B&W, 1975, 159m.
Directed by Curt McDowell
Starring Marion Eaton, George Kuchar, Melinda McDowell, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Moira Benson, Rick Johnson, Maggie Pyle
Synapse Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)
"One of a kind" doesn't even begin to describe this feverish underground concoction from Curt McDowell, a San Francisco painter turned director whose unabashed celebration of sexuality gets filtered here through a script by experimental legend George Kuchar packed with gothic horror, absurdist comedy, explicit sex of every legal persuasion, and sweaty melodrama. It also boasts the distinction of being one of the longest-gestating titles in home video history, with the late McDowell's sister, Melinda (who acted in this and several of his other films), announcing a special edition DVD via a website back in 2003. (The only possible record breaker would be Code Red's The Farmer if that ever comes out.) It wasn't until 2015 that we finally got this much-requested title in its first genuinely authorized release courtesy of Synapse, packed with extras offering some much-needed context for a midnight movie unlike any other.
Drawing inspiration from spooky, lightning-laced classics like The Old Dark House and The Cat and the Canary, the episodic story concerns an eventful night at the home of Gert Hammond (Eaton), an eccentric and alcoholic widow, who hosts a motley assortment of travelers who arrive to get out of a torrential rainstorm. Among the newcomers are Willene (Pyle), who arrives first and provides a strange bath for her hostess, and Chandler (Blodgett), a dysfunctional bisexual recovering from the horrific, fire-related death of his wife. Also on hand are Sash (Melinda McDowell), the voyeuristic Toydy (Johnson), Roo (Benson), Bond (porn veteran Scudder), and last and strangest of all, Bing (Kuchar), a circus trainer now embroiled in a dangerous carnal relationship with his gorilla, Medusa (played by "Pamela Primate" in a furry suit). Sexual experimentation and dark secrets both consume the evening as the truth about Gert's husband and mysteriously absent son is revealed, and everyone's sexual psychoses resolve in one way or another.
Though definitely not a film for everyone, Thundercrack! is easier to grapple with today in light of subsequent films like Forbidden Zone, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Through the Looking Glass. (The fact that two of the characters' names make up the character played by Matthew Perry in Friends is a little weird, too, though not so much when you consider his parents were a drag queen and a porn novelist.) Even now McDowell's film still feels genuinely transgressive since the viewer rarely has the slightest idea what surprises await in each upcoming scene and the film never moves at what you'd consider a traditional narrative rhythm. The characters all yap incessantly, even when they're rutting each other, and the deliberate artificiality of the sets (and the cute hand-drawn exterior of the house) creates a heightened air of sexual mania that surprisingly never lets up for over two and a half hours. All of the actors are game for just about anything, though the show is easily stolen by the histrionic performances by Eaton and Kuchar; Blodgett is quite good as well, and it's odd he never stepped in front of the camera again. The sexual content is very strong, but you'd be hard pressed to call this anything close to a traditional porn film; with everything from cucumbers to bananas hurled into the mayhem at various points, it's the kind of thing that could have only been made in the mid-'70s and is likely the only thing you could describe as what might happen if John Waters, Guy Maddin, and Radley Metzger had a lost weekend in someone's country house.
The release history of Thundercrack! is weird even by underground standards, with financiers and distribution company Thomas Brothers fumbling the ball badly in exploiting their potential cult title. Of the five release prints made, all but one befell terrible fates with one seized and two drastically shortened. One print hacked down to two hours was the source for most of the bootleg copies floating around as well as the legally shaky DVD releases in Sweden and Holland, while the only presentation of the complete version before Synapse's was a pretty awful-looking VHS from Videoactive released in the early '00s. The extra footage is essential though as it sets up many jokes that pay off later; not surprisingly, one of the biggest casualties of the Thomas Brothers' scissors was the bulk of the sole gay sex scene (performed by Johnson and the switch-hitting Scudder), which is accompanied by Blodgett's insane, pipe-smoking monologue about a pooping parakeet. Despite this sad state of affairs, the film built up a pretty admirable following over the years with its combination of pansexuality and deranged comedy aging quite well for modern audiences brave enough to venture through its gates.
The Synapse release (as separate Blu-ray and DVD editions) features a new HD scan of the only complete 16mm print (as explained in a liner notes insert written by company president Don May, Jr.), with some missing frames pulled from other sources to compile the best-looking version possible. Anyone familiar with the film should be very pleased with the results, which are naturally filmic without losing that scruffy 16mm veneer. Some age-related damage is still evident with some minor thin scratching visible here and there, but under the circumstances it's a heroic restoration effort and a major leap up from all past versions. The full 10-minute intermission is reinstated here as well (a shorter version was included on that one VHS release in the U.S.). The DTS-HD MA mono track on the Blu-ray does what it can with the original audio, which has always sounded awful due to the tinny original dialogue recording (most of it using on-set production audio) and an aggressive sound mix loaded with piano-heavy music and exaggerated sound effects by frequent McDowell collaborator Mark Ellinger (who also starred in McDowell's nutty 1972 adult film, Lunch, and cameos here as the late Mr. Hammond). Thankfully Synapse has provided optional English subtitles (which come in very handy during some of the more cacophonous scenes) and additional ones in French, German, and Spanish. A second audio track features a 1972 interview with McDowell and an unnamed interviewer, providing a very cheerful and detailed walk for 85 minutes through his creative career and process from his early days as a painter through the epiphany that led to his switch to award-winning filmmaker.
The single-disc DVD release contains the feature film with the audio interview, while the Blu-ray also contains one very welcome HD bonus: It Came from Kuchar, Jennifer Kroot's freewheeling 2009 documentary about George and his equally influential twin brother, Mike, who struck underground gold with legendary overripe works like Sins of the Fleshapoids and Hold Me While I'm Naked. Sadly George would pass away two years after this film was made, but it's great to see both of the brothers interviewed at length with plenty of additional participants like John Waters, Atom Egoyan, Maddin, and Wayne Wang offering their own anecdotes. The real star among the guests is Buck Henry, a key figure in bringing exposure to underground films who offers plenty of great tales about the glory days of makeshift screenings in storefronts and coffee houses and has some great comments about Thundercrack! as well. The doc was originally released on DVD by IndiePix in 2010 (now discontinued), and having it here in higher resolution should be enough to spur many fans to spring for the Blu-ray all by itself.
If that weren't enough, the Blu-ray release also comes with an entire second DVD of bonus goodies, all of them worth exploring as well. After the original trailer, the disc goes into high gear with a truly indescribable 10-minute "interview" with George Kuchar that transforms his talking head answers into a psychedelic video effects frenzy that should be familiar to anyone who's seen his more recent video work. He chats quite a bit about working with former student McDowell (who also acted in Kuchar's The Devil's Cleavage), the writing process, and how he wound up playing the part of Bing (which he originally envisioned for a totally different physical type), for which he provided his own "protuberance" for one unforgettable scene. Next comes a pair of additional featurettes crafted in 2004, presumably for the DVD's initial release announcement, with Eaton sitting in a park for a 5-minute diary remembrance of her favorite bits about playing Mrs. Hammond and Ellinger (who now focuses on San Francisco history and architecture) offering an 8-minute recollection of his McDowell days including multiple duties on the set of Thundercrack! He's especially candid about the film's ill-fated theatrical history, offering some much-needed chronology for how it was released. A local public access show called San Francisco Bay Area Filmmakers comes next with a 23-minute interview with McDowell and Eaton talking about the creation of Thundercrack! and their thoughts about explicit sex on the screen, including some revelatory comments about how McDowell and Ellinger intended it to be a projection of their fantasies before it turned into a more psychosis-riddled art epic in Kuchar's hands. ("We wanted to take something like The Donna Reed Show and make it X-rated!")
Next you get two different sets of outtakes and deleted footage: a 29-minute reel of regular behind-the-scenes material and alternate or longer takes (including a really fun shot of the cast and crew at the end in the kitchen) and a pretty astonishing 17 minutes(!) of sex scene outtakes, which leave nothing to the imagination but also provide an amusing idea of how much dialogue was actually looped in later during those sequences. An 8-minute reel of audition footage features most of the cast members doing screen tests both with and without clothing, along with several other hopefuls who didn't make the cut; the fashions and hairstyles alone in this one are truly priceless, while the casual and cheerful sexuality on display is a disarming look at the attitude that carried over onto the set. Finally the disc rounds out with five of McDowell's short films (just a sample of the 30-plus he made during his lifetime). "Confessions" (1972) starts off with McDowell directly addressing the camera for a frank catalogue of his sexual development and experimentation in his youth but midway through turns into an abstract barrage of on-the-street interviews, nature footage, and fleeting sex shots. The visual collage of "Naughty Words" (1972) features Curt and Melinda rattling off both real and imaginary obscene terms for human genitalia over an assortment of smut magazines turned into visual art, while the unabashed "Loads" (1985), his final short, offers a snapshot of McDowell's sexual proclivities as he presents filmed records of a handful of straight male pickups with his voiceover documenting their personalities and life stories. (In the Kuchar doc, John Waters remarks that he can't believe McDowell released this one and calls it "a succession of bad nights," which just about sums it up.) The most chaste of the shorts, "Boggy Depot" (1973), is in many respects the most fascinating as it anticipates both the artificial settings and animated lightning of Thundercrack! and the musical quirkiness of his last feature, Sparkle's Tavern, with the cast singing and rhyme-speaking their way (usually off key) through a surreal, comic story about a collection of characters including a lovesick débutante (Ainslie Pryor) pining for her runaway boyfriend and a pair of "Mean Brothers" (Ellinger and McDowell) who have mesmerized the hapless George (Kuchar) into expressing his love through unorthodox means. Last up is the "The Siamese Twin Pinheads" (1972), a short and raucous burlesque sketch with a nun presenting an increasingly obscene musical performance by the title characters played by a hilariously shameless (and very un-PC) McDowell and Ellinger. A surefire contender for release of the year, at least if your sensibilities are warped enough to appreciate it.