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“Now what I want –  I want us to get out of here as fast as possible.  Get back to civilization where there’s safety.  We’re going to figure out who the killer is and see that the killer is brought to justice and is punished.”
– “Dave” (Gil Van Waggoner) stating the obvious and spelling out the entire plot of Savage Water

A horrible song about the Colorado River is recited and warbled in quaking tones to the accompaniment of what passes for nature footage: a long succession of closely framed rocky red mountains and rushing river.  The opening credits roll.  This is your personal ticket to cheese heaven, and the closest I ever want to get to the Mormon stronghold of Utah, where this whole thing takes place.
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Savage Water kicks off to an extremely rough start, with heavy grain, blurriness, shaking, and a sub-VHS transfer, particularly in the first minute or two of actual character interplay.  But hang in there, because it’s not long before the picture clears right up.  While never approaching any semblance of hi-def, things turn out reasonably well for the most part, with enough strong colors and contrast to make up for the intrinsic softness and grain of the original outdoor wilderness shoot (very likely in 16mm blown up to 35, given the shakycam and extreme low budget feel of the production).

A pretty brunette and her goofy boy toy assistant meet up with our cast of characters: a few middle aged German tourists who grab a huge case of beer before heading out to the river, a goofy overweight nerd type who dresses more “American tourist” than you could possibly imagine, an Arab sheik (of all things), a pinched voiced father and his two teen daughters, a John Holmes lookalike with two spacey hippie girlfriends in tow, and an obnoxious brat who insults the Germans with a Nazi reference (“Adolf Hitler is dead!  And someday you will be too!” the man retorts.  “Don’t make fun of the Germans because they don’t speak the same language!” admonishes the little prick’s clueless father), and the self described “first black (man) ever to go on that river trip”.

Finally we have the obligatory red herring – a psychologist who delivers a Nietzchean speech about how he’d love to “trip right over the edge into insanity” as an experiment, but isn’t sure he could make his way back (!).  But it seems like characters keep getting added and removed at random as we go along through the picture – there certainly seemed to be more people than I remembered at the outset when we approach the hour mark – and with a script this loose, it’s entirely possible.

Once they make it out on the water, one of the guides delivers a little speech about not littering in the wild, only to have the brat immediately toss a can of soda into the river.  His father wastes no time shoving the little bastard in after it – “now go get it!” he admonishes…the unfazed guide keeps right on talking about the port-a-john.  Cut to the other guide, who gets all spiritual on us, talking God, nature and our role as global caretaker, very likely to contrast with the obnoxiously self centered crowd they brought along with them to the woods – as the fat nerd promptly recites, “you know what the problem is with the world?  Poor people!  We would all be rich if there weren’t any poor people!”, a Tea Party sentiment (and level of intellect) if there ever was one.

We get a quick lecture on datura plants and a number of flubbed and half-forgotten lines (a recurrent motif of the picture – one is unsure whether these folks were failing at ad lib, or actually botching scripted recitation), before people start pairing off and attempt to establish the requisite characterization to offset and lend some measure of gravitas to the impending mayhem.

The hippie blonde makes out with the sheik after he makes claims of inexperience with the ladies (which prompts a marriage proposal that she quickly turns down, and a running gag where he keeps grabbing women and trying to make out with them), the crew shares a doobie, and folks line up and crack jokes while waiting for the tent port-a-john.  Eventually the brat shows up and rather than wait, relieves himself all over the outside (and the occupant therein, which turns into a bone of contention and mistaken identity shortly thereafter).

The “first black (man) ever to go on (this) river trip” is predictably the first to go, being lazily pushed off a cliff by an unseen assailant after snorting a few lines.  After another horrible song and brief, wordless flashback sequence, things finally start to happen in the bodycount stakes: the brat gets bit by a snake in his sleeping bag.  One of the guides (without assistance) manages to slip and fall to his death during a mountain climb.  Group leader Dave gets chewed out for failing to show overt emotion – “anyway, I don’t think he cares much for women anymore”, his apparent girlfriend deadpans, apropos of nothing – then they all head downriver for more killings and attempts at characterization, while a funky wah guitar comps out a rhythmic accompaniment.  So as not to ruin what little surprise there is, suffice to say the red herring is just that, and the real killer gets away in the end…

With a smoking hot blonde and the aforementioned dark haired beauty, Savage Water certainly delivers the required quota of exploitation eye candy, and despite its reputation, never really approaches the level of loveable ineptitude the just dawning slasher wave would bring us (Quisenberry’s Scream, anyone?).  What it does give is a nearly Something Weird level regional drive in feel, not all that far removed from gems like Curse of the Headless Horseman or Crypt of Dark Secrets.

As always with this sort of film, any merits or lack thereof lie in the eye of the beholder, and one man’s gem is another man’s trash (or vice versa).  For my part, I enjoyed it – take that as you will.

All told, Savage Water is more than worth checking out for fans of the sleepier end of 70’s horror and the lowest budget of slashers, whose borders it crosses and combines.

Leverington

Eerily made up faces, period costumes, and anachronistically contemporary housing: 1971’s Death By Invitation comes off from its very first frames as some bizarre cross of Bill Rebane’s eerie Demons of Ludlow and Uli Lommel’s Devonsville Terror.  Like a nightmare beamed in direct from my own childhood, it smacks of the self-celebratory historical revisitations of the bicentennial infused with the fairytale horrors of such oddities as Richard Blackburn’s Lemora, Lady Dracula or George Barry’s Death Bed: the Bed That Eats.

And that doesn’t even take into account the plethora of satanic peril and witchcraft based films the decade would proceed to deliver – everything from George Romero’s feminist meditation Season of the Witch and L.Q. Jones’ weird The Witchmaker to TV movies like Crowhaven Farm or The Devil’s Daughter.  It was a witchy decade, marked by shows like In Search Of and the likes of Richard Matheson and Dan Curtis, whose combined efforts suffused the airwaves in thoughtful, multilayered explorations of darkness and terrors both within and without.

With an absolutely stunning lead in Shelby Leverington (a gorgeous ingenue who brings to mind the youthful Lynn Lowry), the film trades in the sort of eerie shudders that were the stock in trade of many independents of the period – everything from The Child to Warlock Moon – and best experienced alone, in the small hours of the evening.  With a trendy undertone of reincarnation and past lives mingled with the ubiquitous fascination with the occult that was the true legacy of the youth movement of the late 60’s, Death by Invitation is a total flashback for those who were there in truth or in spirit – a film that absolutely screams 1970s, and could never have been made at any other time, before or since.

With feminism and sexual politics as a strong and abiding undercurrent, the film’s key dialogue sequences may come off extremely odd to modern audiences – what seemed deeply profound and inspired numerous lengthy and impassioned discussions and debates, both televised and socially, during the time of its release can easily come off as insane psychobabble and ridiculous pretzel logic to the more accountancy-minded.  It doesn’t always make sense, and sure, a lot of it is utter bullshit.  But some of it…well, I leave it to the viewer to make up their own minds.  Be warned, what seems to be building to a steamy erotic sequence may easily turn to a gruesome death scene…a strange mix to be sure, particularly to those unaccustomed to the era and its thematic concerns.

The nightmare logic of the film plays through to its sparse, choppy tidbits of spoken dialogue – fragments more driven by emotion than narrative drive.  Its characters do not truly communicate, they (at best) pontificate, or miss connections entirely.  While loosely and ostensibly based around Leverington’s ingratiation to the family and relations who were responsible for putting her to death for witchcraft in an earlier, Revolutionary era incarnation, her actual relationship to these people is never established.  She seems to be a regular guest, and despite making a few rather obvious and public plays for the males of this crowd, is never questioned when various members of the group begin to disappear, but any actual connection between them remains somewhat obscure throughout.

But any concerns about logic and a coherent narrative and motivation fall by the wayside in light of the positively stunning aesthetic of the piece, from knotty pine-bedecked alcoves and stained glass hanging lamps to Leverington herself, gothic pale and ethereal with a blatant and witchy sensuality and some fascinating shades of eyeshadow, and spending much of her time in stylish kaftans, vest and jean combos, red studded leather belts and crushed velvet.  She even shows up at a funeral in a bowl me right over dark purple velvet cloak that you’d think would give her leanings and predilections dead away, though strangely, both the family and presiding priest seem oblivious thereto (the latter actually praises her as being a God-given blessing to the family in their time of sorrow!).  The decidedly off-kilter electronic soundtrack further provides both mood and intimations of menace throughout, and proves deserving of mention therefore.

In the end, this is my favorite kind of film: thoughtful, atmospheric, meditative, character driven and eerie, suffused with the obscure logic and taste of nightmare, as opposed to the fast paced, cipher packed grue that passes for “horror” since the final gasp of the style in the very early 80’s with mystical, reasonably intellectual and thought provoking films such as Altered States and Wolfen.

With its nigh-exclusive night setting, the film’s visible macrocosm of darkness reflects the microcosm of what takes place therein, and the inner state of each and every character within its boundaries, from the leads straight through to throwaway cameos by cabbies, secretaries, uncaring police and detectives, and so forth.  Everyone and everything is somehow wrong, on the take, cynically flawed somehow.  It is a grim and nihilistic vision of the universe, with everyone and everything therein imprisoned on some level, and rightfully so – these people deserve their fates, as on some level do we all – our sins burned indelibly on our souls, condemning us by our own personal and existential choices for action or inaction, and our relationships with each other – the Fall of Western civilization and indeed mankind as a whole in a very real and immediate metaphysical sense.

While there are some instances marked by strong grain, this film is in excellent shape and condition for the sort of obscurity it is – particularly by comparison with years of muddy VHS and bootleg grade DVD releases, this represents something of a revelation.  While far from hi-def, Death by Invitation is more than presentable, with vibrant colors and decent, if often mono or marked by soundstage echo sound.

Death by Invitation comes with highest recommendations for those sharing similar sensibilities, or any readers made curious thereby – an excellent, if abidingly strange example of 70’s independent cinema.

This volume of Vinegar Syndrome’s Drive-In Collection comes, once again, with the highest of recommendations, and speaking strictly for myself, this author cannot wait to see what else they have in store for us in 2013.

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