It’s rare that I watch a movie that gets on the very verge of upsetting me. Poor Pretty Eddie is that rare film that pushed me pretty far and made me feel somewhat upset for watching it, which ended up making me keep going and enjoying the end results. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s amazing that this movie even exists.
Most of the makers of this film were employed in the world of adult films, with Poor Pretty Eddie representing their chance to go straight. Backing came from Michael Thevis, the notorious Atlanta-based “King of Pornography,” who owned a record company named GRC, a chain of sex shops and a company that manufactured peep show booths. In fact, the rock band Flood recorded the soundtrack for the martial arts movie Blood of the Dragon in his Sound Pit Studio on Atlanta’s Simpson Street, which also saw country singer Moe Bandy, dance sensation Loleatta Holloway and country songwriter and the author of the three million record selling “Chevy Van” Sammy Johns — as well as R&B acts like Ripple, the Rhodes Kids, King Hannibal and Sam Dees — all record there. He also published a series of pornographic novels that were written by Ed Wood under the name Donna D. Dildo.
Producing a legit movie allowed Thevis to launder money that he had made through shadier dealings, which brought the FBI in. Shortly after the film was released, he was jailed on a variety of charges and then escaped prison in 1978, ending up on the FBI’s most-wanted list. He had already put a contract out on the life of the man who had given the police all the info they needed to put him away. While on the lam, he tracked down that man — Roger Dean Underhill — and killed him and another associate. He bragged about it in prison and fellow prisoners ratted him out.
In 1980, Michael Thevis, the so-called “Scarface of Porn,” who once owned nearly half of the industry and made $100 million a year ($311 million today when adjusted for inflation) was sentenced to spend 28 years to life in the Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility, an underground penitentiary outside of Minneapolis and eventually United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. His palatial home was sold eventually to Whitney Houston. In 2013, he died of heart and respiratory failure. This Daily Beast article on his life is required reading.
Poor Pretty Eddie was written B. W. Sandefur, who is mostly known for his TV writing and producing. In fact, he was behind one of the oddest series of the early 1980’s, NBC’s Cliffhangers, which featured three different stories that all began in the middle of their stories. Stop Susan Williams, The Phantom Empire and The Curse of Dracula were all eventually turned into theatrical releases — along with extra material added — in Europe.
Loosely based on the Jean Genet play The Balcony and directed by David Worth (Kickboxer) and Richard Robinson (who has films like Is There Sex After Marriage and Adultery for Fun & Profit on his resume), this film is shocking even today.
The Turner Classic Movies article on the film hits it right on the head. They describe Eddie as such: “A sleazy exploitation thriller with artistic pretensions, the film manages to be offensive, crude and inept in equal measure while still succeeding as a compulsive viewing experience for connoisseurs of fringe cinema who think they’ve seen everything.”
We start at the University of Georgia as Liz Wetherly (Leslie Uggams, who older readers will know from Roots and younger ones will know from the Deadpool movies), a famous singer, is performing the national anthem. There’s a cut to her car driving down a country road and we hear her say, “Look, I have two weeks before my next concert. Now I’m going to get in my car and drive until I find a nice, quiet hole to crawl into.”
Be careful what you wish for.
After he car breaks down, Liz rents a cabin for the night — so she thinks — while the gigantic handyman Keno (Ted Cassidy, who was Lurch on The Addams Family, as well as the second actor to play Bigfoot on The Six-Million Dollar Man after Andre the Giant. He was also the narrator for The Incredible Hulk and provided the voices for Godzilla, Frankenstein Jr., The Thing, Moltar, Metallus, Black Manta and Brainiac for various Hanna-Barbera cartoons.)
Somehow, she ends up stuck for days thanks to the machinations of Eddie (Michael Christian, TV’s Peyton Place), a lothario who has already ensnared motel owner Bertha (Shelley Winters, who was in so many movies where she ran a house of ill repute, at least in my imagination, as well as the killer mother of an alien child in a role that doesn’t add up in another astonishingly bonkers Atlanta-based movie, The Visitor). Strangely enough, in the filmed version of the aforementioned Genet play, WInters played nearly the same role. Yet here, she plays it as a once gorgeous showgirl stuck remembering the past through the haze of alcohol, trying in vain to hold on to her man. Of note, Winters was paid in cash for her role and nearly died when her private plane almost crashed upon landing in Atlanta.
Not only does Eddie want Liz for carnal reasons, he also thinks she can help him in his career as a country singer. He spends much of the film dressed in Elvis jumpsuits and warbling his way through ballads. And oh yeah — he eventually assaults our heroine and then subjects her to further torture like forcing her to please a traveling salesman and eating Keno’s dog.
Liz finally gets the courage to turn in Eddie, which leads to Sheriff Orville (Slim Pickens!) asking her “Did he bite ya on the tittie?” and making her submit to a public trial in a crowded VFW/bar as locals gasp that a black woman is in their midst. Drunken proprietor Floyd (Dub Taylor, a cowboy star and former Clemson Tide football player, who is in all manner of redneck films like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, …tick…tick…tick…, Evel Knievel, Gator, Creature from Black Lake, The Great Smokey Roadblock and Moonshine County Express) then conducts a trial in front of an assembled crowd of drunken locals, many of whom appear disturbingly disturbed, that ends with Liz stripped nude and crying.
The film’s montage sequences are some of the most disturbing I’ve sat through, including Eddie assaulting Liz to the sounds of a country love song intercut with two dogs humping, as well as a scene where she takes photos of him near a waterfall, imagining her camera is a shotgun and that he is covered in blood and gore.
It all climaxes with a wedding where Eddie and Liz are to be wed, which ends up in a slow motion Sam Peckinpah gun battle, as Keno blasts his way in wanting revenge for his dog and everyone gets caught in the crossfire. The film ends with Liz, her life ruined and not enhanced by this escape from her busy life, raising a shotgun to murder Bertha.
Also known as Black Vengeance, The Victim, Heartbreak Motel and Redneck County Rape, the film played drive-ins and grindhouses for nearly a decade. The Heartbreak Motel version features plenty of differences, as Eddie narrates the movie and action scenes have been cut out and replaced with length soliloquies that don’t appear in any other version of the film. Instead of ending with the gun battle, Heartbreak Motel closes with Eddie leaving Georgia for Nashville and a recording contract. There are less scenes of Eddie attacking Liz, but strangely enough, there is a scene where Eddie and Bertha make, umm, third input love to the haunting strains of a bluegrass ballad.
To say that critics — especially in Atlanta — disliked this film is an understatement.
The 1970s were packed with films that you are kind of, sort of horror movies, yet feature no supernatural elements. They just made you feel like you needed to take an entire day’s worth of showers to clean off the scum after watching them. This is one hell of an addition to those movies. It’s not for everyone, but for those who want to see how low exploitation can go, it’s ready to attack your sensibilities.