Thursday, February 19, 2015

You're Either In or In the Way: Duke Mitchell's Massacre Mafia Style

When it comes to crime cinema, there is real and then there's Duke Mitchell real and once you have witnessed that, you will never be the same. Imagine if Cassavetes was a famed lounge singer who once worked with a third-rate Jerry Lewis imitator in a schlocky Bela Lugosi film and then would go on to make two of the most volatile, straight from the soul-gut crime films in the history of independent cinema. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Duke Mitchell.

His directorial debut was 1974's Massacre Mafia Style, in which he also starred as Mimi Micelli, the son of Don Mimi (Lorenzo Dodo), a massively powerful mafioso who was deported back to Sicily when his son was only in his teens. Mimi marries a woman of “...simple Italian heritage, a Saint..” who bares him a little baby boy before she dies of cancer two years later. Now, being a widower with a 6 year old son and a graying father, Mimi plans to move back to the States and continue the family business. Namely, moving to Los Angeles and getting a firm hold on the bookies and pimps. Despite his father's warnings, Mimi goes through with the move, hooking up with his old childhood friend, Jolly (Vic Caesar), who is now a bartender. Mimi offers him a better deal than serving up drinks to the Hollywood fringe and Jolly quickly becomes his right hand man. 

He manages to muscle his way back in with his father's old crew via kidnapping one of the main guys, Chucky (Louis Zito.) After severing his captive's ring finger, Mimi gets the ransom money, releases Chucky just in time for his son's wedding and attends the family event. His beyond brass balls technique works and Mimi and Jolly are officially in business. Mimi's pathway to mafioso supremacy quickly grows slick with blood, with him even saying to Jolly early on, “Tonight we eat, tomorrow we shoot!”

It's not long before the gang want Mimi off their back and to calm all the murdering down. (Which is a huge testament, by the way, to how violent someone is when they have other mob guys complaining about the amount of murder going on.) Even his own father calls him, begging him to stop all of the killing. But when Mimi becomes the target of a double cross, it is only a matter of time for his life of crime and killing to take a monumental ancient Greek tragedy turn. 

Massacre Mafia Style is a gut punch straight from the heart. What Duke Mitchell was able to do with both this film and its masterwork of a follow up, Gone With the Pope, is singularly brilliant. You have this cross-pollination of extreme violence, gritty and highly un-politically correct language, Cassavetes style verite (more on that in a minute), artistry, intelligence and strangest of all, pure love. The latter is a lot like obscenity. It's hard to properly define but you know it when you see it and with Duke's work, it is all over the place. One of the best scenes of this caliber is when Mimi and his compatriots are having this big Italian lunch, prepared by one of the guys' mother. Mimi launches into this terrific monologue about how they are the ones that have disgraced this woman and all Italian mothers, with their violence and crime. It is such an interesting choice on Mitchell's part because with that monologue, he gives his character a depth and underlying moral tear that is not typically expected.

Speaking of dialogue, there are some real doozies here, with my personal favorite being the scene where Mimi and Jolly go to kill the “Greek” and are confronted with his massive bodyguard. After firing several bullets into the hulk of a man, who promptly keels over, Mimi says to Jolly, “You know I'm empty. Got any?” His partner says “I got two.” Mimi replies, “Give them to him.” Jolly does just that, finishing the hit. 

More tender audiences will probably have a tougher time swallowing some of the more racial language used throughout, a lot of which revolves around the pimp character, Super Spook (Jimmy Williams). But it is all true to life because you are dealing with characters who are rough, working class criminals circa the 60's and 70's. It would be false to have these guys suddenly be mindful of their language after gunning down x-number of people. On top of that, if you're really sensitive, maybe picking up a film called Massacre Mafia Style is not the best idea in the first place.

Going back to the Cassavetes theory, Mitchell used a cast of mostly non-actors whom physically fit their roles to a T, giving the film a more raw sort of feel. Which for a movie like this, is such a harmonious move. It graces the film with a sense of more realism that some of its more polished counterparts lack. This coupled with some of the highly intense and bizarre bordering on surreal acts of violence, make for a truly unique brew. The latter includes a man in a wheelchair hooked up via electrical cables to a urinal and another one literally crucified near the Hollywood sign. (The crucifixion scene sports some great intercutting with a religious choir, making the proceedings all the more ghoulish.) What's even more crazy is that both of these incidents are based on true events, with the wheelchair incident being something that Duke personally witnessed during his days as a singer, with the only exception being that in real life, the guy didn't die. In fact, much of the film was loosely based on true events, all gathered from friends and associates Duke had made in his music career. Cliches exist for a reason and truth really is stranger than fiction.

After years of minor cult notoriety due to its run under the title of The Executioner back in the 1970's, Grindhouse Releasing is doing Massacre Mafia Style justice, with help from Duke's son, Jeffrey Mitchell and releasing it this month on a 2 disc set. It is a true shame that Duke Mitchell never got the praise and attention he deserved for his directing work while he was still here, since he died at the young age of 55 back in 1981, but there is no time like the present to raise a toast to the man and marvel at this blood soaked cinematic patchwork quilt sewn together with thought, hard work and love.

Copyright 2015 Heather Drain

Monday, February 16, 2015

Animal Man: Kim Fowley, We Miss You

I'm trying to remember the first time Kim Fowley came up on my conscious periphery. He, of course, was up on my subconscious periphery from conception onward, as he was for anybody born from the 1960's to now. His pale, long fingers and electric brain contributed to works from artists as diverse as Helen Reddy, his proteges The Runaways, Kiss, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper and Warren Zevon, just to name a tiny handful out of hundreds. So, the likelihood of your primordial brain being touched and infected by something Kim Fowley had a hand in is incredibly strong.

But I think he must have popped up on my conscious periphery with my friend Scott. We had connected via a film fringe culture message board and hit it off. We started talking about Kim Fowley and it just took one look at his credentials and realizing the oodles of songs he had a hand in that I already loved, coupled with some amazing pictures, which included a then current Kim posing with a weird clown and teddy bears, for it to be instant love. Scott and I would exchange the coolest and strangest Kim Fowley pictures and stories we could find, with the both of us having just the utmost reverence for the man. Scott once wrote that Kim was like the bastard son of “Klaus Kinski and Boris Karloff,” a descriptor that the man surely would have loved. But Scott's gone now and so is Kim.

Born in the early Summer of '39 to Shelby Payne and noted character actor Douglas Fowley (who was in my personal cinematic touchstone, the Timothy Carey dancing epic Bayou aka Poor White Trash), Kim was an outcast from the beginning, as noted in his feverish tone poem of a bio, “Lord of Garbage.” But it is the ground of the outcast that usually springs the best and wildest blooms and there is no better example of this then Kim Fowley. He was a one-man music creating blitzkrieg, finding much fame as a producer, songwriter and a performer in his own right. Phil Spector might be more famous, especially for his work with some key girl groups, but you know what? Kim worked with girl groups galore, ranging from The Murmaids' incredible single, “Popsicles & Icicles” to spearheading the ultimate teenage rock band, The Runaways. Even better, Kim never murdered anybody (to my knowledge) and retained his impish bordering on sardonic sense of humor to the bitter end. 

Fowley, in so many ways, was the Warhol of rock and roll. Both men were brilliant, made great art on their own and yet, often operated as creative conduits that attracted all manners of colorful and talented people. One great Fowley quote that lends well to this Warholian aspect of his genius is the following:

“I’m so empty that I don’t have distractions. If somebody has substance or has developed something, I have the time for them.”

But even that doesn't quite cover it, because Kim Fowley was one magical human being whose dualities would have made him an amazing cult leader, dictator or shaman in another life. In this one, he was rock & roll's numero uno zeitgeist that might as well have risen out of the sleazy, beautiful and vital primordial ooze that all truly great ground breakers emerge from. He was a hero to some and a villain to others and this you can etch in blood and bone, there will never be another like Kim Fowley.

You are missed, Animal Man.

For a superb introduction to the scope of Fowley's work, please check out the fantastically groovy Mal Thursday and the "Kim Fowley Trainwreck-a-Go-Go" episode of his internet radio program, "The Mal Thursday Show."

2015 Copyright Heather Drain