RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 18th column, Kim uncovers Hex, a 1973 film in the “Weird Hippie Shit” genre starring everyone’s favourite Carradine – Keith, and the one, the only Gary Busey.
A particular guilty pleasure genre of mine is Weird Hippie Shit cinema. In 1969, Easy Rider reaped huge box-office profits with its combination of biker cool, trippy strangeness, counterculture politics, naked chicks and a freak-out soundtrack album tie-in. Studios, from the majors down to the tiniest independents, appreciated the balance sheet but frankly didn’t understand what ‘the kids’ saw in such a plot-free, self-indulgent, longhaired and untidy movie.
So they funded practically any stoned film school dropout who drifted in off the street with a screenplay in the hope that ‘the kids’ would turn up for equally ‘far-out’ flicks. Mostly, these pictures failed to haul in the Easy Rider audience — let’s face it, not everyone found a potential star like Jack Nicholson or could spring for a Steppenwolf song — and slunk into drive-ins passed off as exploitation films. There were some hits (Alice’s Restaurant, M*A*S*H) and a few lasting cult reputations (Two-Lane Blacktop, Zabriskie Point, Psych-Out), but the cycle mostly consists of hard-to-see oddities like Peter Fonda‘s Idaho Transfer, Moonchild, Alan Rudolph‘s Premonition, Brian DePalma‘s Greetings, Zachariah, David Carradine‘s Americana (it wasn’t proper WHS unless you had at least one Carradine), The Second Coming of Suzanne, Is This Trip Really Necessary? or Jim McBride‘s Glen and Randa.
The WHS item under dissection here is Hex, a 1973 biker/western/horror/art hybrid also released as Charms and The Shrieking (the alternate titles suggest the problem WHS movies posed to distributors desperate to find a slot — though the pun in Charms is quite clever). Some WHS films are revived because they are early works by directors (like DePalma or Rudolph) who have gone on to prominence (though even I’ve never seen Tobe Hooper‘s Eggshells); others come from one-hit wonders like James William Guercio (Electra Glide in Blue) or Robert Blackburn (Lemora — A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural).
Leo Garen, the director/co-writer of Hex, never directed another film, and his tiny handful of other credits are truly bizarre — directing episodes of the saccharine sit-com I Dream of Jeannie, acting in Norman Mailer‘s improv Maidstone and scripting a couple of minor films for cinema (Band of the Hand) and TV (Inflammable). His co-writers are similar footnote characters, but all have some form: Doran William Cannon wrote a couple of higher-profile WHS films for established elderly auteurs (Otto Preminger‘s disastrous acid trip Skidoo, Robert Altman‘s admirable post-M*A*S*H flop Brewster McCloud), Vernon Zimmerman wrote and directed a scattering of more conventional exploitation films (Unholy Rollers, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Fade to Black) and Steve Katz went on to 1980s bubblegum TV (The A-Team, Harcastle and McCormick).
The setting is Nebraska in the early 1920s — the back-of-nowhere, on-the-road milieu almost excuses the hippie hairstyles, but somehow all the faces and attitudes on view scream ‘1973’. A small band of motorcyclists with kooky nicknames breeze into town on army surplus sickles, and get into a grudge race with a local lout (future Grizzly Adams, Dan Haggerty) who has a Model-T Ford souped up and customised like a drag-racer (‘it ain’t fair,’ he whines, ‘I lost speed missin’ that old lady’).
Eventually, the outcasts — whose behaviour is mostly milder than that of the bikers in movies like The Wild Angels or Hells Angels on Wheels — fetch up at an isolated farm run by strange sisters Oriole (Tina Herazo, who later changed her name to Christina Raines and starred in Nashville and The Sentinel) and Acacia (Hilary Thompson). Giblets (Gary Busey) makes aggressive moves against the blonde, naïve Acacia but suffers for it — an owl rips his face off, and Oriole won’t let his comrades bury him on her property.
It’s one of a cycle of Western/horror films (The Beguiled, Shadow of Chikara) where violent men meet their doom thanks to perhaps-witchy womenfolk, and the rest of the film finds Oriole, who has inherited magic powers from her Indian father, working spells which whittle down the gang. Proto-bike mama China (Doria Cook) has an imaginatively-shot bad trip by the waterhole, Giblets’ brother Jimbang (Scott Glenn) suffers when a pistol he has personally cleaned and restored blows up as he fires it at his tormentor, and mute ‘half-breed’ Chupo (Robert Walker Jr) becomes possessed and turns on the gang’s leader Whizzer (Keith Carradine). Even the bespectacled, childish nice kid Golly (Mike Combs), whom Acacia warms up to, seems in danger as Oriole gets more and more witchy — though the last reel turns up several plot reversals that, frankly, don’t make sense even as they’re perfectly in tune with the what-the-hell tone of the film.
Drive-in audiences expecting something more like the lurid Werewolves on Wheels must have scratched their heads, and elements of the picture (like the twanging mouth organ/jew’s harp/kazoo music score) were horribly dated even at the time of release. But Hex is still, somehow, fascinating — the performances, from future stars and future nobodies alike, are all very strong, with set-piece moments that allow everyone to show off their acting muscles. Keith Carradine (whose father John is reputedly in here somewhere) is a rangy, interesting leading man — like many protagonists in 1970s cinema, he’s
a gawky fraud, who claims to have been an aviator in the war when he was actually a grounded mechanic who never shipped out, but still has a knot of mismatched followers.
Scenes between Busey and Glenn are an object lesson in over- and under-acting: Busey does everything but grab the camera and shake it, while Glenn seems to do almost nothing but steals every moment (he’s clearly the most dangerous character). Cinematographer Charles Rosher, who went on to work a lot with Altman (including on the last great WHS classic, Three Women) gives the landscape an acid haze that segues naturally into the trippy scenes.
Sometimes, with 1970s cinema, you just had to be there at the time; occasionally, even if you were it doesn’t help. Now, the decade is valorised in cinema histories as an era of experiment, of characterisation, of depth — but to have all that, it also needed a netherworld of fringe cinema like this.