Poet, novelist, playwright and screenwriter Robert Thom is someone the B&S About Movies crowd knows best for Roger Corman’s quest to beat Rollerball to the theaters, with an adaptation (which Charles B. Griffith* doctored) of Ib Melchoir’s short story “The Racer” as Death Race 2000 (1975). Thom’s Hollywood (or is that Hollyweird) resume goes back a bit further, with the “teensploitation” screenplays for All the Fine Young Cannibals and an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (both 1960). His screenwriting debut, Complusion (1959) — in which he was rewritten and not credited — was based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murders and starred Orson Wells. (For Don Kirshner, he’d write the 1975, Kim Milford-starring Song of the Succubus.)
Thom’s next teen-oriented romp was the more “hep” counterculture-rock flick Wild in the Streets (1968), based on his short story “The Day It All Happened, Baby!”. When that American International Pictures’ $700,000-budgeted project cleared $4 million in drive-in receipts, Thom was given an opportunity to direct his first film, which he also wrote — and is the film we’re reviewing today: Angel, Angel, Down We Go.
Is it a counterculture drama . . . or a horror flick? Hey, whatever AIP – American International Pictures needs it to be to make a buck.
As with Wild in the Streets, Thom’s sole directing credit centers around a disillusioned rock star; its genesis was an unproduced stage-play of the same name written as a vehicle for his then wife, Janice Rule (better known for her ’70s guest-starring TV work than her films), who later became the wife of Ben Gazzara (The Neptune Factor, Road House).
By the time the script made it to the big screen, five-time Academy Award nominated and winning actress Jennifer Jones (won for 1944’s The Song of Bernadette) was cast as the affluent Mrs. Astrid Steele, the downtrodden wife of an airline magnate (think a gay Howard Hughes) and mother of the overweight and emotionally troubled Tara (folk musician, Broadway musical actress, and ’70s TV actress Holly Near in her feature film debut; she was Barbara Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five) who becomes involved with Bogart Peter Stuyvesant, a charismatic rock star who takes advantage of the Steele family’s damaged emotional state to integrate himself and his Manson-like clique into their lives.
So, for his rock star, Thom cast . . . well, remember how Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston experienced a career boost based on their marriages? Such was the case of struggling Ohio-to-New York-based rock singer Jordan Christopher.
After his unsuccessful years as the leader of the doo-wop-inspired the Fascinations in the early ’60s (they recorded a few singles; here and here), Christopher came to join New York’s the Wild Ones, which replaced Joey Dee and the Starlighters¹ (of which Joe Pesci was once a member; without Pesci, they starred in Hey, Let’s Twist!) as the house band at New York’s famed Peppermint Lounge (where that movie was filmed). After that successful residency, the Wild Ones booked the same gig at the more chichi club, Arthur, operated by Richard Burton’s soon-to-be ex-wife Sybil Williams, aka Burton; Burton owned the club.
As with Ben and Jen after her, Sybil found her fame via her marriage to Richard Burton, who was a huge screen star at the time. And when Sybil came to become involved with — and within a month of the band’s residency, married — Jordan Christopher, his “star” began to rise, as well. Thanks to the pre-Internet gossip press and scandal sheets of the day, not only did Arthur transform into a “hot” club that decimated the Peppermint Lounge out of existence, Jordan Christopher’s the Wild Ones signed a record deal with United Artists Records to release the live-recorded The Arthur Sound (that’s Christopher at cover right; that’s Sybil hoisted on the band’s shoulders).
However, after that lone album, and his “image” hotter than ever, Christopher left the Wild Ones to become a “star” in Hollywood. An accomplished stage actor in minor productions back in New York, Christopher booked supporting roles in the forgotten late ’60s flicks The Fat Spy (a really awful “beach movie”; the worst of the pack, which featured the Wild Ones), Return of the Seven (the awful nobody-wanted-it bomb-sequel to western classic The Magnificent Seven), and The Tree (a kidnap drama). Angel, Angel, Down We Go, his fourth film, was Christopher’s leading man debut. In addition to recording the soundtrack to the film, UA signed Christopher as a solo artist for the album Has the Knack; without Christopher, the Wild Ones recorded the first, original version of “Wild Thing,” which was penned by Chip Taylor (brother of actor Jon Voight) specifically for the band (the Troggs version is the one you know).
So, since you probably never heard of Jordan Christopher, you have probably guessed the fame-cum-career by marriage and connection to the Richard Burton dynasty doesn’t not a solo career or a hit film make.
As with any of today’s cable TV-cum-Internet social media influencers, Jordan Christopher’s Kardashianesque fame, well . . . down, down it went, as the all-important Los Angeles Times and New York Times referred to his leading-man debut film Angel, Angel, Down We Go as “a pretentious mess” and “an unmitigated financial disaster,” respectively; the NY Times’ review was titled “The dime-store way to make a movie and money.”
Actress Holly Near, already Rubensque (think of a ’60s Ricki Lake of Hairspray; chunky-cute), put on even more weight for her debut film role, had hoped the film would transition her out of stage work, referred to the film as “it was trash.” She left film at that point and retreated into stage and limited TV guest-star work.. And it’s no loss, for Near’s no prize in the acting department; her binge eating scene at the coming-out party is still cringe-inducing; she even gorges on the scenery throughout. The gist behind party: Near’s Tara Steele turned 18 and returns from boarding school; her parents hired Bogart Peter Stuyvesant and the Rabbit Habbit to play the party . . . and Tara falls in love.
While Christopher never publicly spoke of the film, he retreated into stage work as an actor and theatre operator — not appearing on the big screen again until Star 80 and Brainstorm (both 1983). Truth be told, Christopher’s departure into theatre was no big loss to Hollywood, either; he’s simple awful in both films marking his return — and truly annoying as a childish/horny, unrealistic “scientist” in the latter. And he’s pure ham — by lack of a thespian skill set, not an acting choice — here, and you see why the undercarded Roddy McDowell, and not Christopher, had the career.
As for Robert Thom, who actually was a decent writer in the low-budget realms, came to write the ’70 gangster romps Bloody Mama and Crazy Mama for Roger Corman — but he never directed another film.
And Jennifer Jones, starring here as a former porn actress whose mainstream Hollywood “movie star” career is on the skids, playing up an overtly, sexed-up homage to Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in the noir classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950), well, just what was she thinking? Jennifer couldn’t have possibly been hoping for a repeat on the lessons of social obscenity with Madame Bovary (1949), in which she starred? Doing an AIP grindhouse flick is a long, hard fall for Jones — who was long-time married to David O. Selnick, the producer who gave us the original King Kong**. Sadly, this was Jones’s first film after her much-publicized suicide attempt; then, later, her daughter committed suicide by jumping from a 20-story window.
To see an Oscar-caliber actress quoting the likes of . . . “I made thirty stag films and never faked an orgasm,” “In my heart of hearts, I’m a sexual clam,” “Do you want me, or do you want my daughter?,” and “You’re a bloody, sadistic dyke” . . . you’re sorry and embarrassed for her. So, with the one-two punch of her performance slammed by critics, and her daughter’s later suicide, one can see why Jones walked away from the biz, only to return one more time in Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno (1974). And, in the end, out of her mere 26 films, Angel, Angel, Down We Go is the one film of her’s that trash cinema lovers care about because, well, video fringe fandom is all about the trashy.
Meanwhile, American International Pictures wasn’t about to flush $2 million down the toilet. So, courtesy of Jordan Christopher’s Manson-like rocker, and with Charles Manson all over the press as result of the Tate-LaBianca Murders of August 8-9, 1969 (which fueled Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood), AIP retitled and reissued the film as Cult of the Damned on a double bill with the first entry in Hammer Studios’ “Karnstein Trilogy,” The Vampire Lovers. And the Los Angeles Times slammed it, again, as “a terrible piece of trash.”
As the Los Angeles Times’ review stated in their negative review of this tale centered around the overweight debutante daughter of a wealthy couple who falls in with a tripped out, skydiving-addicted rock star and his reactionary clan, “. . . it can never be said to bore.” Hey, we never said bad films can’t be entertaining . . . well, except the ones with Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez, for the two-Jens — that’s just movie hell in a hand basket (and their bitching when they’re not “nominated” come awards season, doesn’t endear them to anyone; at least Holly Near has reality on her side).
Valley of the Dolls (1967), the trashy, celluloid doppelganger to Angel, Angel, Down We Go, is in no way a good movie nor a classic; however, that Patty Duke-starrer is an undeniable guilty pleasure. And Angel, Angel, Down We Go so wants to be that Jacqueline Susann-adapted flick, but only ends up being even abysmal-trashier than the Roger Ebert-written and Russ Meyer-directed ripoff sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). And let’s not forget: Susann called the adaptation of her own book, “a piece of shit.” So that gives you a good idea on the low-grade, non-quality of Robert Thom’s sole directing effort. I’d even take the critical comparison a wee-bit lower, down to Peter Carpenter’s trashy, sexually-manipulating lounge singer in Point of Terror (1971). (If Christopher didn’t star here, Carpenter could have filled the role, admirably; hey, anything to bring back that red-fringe Elvis get-up, Peter! We recently honored Peter with a two-fer review-career blowout with Vixen! and Love Me Like I Do.)
Then again, if you’re into these counterculture LSD flicks of yore and enjoy the whacked-out realities of Skidoo (1968), The Phynx (1970), or the “fucked up future” of Gas-s-s (1970), then there’s something in the frames of this symbolism feast of the stoned senses. For lost . . . somewhere . . . in the frames is a statement on the nihilism of wealth and celebrity. But my inner being tells me even Kant and Nietzsche would reject Robert Thom’s tales as poppycock . . . once the house maid is exposed as a lesbian and the husband’s bisexuality come to light (he’s shower be-boppin’ the butler). And never in the writings of those metaphysical thinkers, did they ever dream up the Machiavellian likes of the Rabbit Habbit, a band which features Lou Rawls (in his feature film debut) and Roddy McDowall . . . with McDowall’s Santoro spewing his nihilistic sociopolitical ejaculate over his love for carrots. Yes, Cornelius is “turned on” by veggies. Read into that as you may, you dirty bird.
In the end, both the counterculture hippie masses, as well as the conservative masses (aka my parents, who got dressed up for dinner and a movie to see Valley of the Dolls, as parents did in the ’60s; mom loved the book, but HATED the movie), rejected Robert Thom’s attempt to graft the teachings of Kant and Nietzsche into the taboo-intellectual visuals of Pier Paolo Pasolini*˟. An allegorical work on the level of Pasolini’s underbelly tale of pimps and thieves in Accatone (1961) and his bourgeoisie-supernatural thriller Teorema (1968), Robert Thom’s lone directing effort, is not; it’s as inept as an inept high school production of a Tennessee Williams play.
The only real stand out of the film is Jordan Christopher (by singing, not acting) cloning a shirtless and leather pant Jim Morrison — with a touch of Iggy Pop — as our ersatz rocker belting the Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil-penned tunes (as part of Don Kirshner’s house of hits, they supplied tunes to the Monkees˟*) “Angel Angel Down We Go,” “The Fat Song,” “Hey Hey Hey and a Hi Ho,” “Lady Lady,” “Mother Lover,” and “Revelation,” which are actually pretty good tunes. Oddly enough, Lou Rawls — who reached his own solo career highs with the Top 40 ’70s hits “Lady Love” and “You’re Gonna Miss My Love,” doesn’t sing in the film.
If you read our recent review for Breaking News in Yuba County, you know that on October 7, 2020, four decades after the imprint’s closure, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reactivated the AIP-imprint to release digital and limited theatrical releases (MGM will handle streaming while United Artists will handle the theatrical end). The studio was founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff and all AIP releases followed the ARKOFF formula:
Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
Killing (a modicum of violence)
Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
Fornication (sex appeal for young adults)
So, yeah, Angel, Angel, Down We Go is a bizarre pint of an ARKOFF-crafted microbrew (bubblin’ with images of Near’s face on a guerilla, and then a lion, as part of a trip and its “message”), a libation of choice that we gulp with glee at B&S About Movies. You know us, with our celluloid schadenfreude of the Sexette (1978)˟˟ and Myna Breckenridge (1970) variety (both spiritual, washed-up actor sloppers), for that is what it’s all about, out on the video brewin’ fringes. So pair Angel, Angel, Down We Go with Robert Thom’s rock “prequel” Wild in the Streets and Mick Jagger’s decadent rock star turn in Performance (1970), toss back an ARKOFF, and pop open a bag of salty American International Psychedelic Trash Nuggets. Yum.
* Charles B. Griffith gave us the redneck romps Eat My Dust! and Smokey Bites the Dust; went “Jaws” with Up from the Depths and, as an actor, appeared in Hollywood Boulevard. Check out our “Top 70 Good Ol’ Boys Film List” feature with more hicksploitation-cum-redneck reviews.
*˟ We discuss Pasolini’s work in our review of the 2020 documentary Fascism on a Thread: The Strange Story of Nazisploitation Cinema.
˟* We discussion Don Kirshner’s film production career in our “Exploring: The Movies of Don Kirshner” featurette.
˟˟ Check out our “Box Office Failure” week of film reviews.
¹ Felix Cavaliere, later of the Young Rascals and the Rascals, got his start with Joey Dee & the Starlighters. He, along with Gene Conrish, have recently reactivated the Rascals (then, as with all other tours, got COVID derailed); after his stint with Joey Dee, Cavaliere formed the Young Rascals with Gene Cornish, Eddie Brigati, and Dino Danelli.
After the Rascals collapsed, they morphed into the harder rocking Bulldog, with Gene Cornish and Dino Danelli at the helm. After Bulldog’s two albums in the early ‘70s, Cornish and Danelli teamed with Wally Bryson, from the early ‘70s “power-pop” pioneers the Raspberries (also out of the same Akron, Ohio, scene as Jordan Christopher), to form Fotomaker, which issued three albums in the late, new-wave ‘70s: Fotomaker, Vis-à-vis, and Transfer Station. A Cars or Knack-like success for Fotomaker was not meant to be, even with their great, debut single, “Where Have You Been All My Life.”
While Fotomaker was going on, Felix Cavaliere — who once played with Joey Dee, mind you — formed Treasure, a harder AOR band that issued an album in 1977 — and featured Vinnie “Vincent” Cusano, later of Kiss, on lead guitar.
Dino Danelli ended up in Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul — playing alongside ex-Plasmatics bassist, Jean Beauvior. After the Raspberries, and before Fotomaker, Wally Bryson formed the hard-rock outfit Tattoo with Thom Mooney from Todd Rundgren’s the Nazz, which put out one album in 1976 on Prodigal Records (a Motown subsidiary). Thom also did time in Fuse with Rick Neilson and Tom Petersson, both later of Cheap Trick. And, the drummer in Fuse was Chip Greenman; he ended up in the Names, which doubled as faux “No False Metal” rockers the Clowns in Terror on Tour. And, of course, Cheap Trick came to be known via their first soundtrack effort, Over the Edge.
Don’t forget! We are deep into our third “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” blowout. Yes, we’ve done this twice before, and you can catch up with our “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” Round-Ups 1 and 2 with their full listings of all the rock flicks we’ve watched.