Color, 1978, 109m.
Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky
Starring Anne Heywood, Donald Pleasence, Robert Vaughn, Earl Holliman, Carolyn Jones, Ronee Blakley, Dorothy Malone, John Lafayette, Doris Roberts, Jocelyn Brando, R.G. Armstrong, Dana Elcar
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Now here's a movie you'd never, ever see opening in theaters today. This jaw-dropping mixture of highly questionable racial and sexual politics is the sole adaptation of the novel of the same name by playwright William Inge, whose storied career includes such titles as Bus Stop, Picnic, Splendor in the Grass, and Come Back, Little Sheba. However, the book was a different beast entirely as it wrestled with enough demented carnal encounters and psychological angst to make Tennessee William cry uncle, and if you didn't look at the 1979 copyright date, you could swear this was made in the heat of Hollywood's heavy-breathing, immediate post-Code period with titles like Last of the Mobile Hot Shots and The Killing of Sister George.
Rather deceptively, the opening hour of the film is a downbeat but fairly restrained portrait of our title character, Evelyn Wyckoff, a buttoned-down schoolteacher played by Anne Heywood. She's never quite had a sexual experience (though she appears to be a magnet for philandering married men), and it doesn't help that seemingly every woman around her is completely obsessed with sex and never talks about anything else. Since this is apparently set in 1951, the ladies are especially taken with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, and all this carnal chatter just adds to her frustration. She decides to visit a physician, Dr. Neal (Vaughn), who theorizes she's on the brink of early menopause (at the age of 35) and promptly prescribes some hormone pills and Seconal before passing her off to a Jewish shrink, Dr. Steiner (Pleasence!). Evelyn prides herself on her open mindedness for all races and creeds, so she decides to start therapy and finds herself on the receiving end of advice about satisfying the body's natural craving for good, old school lovin'. Enter Rafe (Neon Maniacs' Lafayette), a black high school football jock and part-time janitor, who rubs his crotch and makes lewd suggestions to Evelyn after her class leaves. She doesn't seem to thrilled, so, in the first of many startling narrative gear shifts, he graphically rapes her for several minutes on her school desk. Traumatized at first, Evelyn comes to realize that have been exactly what she needed, so she and Rafe start a decidedly unhealthy fling with each jockeying for dominance.
Presumably the filmmakers involved were dead serious in making a poignant plea for tolerance and understanding of other people's sex drives, but as with the already sordid source novel (which could easily be read as an allegory for Inge's own homosexuality), the storyline veers so close to dangerous racial and sexual stereotypes that it often finds itself tripping right into them. That makes for fascinating viewing, though, especially considering the caliber of the cast involved. Both Vaughn and Pleasence have glorified cameos most likely shot in a single day, but the women around our heroine are a crazy bunch including Carolyn Jones (Morticia from TV's The Addams Family) in her last role, a young Doris Roberts (way before sitcom and detective show immortality), Oscar winner Dorothy Malone (in the most thankless part), and even a post-Nashville Ronee Blakley, who would wind up in A Nightmare on Elm Street five years later. Director Marvin J. Chomsky, who had earlier helmed Murph the Surf and a slew of television epics like Roots and Holocaust, keeps everything efficient and convincing for most of the running time, though the dissolve-filled sex montages are a pretty dubious choice given the subject matter. Incredibly, this was the second credited screenplay for the late Polly Platt, former wife of Peter Bogdanovich, who played a major hand in The Last Picture Show and had previously written the equally volatile but more positively received Pretty Baby one year earlier.
However, this is really Heywood's show all the way; she has to command attention in every single scene, and even when you can't quite believe what you're seeing, she never fails to convince. Quite possibly the single gutsiest actress of the 1970s (alongside Susan George, whose Straw Dogs and Mandingo play in the same explosive sandbox as this film), she made her first big splash with the taboo-pushing 1967 film The Fox, followed by the nunsploitation film The Lady of Monza and the gender-bending I Want What I Want. Without spoiling things too much, it's commendable that the film doesn't take the easy dramatic route of going into full-blown tragic melodrama at the end a la The Children's Hour; Heywood manages to keep her dignity intact, and it's a wise dramatic choice after the preceding invitation to moral outrage. Despite its pedigree, Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff had a bumpy release history starting with its minimal independent theatrical run. A heavily edited version was reissued under the title The Sin, which then repurposed for VHS under the title The Shaming. The pivotal sexual assault was drastically edited to almost nothing (along with the bulk of the subsequent love scenes), giving the film a far more ambiguous slant in which we're never quite sure how outraged Evelyn should really be; in its original full-strength version, there's no question at all.
At first glance this might seem to be the most unusual release to date for Vinegar Syndrome, whose titles have veered more to the pure exploitation side of cinema. It actually makes sense though considering the strong content of their uncensored version, which is longer than most theatrical prints and drastically different from previous videos. The casual frontal nudity is still pretty startling today, and as far as button-pushing cinema goes, this one still packs a pretty strong punch. The Blu-ray/DVD combo release is quite satisfying all around, with the HD transfer on the bare bones Blu looking extremely good. The original negative seems to have been kept in excellent shape, and apart from an unavoidable bit of fluttering black levels in one slightly damaged scene, it's a stellar job all around. The DTS-HD mono audio sounds excellent as well. The DVD features all of the extras, namely a pair of original trailers (under both theatrical titles), the entire reworked version as The Sin (clocking in just under 80 minutes) which basically plays like a made-for-TV film, two minutes of TV spots, a gallery of stills and press book copy, and a six-minute interview with Picnic actress Shirley Knight, who talks about Inge's writing and his background in Kansas (where this film is set), where the Pulitzer Prize winner was eventually honored as a major cultural figure. A bonus CD is also included containing the original score by Ernest Gold, which was previously released as a Japanese LP and a combo disc with his score for Cross of Iron. An astonishing, significant release, this certainly won't be one to break out in front of your family, but you'll never forget it.
Buy from Diabolik DVD
Reviewed on August 7, 2013.