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Wow, did Vinegar Syndrome drop a loaded bomb on us here.

A uniquely intense, disturbing and pensive exploration of sociopolitics, race relations and gender disparity that focuses on difficult questions more through the medium of oft-searing dramatic devices than the more typical preachiness approach, this is a film that is neither fish or fowl, but all the more interesting for it.

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Anne Heywood is a sexually repressed old maid (the script would have it that she’s “only 35”, but at least in the earlier part of the film, she looks to be approaching twice that) of a teacher in 1950’s America.  She’s starting to devolve into hysterics as a direct result of her longstanding chastity, having breakdowns in class, at get togethers with friends, and admitting to her shrink that “everything seems pointless…I don’t want to get up in the morning…even the sunshine looks idiotic.”

Despite her prudishness and possible frigidity, she does hold some progressive values: she claims to hold no racial prejudices when her “Jewish” psychiatrist is recommended to her, notes that she was in the forefront of the struggle for integration at her school and place of work, and speaks openly of there being some value in Marxian political theory at more than one point, which drives some of her fellows into practically apoplectic fits of disbelief.  Plus, she is a redhead, which counts for a lot.  But her character is so far removed from the average, even mildly adjusted filmgoer that audience identification will be all but suspended in any but the most uptight of viewers (whom I very much doubt would be reading any review on this particular website).

Cult figures Robert Vaughn (Zombie 5: Killing Birds) and Donald Pleasance (Paganini Horror, Prince of Darkness, the Halloween films) make brief appearances as her MD and headshrinker, respectively, but it’s really a one woman show.

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Morticia Addams and Marsha Queen of Diamonds herself, the one and only Carolyn Jones pulls up the rear as a fellow teacher and friend who displays the appropriate measure of concern and support – at least until the film takes a hard right turn into the heart of darkness halfway through its running time, and she becomes revealed as something wholly other.

Bad haircuts and poor clothing choices abound – I kept seeing Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady”, all doilies and prim, utilitarian dresses, shoes, jackets and babushka headscarves – quite possibly the single most depressing depiction of the 1950s ever committed to celluloid.

That said, as the film progresses and our erstwhile lead makes some tentative moves towards relieving herself of her self-imposed sentence of celibacy, Heywood’s lighting, makeup and hair subtly move from the grim dowdiness of the opening scenes to a younger looking, more pleasing femininity (to say ‘sexiness’ would really be pushing things, but you get the idea here).

Very much akin to a Scorpion release, this is a more or less ‘mainstream’ film with some small measure of cult/exploitation elements to set it apart and recommend it to Third Eye readers.  Along similar lines to the short lived Subversive Cinema label’s releases The Witch Who Came from the Sea and The Gardener or Scorpion’s The Mafu Cage, this is one of those 70’s oddities that crosses the “women’s picture” (generally speaking, dramas primarily marketed at the fairer sex and revolving around distaff protagonists and their lives) with the exploitation/horror genre (primarily marketed at males and inner city or drive in audiences).

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There is a strong undercurrent of progressive and intellectual thought underpinning the proceedings here – much like Scorpion’s Celia, on some level, the film is very much an allegory for the battle between common sense and knee jerk conservatism, with the direct parallels between the latter and the oppressive governments of totalitarianism of all stripe (whether fascist or, as the film and time period it concerns particularly focuses on, communist).  But that noted, Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff also drives home the disparity between ivory tower philosophical ideals and practical street level experience.

While Wyckoff herself has all the best intentions and at least in this respect proves somewhat admirable, her naivete and unfulfilled longings place her in jeopardy when faced with human fallibility and the fact that while things always seem black and white in abstract, reality is far more of a grey area, and people as individuals or groups are often untrustworthy at best – predatory, closed-minded, vindictive and accusatory at worst.  As the film posits towards the end, homosexuality (Chester), miscegenation (Wyckoff), alcoholism (Principal Havermeyer) and so forth are all fine and dandy, so long as nobody finds out or “catches you in the act” – a repulsively American strain of Puritanical thinking if there ever was one.

Heywood herself, as at least a B-lister in mainstream Hollywood, is to be admired for her bravery in taking on such a compromising role – there is really no way she could claim use of a body double in certain scenes.

With detestable characters on all sides and tackling some very questionable sociopolitical and moral ground, it is a surprisingly mature film – while a desperate cry for a more enlightened society on one hand, it is also a wake up call to the naive that pigeonholing others into boxes, however idealized those boxes may be, can be a fatal mistake.  In allowing her beliefs to color the reality of the situation, and driven by physical needs long unfulfilled, Wyckoff finds herself used, abused and treated like trash, only to be penalized and ostracized by all those around her as reward (while her arrogant and self-absorbed attacker, it is implied, gets off scot free).

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As much an indictment of miscegenation as misogyny and gender disparity, as much a reactionary tract as a progressive one, Good Luck Miss Wyckoff covers similar territory to such disparate films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Fight For Your Life, while managing to occupy a different filmic arena entirely – at once a unique piece of cinema and direct part and parcel of more than one genre focus.

The DVD comes with an alternate cut, “The Sin“, but one full strength dose was enough for me.  Written by none other than world famous playwright William Inge and directed by Marvin Chomsky (who was fresh off the acclaimed miniseries Roots the year prior), this is not exploitation, but approaches and touches on it with its uncompromising approach and use of a few cult standbys in the cast.

There’s also a third disc, which is a CD of the film’s soundtrack.  While I always appreciate this inclusion on those rare occasions when a company is moved to offer it with alongside the film (the Black Emanuelle Boxes, the Pinky Violence box, Fulci’s Perversion Story, etc.), this one was somewhat of a strange choice.

While I’ve been noted among friends and acquaintances as something of a collector of Italian film soundtracks in the past, having spent a few years where I listened to little else back in the early millenium, this offering is by no standards akin to the likes of Morricone, Umiliani, De Angelis, Nicolai, Orlandi, Reverbieri et al.

That said, compared to the vapid bombast of soulless blowhards of the John Williams school (Danny Elfman springs immediately to mind as an equally egregious disciple of the erstwhile Boston Pops conductor), this fairly nondescript score is something of a masterwork.  More akin to the likes of the Debussy string quartet or the Ravel score for the Emannuelle Beart vehicle Un Coeur in Hiver, this is a small scale, intimate Romantic work mainly centered on cornet and cello, with strings brought in for some light suspense sequences.

There are a few cheesy Salvation Army band/holiday music cum Elgar bits thrown in to the mix, which always prove jarring (one has to wonder if anyone ever actually appreciated this sort of corn), but for the most part, this is an intimate and somewhat moody score with less depth than one might expect, but again, by comparison to the “roll in the tanks” subtlety of the typical American film score, with its telegraphed audience cues (one can practically see Williams holding up huge cards to the listener – “laugh!” “cry!” “excitement!” “suspense!”), it’s certainly thinking along the right lines.

All in all, Vinegar Syndrome delivers yet another stellar package and print restoration of a long forgotten obscurity from the glory days of cinema.

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