannerist approach to melodrama structure. It’s never subtle but always bizarre, functioning as a fable about modern American values and the dehumanizing effects of wealth. Frequent shifts to voice-over point-of-view and collaged illustrations of Tara’s internal world underscore the movie’s acid freak-out style.
The script plays games with audience expectations, casting an older (not that much older, but STILL) woman and an overweight (not that much overweight, but STILL) woman as the primary leads, neither of whom is a reliable narrator. While both women are shown in various states of undress, it’s the men who are presented as eyecandy, with slender, sinuous male flesh on display throughout. Friends: if you enjoy the sight of mean-spirited, under-fed men writhing around on the floor (and really–who doesn’t?), this is the film you’ve been waiting all your life to see.
Did I mention that this is a musical? Numerous rock opera tracks punctuate the story, with a smoky-eyeshadow’ed Bogart (a rock singer, who performs his own vocals throughout) belting out songs like “Hip Hip Hooray for Fat” and “Mother Lover” during his efforts to seduce daughter and mother Steele.
At the end of all this, there’s nothing I can write that will convince you to add “Angel, Angel, Down We Go” to your watch-list any more than its trailer, a psychedelic-rocking, face-slapping, quote-spewing whirlwind that promises precisely what this movie delivers: